Atanu Dey On India's Development

The Spurious Pain of Rural Area Development — Part 2

Economic development is clearly possible. Examples of economies which have developed are not hard to find. Western Europe developed following the industrial revolution first and later the United States also developed rapidly. Japan’s development was closely followed by the development of the East Asian economies, starting with Taiwan. Given so many instances of economies–large and small–developing is persuasive evidence that economic growth and development does belong to the realm of the possible.

Why has not India developed during the last 60-odd years when other economies have during the same period? What have been the impediments? Those sort of questions need to be asked and seriously answered. These scribblings of mine essentially focus on exploring issues that touch upon India’s economic growth and development. Here I will continue where I left off the last time.

India’s development is predicated on rural economic development because over 70 percent of Indians live in rural areas. Rural development is not the same as the development of rural areas. Rural area development is a sufficient condition for rural development but it is not a necessary condition at all. For India, rural development has to focus on the development of rural people rather than development of rural areas.

The distinction between the development of the people of rural areas and the development of the rural area is important. Case in point: the development of rural America.

At the turn of the 20th century, the US population was largely rural. Agriculture and related occupations employed the vast majority of Americans. The government saw the need to make higher education available to the rural populations. That was the birth of the so-called land-grant universities. (The University of California, which I attended for several wonderful years, is one such.)

Providing higher education to the children of the rural families was the need. So did they start very little colleges in the tens of thousands of little rural communities? No. They started large universities for the children of farmers to go to. The idea was that these trained people would then go back to the farms and increase the farm productivity. But what was the actual outcome? The children of the farmers got urbanized and did not want to go back to the rural areas. As luck would have it, technologies developed in urban areas were successful in raising farm productivity which meant that so many were not needed in the farms anyway. And who developed the technologies and labored in all those urban areas? Those children of rural farmers who went to the colleges were the people who supplied all the necessary bits that the rural farmers required.

The point I am trying to make is that it was not rural development that made the difference in the rural areas. It was what happened in the urban areas that changed the rural areas.

The problem with rural development, in my considered opinion, is that the focus has been the village. Nothing wrong with focusing on a village, of course. But you do have a problem if you have to focus on 600,000 villages. The moment you try to focus on 600,000 thousand of anything — villages, songs, books, cars, you name it — you become unfocused and unhinged. That is what happened with rural development.

Where did it all start? I think it was MK Gandhi’s insistence on a village-based economy that started this unhinged process. Indians take very easily to hero-worship. It is easy to just worship someone and then leave all the thinking to them. All the netas (leaders) of India then took up the mantra of village development. Self-reliance was the corner-stone of this grand edifice of the village economy. And therein lay the trap.

{to be continued.}