India needs to worry about its water quality to keep agriculture going, says development thinker and former Canadian ambassador to India, David Malone.

A diplomat and development thinker, David Malone is self-confessed India watcher. The former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations came as his country’s ambassador to India (mid 2006 — mid 2008) and returned to New Delhi several times since, as the president of IDRC, the Canadian Government’s research wing which spends the largest chunk of its funds on India.

Someone who has written extensively on peace and security issues, law and practice in the UN, taught the subjects in Columbia University, the University of Toronto and New York University’s School of Law, Malone’s interest in India and the region also led him to write “Does the Elephant Dance?” (2011) and edit “Nepal in Transition: From People’s War or Fragile Peace” (2012). Well-received books, they “tried to understand” India’s foreign policy “unpopular in the West” and on the unfolding political scenario in its immediate neighbourhood.

This March, Malone is quitting IDRC (International Development Research Centre) to join as Rector of the Tokyo-based United Nations University, an international network of scholars that serves as a think tank for the UN system. Before taking over the new assignment, Malone visited New Delhi “for the last time with the IDRC identity”, to spend some time with the newly appointed Asia Head of IDRC, Anindiya Chatterjee.

He took out time to talk to The Hindu on development thinking — both in India and outside — and why India can’t afford to ignore its agricultural sector anymore

You have been watching India closely. How do you see its development model?

Often in India, development is either about infrastructure or technology but development has other dimensions too. Although India is a big country, it has finite pace. Making the most of its geography is extremely important and that is particularly true in agriculture. India is a major producer, it is a major exporter but it is also a major importer. And its population is growing, quite fast. The population growth has slowed but it still is going to be growing a lot. Infrastructure is important, it can help agriculture too. Small farmers can cart their produce with much less spoilage. But India needs to think beyond it, it needs to continue to worry about agricultural productivity, about managing its water as well as possible; it needs to economise water, needs to worry about its water quality. Any country involved in agriculture with a large rural population needs to. The reality is, agricultural productivity in India is not increasing as fast as it could, or should. Part of that relate to water quality and supply.

In Canada, even though only a very small part of our population work on agriculture, most of our main universities work very hard on agricultural research, because just as India is a major bread basket, so is my country. And in years of global agricultural downturn you want to know you are safe. If in the years you can also export, you are contributing to alleviating a global problem. In spite of the fact that agriculture doesn’t contribute much to the national income of Canada anymore, we are working very hard to try to improve it, increase it in an environmentally sustainable way. India is going to be doing this for centuries.

How has IDRC tried to support research on augmenting agriculture in India?

IDRC has invested more than 100 million dollars for research in India since 1970 that has contributed to advances in health, economic reform, natural resource management, IT and governance besides agriculture. The Centre is always interested in crops that are neglected for some reason, considered low quality crops even though they have high nutrition. Millet is one. We have focussed quite a lot on its research support in India.

We are also always interested in seeing how land considered uncultivable could be made cultivable; what factors would allow recuperation of such land. Nothing is more precious than land and Indians know it. The best land is the land that is agriculturally productive, in any country. But in India, the most acute single issue beyond individual crop in my mind is water conversation, water management, water quality because that has been allowed to deteriorate enormously; it doesn’t come back quickly. Even in a country like Canada which has a huge number of lakes and probably about 4 per cent of the world’s freshwater, and a very small population, we still worry a lot about our water and our water quality. Whereas in India, I think people would rather not talk about it because it is a serious problem, it doesn’t receive the attention it deserves.

Another problem in India relates to farmers who often have small plots of land, how to get the income they deserve from their production. The consumer in India pays quite a bit for agricultural produce but the farmers often don’t receive very much. We are interested in figuring out how farmers can receive more income for their labour, for their investment, which is a risk capital. They often borrow. But they are often poorly rewarded, particularly the small land holders.

What about research on health?

With limited resources, research is critical everywhere. India can assure health to its population, nobody doubts it. But how to do it cheaply for people in the rural areas, is much more difficult than revolutionary breakthroughs for rich people. You know rich people do get the technological breakthrough they hope for very often. But healthcare to poor communities, poor individuals, often suffer. These are the orphans of the medical research world.

IDRC is currently working with others on help systems, how more robust systems can help deliver health. But we are also working on afflictions that are principally in the developing world or that are not receiving attention in the developing world. One example of that would be mental health. Actually, the mentally ill in India often benefit more than we do in the West. They often remain in their families, remain in their communities, they belong somewhere. This is better than the West but at the same time, no money is being spent on their plight. There is no doubt that mental health can be affected by pharmaceutical approaches and other approaches. Many more people are afflicted with mental health problems than they generally recognise.

Because we consider it as largely an orphan problem at the international level, we thought we would invest some research money through an institution called Grand Challenges Canada (funded by Government of Canada), inviting the best researchers of the developing world to compete for our support on this problem. Of course in India, there are many very leading medical research scientists. India is very strong that way. They can collaborate among themselves or work individually. Medical research is usually in teams and sometimes in consortiums, multi-country consortiums. So they can try something in Columbia, see if it works in Ethiopia, also see if it works in India. Or initiate something in India, see if it also works in Burma.

The reality of India is that it is a big country, things that works in one State or one district of a State often will not work in another end of the country. That is why widespread testing of ideas and techniques in a country as big as India is quite important. I often say it is the ultimate laboratory for development, we all like to test our ideas in India and IDRC loves to support Indians for testing their ideas in India.

You are currently editing a book that surveys the debate and thinking on development. What are the key points that have surfaced?

Some of the key points won’t surprise you. There has always been a tendency in human nature, amongst intellectuals particularly, to want to come up with a proposition that can be generalised. But actually, often, that is not a good idea because societies are very different. Something that works in Argentina may not work in Zimbabwe, for not necessarily technical reasons but for reasons of how the societies function. One of the failures of the international community, particularly in the 1950s, ’60s… up until the ’80s probably, was coming up with formulas for development which international institutions proposed for all countries. Often, they did more damage than good, because of how different the regions of the world are, how different even regions within a country are. In the last 20 years we have come to realise that actually local solutions work the best.

Certain things are important everywhere — honest government, good governance, sound polity, not borrowing insanely. But beyond that, many of the ideas we are convinced are going to work turn out to have unintended consequences that are worse than the solutions we thought we have found.

So we have to become much more humble. In the development process, we are now much more respectful. I always think of it as a specificity, of a community, a region, a country. So when we approach a society with an idea, we have to accept that it may not be applicable. I think, 40 years ago, very few development experts worked that way. So that is actually a huge shift. It came about in parts, as a result of something which was well intentioned, some thinking in the World Bank, at the IMF about 25 years ago which came to be known as the Washington Consensus which was too much of an effort to generalise. It tried to impose solutions that might have worked in the U.S. or Canada but not in many other countries because they are different. Though many of the economists, say in the World Bank, are from the developing world they agree to an idea because it is a group thing. We can all become victims of the group thing.

You have said you are always interested in the dissident voices.

When I was a boy I lived in Iran. My parents were living in Iran. It was the choice of the ruler of Iran to be on a forced march towards western style modernisation. It was very well intentioned. Everybody thought it was a good idea, in the Iranian elite, in the international institutions. In fact, Iran was the poster child for development in the early 1960s. But who were the dissenting voices? There were a few sociologists and anthropologists — some Iranian, some French — who published articles in obscure journals nobody read saying Iranian society was very stressed by this rapid modernisation. In the rural areas, people didn’t like it. In the urban areas, it worked for the rich but less well for the poor. Nobody paid any attention. Fifteen years later, we paid a lot of attention to the Iranian Revolution. It turned out that the sociologist and the anthropologist were right. We tend to be very impressed by people who present themselves claiming scientific evidence. So we find economists very convincing too because they have the figures, the graphs. But they can be as clueless as the rest of us. It, like science, can be mistaken. In most natural sciences, there are very powerful challenged techniques and challenged functions. Economists challenge each other but once they have roughly agreed on something it is often accepted by the rest of us because they are economists, because they understand figures and we don’t. But that has proven to be not always right, both nationally and internationally.

How prominent is this shift in thinking in the World Bank?

I am glad that compared to what it was 15 years ago, the World Bank is a much more inquiring place now, not a place where people are sure they are right. We have seen a revolution in the Bank; there are many more points of view than I used to see when I went there. I think the Bank has also been well led in recent years by people who have been much more interested in a variety of approaches, not just economist approaches. Also, it is interesting to see people from other disciplines in the Bank. So the Bank itself is transforming. Too late but it’s still a very good thing. We are less certain and it is helping.

The new president of the Bank is a public health expert. It is a very good thing for the Bank because development is about improving life finally. The poor can be as helping as the rich if they have an effective health system. So health can be an equaliser. It should be possible.

Your book on India’s foreign policy made some interesting observations, particularly of India’s good relations with the Middle East.

One thing I said which actually surprised many in the western world was that the Indian foreign policy is well adapted to India’s needs. You know, Indian foreign policy is not always popular in the rest of the world. India’s foreign policy is conducted mainly country to country. India is not a country with highly ambitious international projects, yet it would like to be a permanent member of the Security Council, yet it would like to make major contribution internationally. Meanwhile, it is actually focused on India’s interest internationally. You notice that India is working much more closely with countries like South Africa and Brazil, with which it has a lot in common. The ITSA (BRICS in Tourism) group is interesting. The governments don’t invest in each other, but their private sectors are doing it quite a lot. But the governments do work together quite a lot internationally. If you look at the voting pattern in the UN Security Council while India was on — it was on at same time as Brazil for a part of its term, it was a very significant coincidence, this was not merely a coincidence. So I think, my book tried to understand India’s foreign policy, it was not intended at the outset as a critique. I was not inquiring. So there are many things India is doing well in foreign policy and its decision to do less, other things, is perfectly understandable.

One area that is unnoticed and came as a surprise to me during my research for the book was that India has been very successful in its relations with the Middle East. The Middle East is very important to India, not just because of oil, many Indian citizens work in the region, not just in the Persian Gulf. When Libya blew up, we discovered many Indians work there. India has good bilateral relations with every country in the region. It has a strong relationship with most Arab countries, a difficult but meaningful relation with Iran. At the same time, it also has an economically vibrant relationship with Israel.

Yes, India has cantankerous neighbours but it is sympathetic to its neighbourhood. You can’t choose your neighbours. Take India’s relations with Nepal. About 15 years ago, it was different than what it is now.