Rethinking Development After Covid-19
The pandemic has caused unprecedentedcrisis and disruptions around the world, creating a vast number of 'new poor' who will continue to be severely affected even after the immediate public
health emergency is brought under control. The crisis has frozen the wheels of
economy and affected every aspect of life. Lockdowns and disease distancing
measures have dried up wage-work and incomes, and are likely to disrupt
agricultural production and supply routes as well, leaving millions of hand-to-mouth households to worry about their next meal. The tragedy is as much
humanitarian as economic with its cascading social implications. Many
businesses have folded in ways that they may not trade again.
The pandemic shows that our social security
and welfare delivery systems are under-resourced and underserved, and we need
to build long-term, resilient solutions and robust systems. The
interconnectedness-and vulnerabilities-of the complex systems that make the
modern world run have never been more apparent.
All crises are also opportunities for
radical reform, for realigning priorities in pursuit of the common good. As the
challenges of COVID19 unfold and governments and civil society scramble to
provide relief, one recurring idea is to use this disruption to reimagine the
global economic architecture. The UN Sustainable Development Goals are expected
to suffer a mortal blow if the world does not get to grip with the systemic
risks of COVID19. Many of our development gains have been jeopardised, and we
must now build a new economic world order which is humane, inclusive, and
Like other countries, India is seeking to
steer a judicious path between the need to contain the spread of infection, and
let workers revive the economic engine. Hope remains that the COVID19 crisis
brings about a balancing of the often-conflicting objectives of economic
progress and ecological protection.
The great anthropologist Oscar Lewis, who
travelled in India in the 1950s to assist the Planning Commission, coined the
phrase “the culture of poverty”, which became a convenient handle for
legislators and economists to deny villages the tools they needed to flourish.
Since villagers were considered inert, inefficient, backward, and lazy, it was
thought unwise to funnel our resources and energies into transforming them.
Instead, providing them with basic oxygen for biological subsistence was
It has been a constant urban refrain that
agriculture is India's bane; that manufacturing is the way forward; that
villages need to be urbanised, that they need to become the appendages of
cities. And for what? To sustain cities where lies the future of India?
It is now becoming clear that
the future, in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic which has
destroyed the myth of a planned urban India, can only be saved by revitalising
the farm sector.
Can the economy rebound fast enough to make
life stable again? Long periods of state inaction have their economic and
social costs. With thousands of migrant workers returning to their native
villages, it is extremely necessary to create additional employment to stave
off social, political, economic unrest.
Some of these labourers are considered
unskilled, but many are skilled or semi-skilled. A large-scale deskilling could
take place if they do not find work quickly, because their skills will begin to
rust and diminish if not used.
A marriage between their skills and the
business acumen of local entrepreneurs can help a great deal. Villagers can be
trained as para-veterinarians, health workers, solar engineers, water drillers
and testers, handpump mechanics, artisans, designers, masons and technicians
who support the local entrepreneurial ecosystem.
It all depends on how fast the state
responds and what types of stimulus it uses. The first task for governments
would be to map the skills of these returned migrants and then work out a
longterm rehabilitation plan that uses these skills through necessary
upgradation or reorientation.
The Union government has provided paltry
direct cash transfers to more than 300 million people in addition to similar
cash transfers to famers. These efforts are a lifeboat
to help businesses survive the coming months, and for households to continue to
cope with daily emergencies as normal economic life stutters through the
When the ambitious Etawah project was
launched with tremendous hope by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, it was
expected the country would soon achieve Gandhi's dream of purna swaraj which he
defined as "wiping every tear from every eye". Since then we have rolled out a
record number of programmes in trying to achieve a quick fix. Sadly, we have
not been able to achieve even short fixes.
Most of these programmes were myopic and
the state lacked the political will. Most of India's rural development history
has been marked by a lack of seriousness on part of the politicians and
The current pandemic has reversed the
migration tide in a big way and the country will have to focus on long term
planning. This will require a more nuanced understanding of the issues and the
Development in India has so far been
defined by grand utopian schemes that have brought disruption to millions,
wrought by the negative consequences of faulty programmes and impractical schemes.
Conventional development policy has always been driven by grandiose plans,
moving from one big fix to another, one set of best practices and universal
blueprints to the next.
Why do well-intentioned plans for improving
the human condition go tragically awry? In his acclaimed book Seeing Like a State, James Scott argues
that centrally managed social plans misfire when they impose schematic visions
that obscure the complex interdependencies which are not and cannot be fully
According to Scott the success of the
design of any programme depends upon the recognition that local, practical
knowledge is as important as formal, theoretical knowledge. He makes a
persuasive case against "development theory" and imperialistic state planning
that ignores the desires, values and objections of its "subjects".
What we need instead are policy innovations
tailored to local social contexts, economic circumstances and political
complexities. Two critical elements are (a) local solutions, particularly in
areas like infrastructure - such as local roads and local water storage
solutions like check dams, basic healthcare and primary education - and (b)
trust in the innate ability and intelligence of the local community to
understand and harness opportunities for their social and economic well being.
Well crafted development plans flower from
the mutual synergy of all stakeholders, and are identified, tested and
sustained locally, not by career technocrats using huge sums to assemble and
deliver them to "beneficiaries" as a charity handout or dole from on high.
Familiarity with the local context is
necessary for a lasting impact and outcomes. Several well-intentioned policies
and programmes fail because they are not well grounded, and do not incorporate
the perspectives of the local communities, leaving important gaps that cause
enduring harm, unintentionally or otherwise.
But there is so much diversity even in
contiguous villages that a blueprint for one village may need a drastic change
a short map’s distance away.
And when we look to specific experiences,
searching for parallels, we must not fail to recognise the personal charisma of
inspirational leaders, which is not facilely transferable. Nor can passion be
transfused. Leadership in rural development programmes is an art which people
hone through long and sustained empathetic engagement with communities. We need
to appropriately reward and recognise good ideas and good performance so as to
further enhance it.
The failure of so many "normal" or
conventional professional solutions points to the need to re-examine the
perceptions and priorities of these professionals: the degree-bearing urban
elite who define poverty and give lengthy prescriptions for what should be done
The other need is to examine the perceptions
and priorities of the poor themselves. Neither has received much attention in
discussions against poverty.
Most such professionals-from every sector
of society, be it governments, civil society, private sector, entrepreneurs,
trade unions, academia, scientists social influencers and others-have neither
the time nor the political will to examine their own predispositions, leave
alone those of the poor.
Development administrators, professionals,
authors and writers arrogate to themselves the right to hand out certificates
on best practices. They shut themselves from the ground realities and give
lengthy opinions on the basis of reports and statistics.
Senior managers usually turn into glib
talkers on poverty and underdevelopment, and tragically or by design, they are
the ones who influence the directing of public policies and programmes.
If you want to serve the marginalised and
underserved, and serve them reliably and consistently, your work should not
stop at providing clients with mere prescriptions. You have to remain partners
with them during the entire project cycle. From the drawing board to delivery,
you have to inhabit the product and the programme, living every detail as
though it were a living, breathing organism.
We have to walk with the project users
every step of the way. We need to build trust with the people we serve by
working alongside them to develop practicable and sustainable solutions. It is
preposterous to assume that we know best: this approach will justifiably scare
any community away.
Consultants have for long been the key
people in policy mechanics, and there has been a glaring over-dependence on
them. It is vital to temper their reports with ground realities. Practitioners
would do well to ask why, if the consultants are so confident of their advice
and plans, they don’t simply execute these themselves!
This should not however prevent us from
recognising the contribution of consultants in guiding several successful
programmes. There is something of continuing value about bringing an outsider
in. If the consultant is experienced, they can ferret out problems. Deep
knowledge of the way many other organisations have handled similar problems can
help provide solutions to the new context. In addition, consultants can act as
disseminators of state-of-the-art expertise and practices in the academic and
Community development is not an academic
discipline. Universities don't offer clinical courses on the subject. It may
not be possible to locate a common denominator for a successful development
manager, or to lay down a standardised blueprint for a "rural development
But the development community does possess
a vast trove of expertise and wisdom in advancing social change. Not all of it
is accessible, locked as it is in people's heads or within organisational
memory. It is important to enable free access to these valuable insights in
order to move the field forward.
From their own experience, rural
development veterans can spell out the ingredients for successful programme
drivers. But local practitioners will have to work out their own recipes for
blending these ingredients in the changeful right proportion.
If the primary focus is to transform the
lives of communities driven to the margins, we must establish a partnership
with them so that they learn from one another, and collaborate in pursuing
After all, it is also human nature to come
together and fix problems.
Any development plan or initiative that
seeks to respond to the social and economic damage wrought by COVID19, or to
prevent its recurrence, should keep in mind the drivers that made it a global
The political economy right now is on an
unsettling journey headed to an uncertain destination. We will need a
calibrated and careful out-of-the-box response to come up with resilient
solutions and robust systems that help us ride out the current crisis and
protect us from future disasters.