BY TOM ODHIAMBO That the media, the world over, claims that economic prosperity for all is possible even today destroys any remnants of irony in the talk about development. How is it possible to (re)distribute prosperity to all in any society today when the numbers of the poor keep on rising? Would the rich really agree to share their wealth with the poor just for the sake of making all members of any society happy? Is it even possible to think of an equitable society today when wherever one looks, whenever one is in the world, one only sees, hears or senses images, stories and an air of prosperity; even when one is amidst the most crushing poverty? The point is that today’s world is so unequal that many poor people are resigned to their fate and will even defend the rights of the rich to be poor. The poor will live from one day to the next hoping that the hand of fate will bring them not just good news in the course of the day, but goods as well. Even the media, who in many cases cast themselves as speaking on behalf of the majority, will offer stories about the possibilities for growth and development without showing how such development can tangibly be achieved. This ‘misrepresentation’ of development or the possibilities of development explains why India is praised in the media globally as a beacon of hope and prosperity for the majority poor in the world. Praises are intoned to India, holding it up as having proven that the ‘green revolution’ can lift millions from want of food. That ICT can deliver modernity to millions shackled to their ‘old ways’. That economic development added to India’s famed democracy would spur the country to greater heights of better life for all. That globalization can link up the country to the rest of the world and make it a partner in global progress. All this positive talk about India has permeated NGO and government policy-speak in other parts of the developing/underdeveloped world, especially in Africa. Yet, if one reads a book such as India Untouched: The Forgotten Face of Rural Poverty (2005) by Abraham George, one is left wondering why the bother about top-down development? This is a book that takes the reader into rural India, telling the story of the more than half of the population of the country who remain on the margins of the ‘great heights of economic growth’ attained in the metros and industrial cities of this great ancient civilization. George hints at what India, especially the countryside, has been in the past, shows you what it is today in comparison to the cities and regions that enjoy the much-praised economic booms, and foretells what India could be if it re-engineered its ‘development agenda’, from its villages back into the city, rather than the other way round. In the preface to the book, George writes this, “While urban India is beginning to benefit from the economic liberalization measures being instituted, much of the rural population has been left behind. 650 million or so people living in over 500,000 Indian villages are simply spectators to the drama being played out in the cities, and there is little hope that their lives will be any better in the foreseeable future. Despite the lofty ideals and goals constantly pronounced by the country’s leaders, the truth is that rural India is simply the breadbasket for the rest of the nation, to be used and exploited. If there is to be any justice and respect for human rights, it is the plight of the poor, especially the social underclass, that needs to be addressed.” He then emphasizes that India Untouched: The Forgotten Face of Rural Poverty “is about what can and must be done to bring about economic prosperity and social justice for all Indians.” Indeed George then discusses how to tap into the great numbers of the rural poor in working the land to secure food, income and savings for them; how to conserve and protect the environment on which the subsistence farming depends; how to provide basic universal health services to people in the countryside; managing pollution; guaranteeing of freedom of expression and information; expanding the democratic space and establishing an ethical society, among other tangible and intangible reforms and processes that can guarantee the majority of Indians a share of the progress that their country is making. There is no doubt that the politicians and policy makers would contest many of the conclusions by George about India. They would point out rising incomes and standards of living for many in the cities, great new centers of technology and manufacturing, commendable strides in scientific discoveries and innovations, highways etc. They would tell you that their economic policies are pulling millions out of poverty every year. But they wouldn’t speak much about more than 600 million Indians without toilets. Or the fact that the country ranks number 130 on the Human Development Index (2015), which measures a country’s life expectancy at birth, the education period and income per capita. This measure of the quality of life in a country was developed by the Indian philosopher/economist, Amartya Sen and Pakistani economist, Mahbub ul Haq. Both are people who were closely involved in research about India and Pakistan’s economic problems. Just for comparison purposes, Kenya is below India but not very far, at number 145 on the HDI scale. So, for whom is the development story told today when it rarely speaks about the majority of the world population that is stuck in the 19th century whilst NGOists, policymakers, politicians, advisors, businessmen, academics, journalists etc meet in swanky hotels to discuss ‘economic vision’ this and that, millennium development goals, sustainable development goals etc, among other clever sounding but hardly implementable programs? Why is it that talk and action about development are still elite undertakings? When will the majority poor in many parts of the world be incorporated into, not just the discourse and programs on development, but in the real life of progress and its benefits?
The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi