India spends more on programmes for the poor than most developing countries but is not getting the expected dividends that significant public expenditure would seem to warrant, and the needs of important population groups remain partly addressed. This has been haunting social scientists and policymakers. India has ranked a lowly 131 among the 188 countries surveyed for human development in 2016, according to a just-released UN report. It has made no improvement in its ranking over the previous year. The report puts it in the “medium human development” bracket, which also includes nations like Bangladesh, Bhutan, Pakistan, Kenya, Myanmar and Nepal. A major flaw in our development paradigm is that the focus is more on physical resources and less on human resources.
We seem to discount the human factor in all our programmess. To refresh the words of the great anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Behind the gleaming images of icons of successful development, and revolutions is the untold saga of the sacrifice of the grassroots staff that holds the fort as brave and heroic warriors. It is the incandescent honesty and unvarnished selfishness that imparts purity to their mission and translates state policies into real ground action. The honour and recognition that society owes to these brave extraordinary individuals for their crusade for a cause bigger than them cannot be embodied in awards, promotions and citations. Though our focus is most often on issues such as chronic poverty, empowerment of women and the disenfranchised, and a sustainable solution to economic instability, the lessons of all successful policies and programmes for achieving these objectives cuts to the heart of something we should never forget: The tenacious and committed officials, and their families whose sacrifices have enabled and continue to make the world a far better and just place.
India should really applaud and honour ordinary men and women, who have nobody to back them, yet are working doggedly to keep projects rolling. Nobody can fathom the immense mental and physical suffering they and their families undergo. I doubt whether outsiders like us, protected by position, passport, privileges and police can be justified in goading others to risk their livelihoods, their families’ well-being, or their own lives. To take risks for oneself is one thing. To encourage others to do so is quite another. As Adlai Stevenson commented so pithily: “It is easier to fight for principles than to live up to them.” Even more, for any outsider to encourage vulnerable poor people to take risks raises ethical questions, especially when it is they, and not the outsider, who will pay the price of failure. A painstaking reflection is demanded of social interventions in hostile and harsh areas.
When new agricultural practices are being propagated with enticements of extravagant promises, it raises several ethical questions. Too much has been talked about of the wealth at the bottom of the pyramid as if it is a cash cow to be milked or there are so many low-hanging ripened fruits waiting to be plucked. The peasants have a much keener understanding of the development and its implications than the economists sitting in the rarefied atmosphere of Yojana Bhavan where India‘s planning issues are dissected, analysed and, after a diagnosis, prescriptions are made. By manipulating the choices of consumers on the low-income pyramid, we have disempowered them and the damage to the economy and ecology of these already fragile societies is now starkly visible. It is this distance that has grown between the planners and the people in the rural matrix that has plagued the development apparatus.
Too much dependence on data and much less direct engagement with the poor has been the major cause of failure for most state-mandated development programmes. Development work is dirty, you have to soil your hands, and you have to cope with crude elements at the lower dregs of society. If you care about your mission, and your community, then it hurts when colleagues let you down, your social enterprise stumbles, funding is denied, or other hurdles materialize. Business schools don’t teach you how to fight goons; risk mitigation strategies like sophisticated metrics and business algorithms can’t hold water in the face of the mad frenzy of plundering bandits; technological gadgets can’t speak the language needed to navigate this dense thicket of unruly and heterogynous groups. One of the discouraging features of Indian democracy is the politicization of rural society. A decade back, villages had a very remote link with political parties. Those who contested panchayat elections were elected on the strength of their electoral merits, irrespective of their ideological stripes.
Caste did remain a strong card, but the candidates’ character played a critical role. The growing tendency of village groups to seek outside political support for solutions to local development issues has ruptured the traditional social structure. Each leader in a village has a political master in the nearest town. All these developments have made the village social structure highly complex and confusing. In the coming years, rural assignments for officials of government and banks are going to become hazardous on account of the growing politicization of villages. The new roads and highways that provide a fast passage not just to towns but also to metros have demolished the concept of village republics. In such a dispiriting scenario committed development workers may feel that their position is hopeless, that there is nothing they can do. The ‘system’ is too strong for them.
Perhaps the best antidote to this despair is to study the examples and lives of those who have fought against the odds and succeeded. In every country, there are some courageous people ~ political and religious leaders, civil servants, workers in voluntary agencies, academics, scientists, and others ~ who have refused to give in, who have stuck by their principles and whose lives shine as examples to others of what can be done. For those who side with the poor too, there may be unexpected floods of support. But not all can expect recognition or become folk heroes. For most of those who put the last first, the satisfaction and rewards are not fame, but knowing that they have done what was right and that things are, however slightly, better than they would have been. Their small deeds may not command attention; but in merit, they may equal or exceed the greater and more conspicuous actions of those with more freedom, pelf and power. For the test is what people do. Social change flows from individual actions.
Small gains well consolidated as part of a sequence can mean more than big gains which are unstable and shortlived. Accumulated over time they snowball into giant achievements. By changing what they do, people move societies in new directions and then change. Big simple solutions are tempting but full of risks. For most outsiders, most of the time, the soundest and the best ways forward are through innumerable small steps that could be just nudges and tiny pushes. Slower and smaller steps also help build up people’s adaptability to changes. We should look for small innovations, not just blockbusters. Several development successes have occurred in less than optimal settings and often under appalling conditions of weak governance, widespread corruption, minimal infrastructure, deep-rooted social divisions and a poorly functioning judicial system.
In each case, creative individuals saw possibilities where others saw hopelessness. They imagined a way forward that took into account local realities, and built on local strengths they were willing to experiment and ignore the skeptics until the skeptics became supporters and often partners working to bring about change on a larger scale. Gandhi’s mantra is the most soothing credo in such moments and endeavours: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”