What development? For whom?

In what is perhaps one of India’s most communal, polarising, divisive and personalised election campaigns, we are told far too often that this election is really about development. Yet, none of the political parties clearly defines development either in their speeches or in their manifestoes. So, what do they mean by development and who is it intended for?

Development is not a singular, universally accepted paradigm. Nor can one kind of development benefit everyone. Anyone or any country that advocates a single paradigm of development (Gujarat, China) is misinforming this discussion. The most effective development paradigms are rarely superimposed but instead evolve and are implemented with participation from its recipients.

What development means

Yet there is the persistent question of what development means to each of us. The short answer is: it depends. Consider this: what is development to a poor person from the northeast living in Delhi? To a displaced Muslim in Gujarat? To a lower caste migrant Bihari worker in a Mumbai slum? To every woman in India? There will certainly be points of convergence but the answers might be surprisingly diverse.

So what is the kind of development India needs? Development in its simplest sense should be the ability of all Indians to realise their true potential without fear or obstacles. Development should address the lack of capabilities, knowledge, financial resources, and opportunity to step out of poverty and deprivation without fear. Development then is as much a process of providing services as of removing obstacles and giving freedom from all sorts of discrimination, exclusion, insufficient opportunities and fear of identity. Do any of our leaders promise us this kind of development in this election? Sadly not. The development narrative in this election is shallow and empty. What is equally disturbing, though not surprising, is that Indian industry is cheering this empty rhetoric. Big businesses will have India believe that like China, quick clearances without due diligence, public land at low prices and a lack of environmental concerns represent development. They are trying to equate business growth with human development. These are not and never have been the same.

We all want development but let’s not be misled by incorrect assertions. Definitions are important. Because nations aren’t just roads, big businesses, shining tall buildings; they are people, communities, genders, each of whose welfare and development needs may be different and often dependent on government policy and programmes. These are in turn determined by people whose biases are often reflected in these policies.

Politicians will have you believe that rising incomes, growing infrastructure is development. Not true. Evidence indicates that rising income is no guarantee of greater personal welfare. The most basic indices of human development for the most vulnerable — being healthy, well-nourished, literate, and having equal opportunity without fear — are dependent on strong local governments, unbiased law enforcement and clean and effective public systems which work without prejudice. Similarly, a larger economy does mean growth but not development. It doesn’t ensure appropriate wealth distribution, access to quality healthcare, housing or a safe environment. In fact, it can acerbate the inequality problem as incomes rise only for a few. The poor can continue to live in slums in big shining cities with poor nutrition, health and safety.

For any party that comes to power, development is going to be a hard climb. India has the largest number of poor people in the world. We also lead in diseases like Tuberculosis, cancer, and diabetes among others. Our cities are increasingly overcrowded, unsafe, and unlivable. One of every two Indian children is malnourished and is likely to be stunted. Even though we have the Right to Education, operational schools and teachers are a far cry.

As a new government comes to power, we must ask ourselves what kind of development we will get. The deeper question though will be what kind of development can any government provide in a climate of fear and hate polarisation that has been generated in India? Will vulnerable groups, minorities, be free from discrimination, harassment and intimidation? If not, what will it mean to seek development with insecure identities and without personal freedom? To quote a famous Indian: “Is freedom to choose not development?”

India’s next government will have to first ensure that its definition of development is inclusive, unbiased and participatory. Otherwise development efforts, however sincere, will fail in a social system fractured by religion, caste and gender. Our political leaders need to understand that development is a hope that every Indian should have to live a life of dignity, free of deprivation and fear, within their community, city and nation state. If they cannot promise us this, any other definition of development may mostly be irrelevant.

(Chapal Mehra is an independent New Delhi-based writer.)

Nations aren’t just roads, big businesses, shining tall buildings; they are people, communities, genders, each of whose welfare and development needs may be different