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A Critical yet a Humble take on the Contemporary Development Paradigm

BOOK REVIEW

– Dr Sanjeev D Kenchaigol, Programme Officer

I, the citizen

 

 

I, the citizen: unravelling the power of citizen engagement
By Dr R Balasubramaniam
Mysuru: GRAAM and New Delhi: Vision India Foundation, 2015;
pp: xx+280, Price: Rs.375.0 (Paperback)

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the wake of more than three decades of development literature, the notions of community development and social activism have gained currency. Probably, the moral roots of the same can be traced back to medieval and modern India, where many of the known social reform movements aimed at achieving the common good in the society. Some of these movements range from Mahatma Gandhi’s Satyagraha to B R Ambedkar’s fight against untouchability, and Mother Teresa’s decades of missionary work till the new millennia to name a few, and  all of them emerged out of sheer compassion, selflessness and unending vigour in serving the most deprived classes.

Post-independence, India saw a major transformation in the democratic, political and social scenarios, where the notion of economic development was predominantly injected as an utmost strategy to achieve the greater well-being of the people in a fairly young nation. The interaction of much needed selfless, compassionate, moral/ethical approaches to deal with human vulnerability and rather more mechanically adopted notion of development (such as the Utilitarian Frameworks) seemed to be missing in the development discourse over the last few decades, with the latter claiming the dominant place in the contemporary development approaches, up until  the late 1980s. It was during the beginning of 1990s, with the emergence of new development thinking in understanding multidimensional poverty going beyond the conventional economic measures such as GDP (Sen, 1999, 1992 and 1985) and focusing on building basic human capabilities that people found reasons to value (UNDP, 1990 and 1995) eventually change the popular perception of what once treated as the dominant concept of development discourse.

The new wave of thinking, in this regard, urged the intellectuals and the scholars to ponder whether the economic measures such as GDP are the only substantial tools to measure human well-being, whether women’s freedoms and capabilities should be defined by patriarchal and conservative social norms and rethink if the well-known ‘trickle down’ theory[1] would help in eradicating abject poverty. As a response to such questions, the newly emerged approaches that are more of participatory action methods (endorsed by the world agencies such as the UNDP and the World Bank) provided a space for evolving new approaches and methodologies to understand the multidimensional nature of human poverty; be it emancipation of women and gender equality, educating adolescent girls, essentials of good governance in service delivery or eliminating extreme hunger and malnutrition. As mentioned elsewhere, the aim of (Economic) development is to expand people’s freedoms and capabilities, one really wonders whether the subsequent governments in India have really understood this strand and been successful in lifting millions of people from extreme vulnerability and deprivations, particularly the multiply deprived, women, who inevitably become victims of sheer neglect of greedy and corrupt political system. If not, who is to blame? Why are citizens who make democracy work, excluded in the development process?

The present book under review, written by R Balsubramanium, a physician and a well-known development practitioner, social activist, scholar, thinker, and the founder of Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement (SVYM), now known as, Grassroots Research and Advocacy Movement (GRAAM) diligently and vigorously takes on these questions that rather have remained largely unanswered by the conventional (utilitarian) economic frameworks. Dr Balasubramaniam drawing from his three decades of work experience as a social activist and a development practitioner brings out an illuminating account of his musings with grassroots level problems backed up by sheer compassion for poor tribal communities and their development culminated with an inherent excellence of examining the contemporary development frameworks with the lens of what communities in the remote tribal villages of Mysuru district and poor and destitute elsewhere live their life and what the notion of ‘development’ means to them and how it needs to be in terms of health, education, nutrition, democracy and governance, among other important sectors.

A Humanist Par Excellence: Positive vs Normative Economic Perspectives

In his reflections, the author strongly argues against the existing flaws in development approaches and questions the conventional way[2] of eradicating poverty and inequality and juxtaposes this against his own understanding of the lives of thousands of poor at the grassroots level. In the Chapter, ‘Understanding development’, the author questions the path of current development processes. For instance, the author’s visit to a family ‘Mal Paharia’ tribal community in the Saheb Ganj district of Jharkhand State reveals how a 25-year old poor and malnourished young woman  looked quite older to her age, struggles to feed her four small children with less than a quarter meal per day stands as an example of how a number of such destitute families have been deprived of basic necessities such as food and education while there is growing concerns of implementing MDGs to end hunger and extreme poverty, among other goals by 2015 (Pp 26 and 27).

In most cases, development programmes although meant notionally for the welfare of the communities are not what people actually want or intrinsically feel about their well-being. Similarly, another illuminating account is provided. In a tiny tribal hamlet, Rajapura, adjacent to the Bandipura National Park in Mysuru district, the village women everyday walk about ten kilometres to fetch drinking water from the Kabini River. Gaining cognizance of the plight of these villagers, the author irrespective of hurdles, successfully gets a hand pump in their village but only to experience the wrath of village women! The author found out that these women who otherwise used to spend 3-4 hours of time for fetching water were deprived of those extra leisure hours, wherein away from their families, husbands and their daily domestic chores.  To put it in the words of author:

“….This (putting new hand pump) took away what they (village women)[3] had been treasuring so much – their personal time, a shared space, privacy and the company of women whose lives and concerns they shared …; they wanted know how and why I perceived that ‘lack of water’[4] was their problem. They asked me why I did not have the patience or need to ask them what they wanted…” (Page 30).

Here, the author brings out the case of just how development programmes when implemented, go without considering what people really perceive intrinsically about their well-being and policymakers deciding on their own to design development programmes without understanding what people want. This case stands as a real testimony of how these so called development interventions overlook importance of what people value the most – their freedom. The author cautions that any such development initiatives need to be implemented only after understanding what the beneficiaries want rather than forcing it on them. The author, a humanist, argues for development interventions to expand the human freedoms as insightfully articulated in the various writings of Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and more prominently in Sen’s 1999 book,  ‘Development as Freedom’ (Pg 36).

An Unending Demand for Expanding People’s Capabilities: Citizenship and Empowerment

Elsewhere, Justice M N Venkatachalaiah, Former Chief Justice of India, in his foreword to the Book, with his lucid welfare economic reflections on the notion of growth, hails the author as ‘fiercely passionate’ about expanding human capabilities. And throughout, one can see how vigorously the author argues for development to be more humane than merely growth oriented. He writes, “…more importantly this view not acquired from books or from emulating leading thinkers, but evolved through three decades being in the thick of development process and observing what works and what kind of development lasts…”

To look into another fine example of how the development process fails to combat very grave human deprivations, an illustration of rampant cases of pregnant women having home deliveries, which is directly linked to problems such as maternal mortalities is provided. As a trained medical doctor, the author with his own organisational efforts successfully brings a visible improvement in the growth of institutional deliveries. An initiative that is well regarded within the notions of gender equality and human development and raises some pertinent questions such as how existing mechanisms of measuring development, especially the ‘GDP’ obsessed development process would explain such deprivations (Pp 42-46). The significance of ‘innovation’ in development programmes and how such innovative initiatives of the NGO (GRAMA) have brought a substantial change in the lives of the poor is discussed in the subsequent sections.

In the second chapter, Voices from the Grassroots, the author provides a deep fabric of citizen voices on their every-day life and deprivations often encountered with current system of corrupt and insensitive government that is supposed to put policies into action. The narratives provided in this space offer fresh and insightful perspectives. Be it the voice of Akkamma who struggled hard to establish her ‘identity’ as a rightful beneficiary of the Public Distribution System (PDS) or a handful of village men and women showing their courage and conviction to practice true democratic virtues amidst poverty, patriarchy and corruption.

Further, Dr Balasubramaniam examines the notion of ‘Good Governance’ with the lens of every-day requirements of common men and women in the chapter, Governance Democracy and Citizenship. Although ‘good governance’ is defined variously, it is only a range of aspirations that one can expect from the government to fulfil and the manner in which government responds to citizens’ aspirations.  In this space, a range of aspirations that any citizen could wish to accomplish are critically looked into. For instance, the state of governance as it is experienced by the author himself has become so poor that basic services such as the PDS and other welfare programme at the grassroots level have become a mess and become centres of corruption and unaccountability. Having said that, the author finds some hope in the newly formed government at the centre and believes that the able leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi will clean up the system in the coming days! In the wake of a highly corrupt political system in the country and decaying ideological state and morale of political parties, it is quite remarkable that the narratives from the book never miss a connection with the contemporary government system and shows how the author possesses an immense belief in the country’s democratic practices, be it the present Congress government in Karnataka or the BJP rule at the Centre, irrespective of the diverse political ideologies.

In the following Chapter, Information indeed is Power…, which exclusively deals with the significance of information in the hands of citizens, the author shares the experiences of his involvement in the campaign to enforce the Right to Information (RTI) Act and the role of citizen engagement to make that Act a success. The narratives in this chapter on the ‘Jagruthi Yathre’ or the campaign to raise (citizen) consciousness led by the Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement (SVYM) under the leadership of the author diligently uncovers a bunch of stories on how potentially the Act can empower the poor and common citizens alike and raise their bargaining powers.

Practicing Democracy is not just wishing away: Fighting Corruption and Citizen Engagement

One of the notable features of this book is that it successfully convinces the reader that without citizen participation it is impossible to weed out corruption. Dr Balasubramaniam discusses multiple dimensions of corruption that showcase how a corrupt system hinders the human development of the poor. In the fifth chapter, Citizen Engagement and the Fight against Corruption, the author discusses his own movement against corruption from the city of Mysuru, when the whole nation stood against corruption in the year 2011 in a movement called by veteran social activist Anna Hazare to force the ruling government to pass the Jan Lokpal Bill.

In this section, Dr Balasubramaniam vigorously tailors the case for persistent corrupt system and effectively analyses the need for an active citizen engagement to contain corrupt practices. Corruption in India is regarded as a way of life. It is as simple as an old woman, as the author puts it, has to follow up relentlessly for over months to get her due pension. Even if the amount is granted, a part of it is deducted as a reward to the postman who delivers the money to the doorstep. A system quietly accepted by the citizens of this country, who apparently feel annoyed but never voice against such corrupt practices. Dr Balasubramaniam calls upon such community members to come forward and raise their voice against corruption. This time, such a protest against a commonly experienced problem of corruption was demonstrated during a nationwide protest called by anti-corruption veterans such as Anna Hazare. As the author mentions, when the nation observed such protests, local activists in Bangalore also began protesting against corruption with a campaign called corruption saaku (enough of corruption!) later joined by the larger civil society. In addition, the author mentions that the effect of the anti-corruption movement was also seen in Mysuru, where thousands of like-minded people and activists called for a fight against this menace (Page 164). These narratives provided by the author powerfully explain the positive vibe that the citizens had during the campaign to fight the common cause. People from all walks of life participated in the campaign and ranged from active citizens to civil society members, artists, NGO activists, students and the likes (Pp 165-66). Although, the campaign ended  with the arrest of Anna Hazare by the government but the larger citizen engagement in fighting corruption proved to be a huge step in recent times, an engagement the country had not seen since  1977 against the ‘Emergency’ called by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

The sixth chapter, Citizen Engagement towards Making Democracy Work, further captures the author’s substantial work towards making people aware about responsible participation in an electoral franchise. ‘Making Democracy Work’ campaign by SVYM during the 2013-14 elections for local bodies and the Lok Sabha, was one step towards understanding and making both the voter and electoral candidate more responsible to the tune of democratic and constitutional principles. In this backdrop the author tries to explore questions such as ‘what voters actually want from their democratic rights such voting?’ Why only wealthy politicians with criminal backgrounds make it into the politics? Thanks to the ‘corrupt voters’ who take bribes from the candidates as a reward for their democratic right of voting and end up electing corrupt leaders. During the campaign, as the author mentions, one voter reportedly puts her personal perspective on voting as:

“…Why are you asking me to forgo the pressure cooker or the mixer grinder that I will get? “ (Page 187).

These critical reflections on voter’s aspirations and responsibility during elections could ably generate a substantial sensitivity and rationale on electoral franchise in our country. For instance, for a quite glaring yet overtly ignored issues during the general elections in the world’s largest democracy, the author’s sharp views on the election agenda are compelling; To put it in the author’s words:  

“…Despite the formation of many committees, the nation is yet to have a scientifically validated poverty assessment process. We are still arguing about the different percentages of people below poverty line in India, clearly derailing our understanding of poverty, the metrics of poverty and the processes to alleviate poverty. It is indeed sad that not a single party made this an issue of electoral significance…” (Page 201).

A countless echoing such concerns of development have been discussed in this book, even such significant issues as gender bias, health care issues and poverty alleviation that the author vigorously advocates in this space and wishes that any such electoral agenda need to have such elements in the list. Indeed, our country, an emerging global economic (super) power cannot afford to ignore these concerns.

Valuing Freedoms: Contesting Grave Deprivations

Elsewhere in this review, it is mentioned that the approach and the analytical vigour of the author comes from his multi-dimensional understanding of human poverty and the lived experiences from the real world. Chapters seven and eight predominantly focus on the policy perspectives and the community work that SVYM and GRAAM have carried out. The perspectives on policies and the critical assessment of various development issues analysed in these two sections have been examined through the lens of recent welfare economic thinking that is largely grown upon the work of leading development economists such as Amartya Sen and endorsed by the world development agencies such as UNDP, specifically in the realms of human development, social inclusion, gender equality while sternly criticising the capitalist mode of development.

In the following section, the author’s take on the concept of ‘poverty’ will bring some grass roots perspectives for researchers and economists. Although there remains a vast amount of research on poverty, at the policy level, as the author indicates, the concept is poorly understood and there is an utmost need to understand the grave and multi-dimensional realities of what ‘poverty’ is and how it can be addressed. Dr Balasubramaniam with his insights and understanding of various dimensions of poverty provides some clues on how contemporary methods of ‘poverty measurement’ do not reflect ground realities and urges researchers to understand this strand while working on poverty related deprivations.

In the eighth and final chapter, ‘An Unending Movement’, the author uncovers the inception and the journey of Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement (SVYM) and the work undertaken by this ‘movement.’ The ‘movement’ as the author writes began in the mid-1980s to take up issues of quality healthcare services in remote tribal villages, where economic poverty hindered their capabilities to access better healthcare services. One of the biggest reasons behind building this rather un-ending ‘movement’ was the death of a poor villager due to his economic poverty which left a lasting impact on the author.  As a young medical professional then, the author’s reflections on that event clearly mark the darker side of the functioning of public health sector and bring out some ethical and moral questions:

“One early morning as I walked into the ward, writes the author, I found the bed that this patient occupied empty. On enquiry, I learnt that the patient had died the previous night and I saw an elderly lady packing up a couple of utensils into a torn plastic bag. I remembered her as the mother of this patient.… I learnt that she was seventy three years old and widowed. He was the sole earning member of the family. Now she had not only lost her son, but also all hopes… I was so numb that I did not know how to respond. I tried to explain to her that the doctors had done all they could and it was fate that had taken way her son…”

The author continues…

…. It was then that she burst out and said that all her son was getting were the prescriptions and not the medicines. She told me that the government hospital had no medicines and she had no money left to buy the medicines from elsewhere. The prescriptions were mere slips of paper and did not translate into any meaningful treatment for her son. And now that son was gone! I was shell shocked. I realised that it was not ‘Idiopathic Hypertension’ that had killed her only source of emotional and economic support. It was ‘lack of treatment’ born out of poverty[5]. While the entire team in its collective wisdom was discussing his non-responsive condition for the past couple of months, nobody was able to actually understand the root cause. The ‘social’ and ‘economic’ dimension of disease and its treatment was not being taken into account even by experienced members of the team. I felt lost and hopeless and was wondering what kind of medicine was I being trained to practice (Pp 244 and 245).

For more than three decades now, such a young student led movement has grown to take on issues of alcoholism in the tribal belt, fight for the protection of basic human rights of displaced people around the villages of Kabini river basin, or setting up of a school in Brahmgiri tribal hamlet with twenty-eight children studying in a cowshed in the year 1988, among other exemplary work till the same organisation transforms into  ‘GRAAM’, a rather intellectually grown up and financially enabled research organisation in Mysuru. All such achievements were possible with an active and sustained citizen engagement in all the possible development initiatives and their active participation with the government making the ‘development’ a community movement. According to the author, GRAAM is expected to take this ‘movement’ forward.

I, the citizen, stands high in its conviction in demonstrating the ‘power’ of citizen engagement. When we look into the stories of ordinary citizens that the author comes with, we as responsible citizens could easily be moved by the people who with all vigour partnered in all possible engagements to fight for their rights, aspirations and good governance with due commitment and responsibility. Whether it is a fight against corruption or rampant presence of alcoholism, citizen engagement is being manifested at its fullest and stands as a true virtue of democratic practice that the very constitution of India has bestowed upon us. On the other hand, the enormous amount of community work done by the author goes beyond mere community services and critically questions modern development discourse backed by all solid grassroots level evidences. The author’s critical perspectives on the ‘utilitarian’ mode of development ably questions the current ‘GDP’ obsessed growth. The micro-level evidences on human deprivations and injustices shown by the author are worthy of careful consideration and emulation by any ‘action research organisation’ or individuals alike to understand how a careful evaluation and critical observation of the micro-level issues would enhance the quality of scientific enquiry. While achieving this, the book redefines the way the ‘action research’ is being undertaken to include the very elements of ‘action’ and ‘research’ and critically questions the modern development discourses to include the notion of ‘human welfare’ that are often reflected in the welfare economic approaches based on the principles of human development, equality and inclusivess.

The book is divided into eight chapters and each chapter into various subheads and is spread across 280 odd pages. An illuminating foreword by Justice M N Venkatachalaiah is a sheer joy to read and succinctly introduces the author as a humanist, a scholar and a multifaceted development practitioner, an academician and an activist. The biggest strength of this book is that it tries to connect all the perceived community deprivations that come from the grassroots level and are normative in nature with those of the best development practices and methods followed around the world, be it the humongous work of UN or any other humanitarian work by such development agencies make this book stand tall among the rest. A section at the end of the book provides an amply enriched glossary of new concepts and terms with an adequate attention to extra details is quite helpful, particularly for non-Kannadiga and foreign readers.

This book in black and white imprint with enduring themes should be recommended to policy makers, economists, NGOs, development practitioners, bureaucrats and students who are keen to understand our country’s multidimensional poverty and related deprivations at the grassroots level and make a visible positive impact in the lives of poor amidst the ever rising call for a mechanical economic growth.

 Notes

[1] The ‘Trickle Down’ theory that became quite well-known in the discipline of Economics during the 1940s and 1950s is about the proposition that the bigger capital investments in the economy will boost the growth and the resultant benefits will trickle down to below and prosper that lower sections. These propositions have never been proved to be correct and have gone through severe criticism over the years.

[2] In mainstream economics, the notion of ‘positive economics’ is about testing standard economic theories or in other words it’s simply, ‘what is’ in terms of economic behaviour, whereas ‘normative economics’ is about how an economic system ought to be or should function as against the former. For instance, till the 1990s, the notable tool of measuring human well-being was the per capita income or the rate of GDP at Macro level as suggested by the mainstream economics (can be termed as ‘positive’ economics) while the proposition of measuring human well-being in terms of human freedoms and capabilities by development economists such as Amartya Sen and Mehbub Ul Haq, among others, particularly in UNDP’s Human Development Reports since 1990s (is considered as the normative economics).

[3] Text in the bracket is mine.

[4] Semi colons are mine.

[5] Author’s rationalizing of multi-dimensional poverty led deprivations and the inefficient system of public service delivery can also be found in tandem with Amartya Sen’s findings of his extensive research on the Great Bengal Famines of 1943, which the latter found to be the man-made disasters ever and were largely due to lack of people’s entitlement over food and the mal-distribution of food grains during that time. For more insights on these, see Sen, 1981, among others.

 

References 

Sen, Amartya Kumar (1981): Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, Clarendon Press, Oxford.

—–     (1985): Commodities and Capabilities, Oxford India Paperbacks, New Delhi.

—–     (1992): Inequality Re-examined, Oxford India Paperbacks, New Delhi,

—–     (1999): Development as Freedom, Oxford India Paperbacks, New Delhi.

United Nations Development Program (UNDP) (1990): “Human Development Report, 1990”, Oxford University Press, New York.

—–     (1995): “Human Development Report, 1995”, Oxford University Press, New York.

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