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Redefining India’s Development Goals

January 11, 2013

Sahebganj is a district in Jharkhand that borders West Bengal. It was part of the Santhal Parganas and is mostly inhabited by tribals. It is the only district in Jharkhand through which the river Ganga flows. During the British Raj, most of the Englishmen lived around the railway station and hence the town and district got to be known as Sahebganj or the ‘land of the Sahebs’. More than a decade ago, I had the opportunity of traveling through the scenic Rajmahal hills located in this district. The disturbing experience that I had then is still fresh in my mind. It was around lunch time and I was in a village inhabited by the Mal Paharia tribals. I decided to visit one of the homes close by. I knew that rice was their staple food and was hoping that I would be offered some, by the lady of the house. As I entered the house, I noticed three young children playing on the floor and a woman cooking on a mud hearth. She was breast-feeding a six month old baby as she continued cooking while I noticed another child around two years sleeping on the floor beside her. With the help of a local translator who spoke the version of Bengali that this woman spoke, I gathered that these five were her children. Her husband had gone out in search of work and food and was expected later that evening. My first reaction as a doctor was to feel concerned that this young woman who looked older than her 25 years had five children already. The older children looked malnourished and I was curious to know what she was cooking for them. She had made some rice and was preparing a watery gravy to be eaten with the rice. Vegetables were a luxury for this family and she had put in some leafy greens that she had picked in the forest nearby. I learnt painfully that this constituted the main meal on most days and that she would eat what was left after feeding her older children. Continuing the conversation I soon learnt that neither health care nor education had reached anywhere near their village though both the Government and local NGOs claimed that they had indeed created access for these services. This simple tribal woman had accepted her life as it came and her only pre-occupation seemed to be finding the next meal for her children. Though this scene left me agitated, I noticed a peculiar calm on the woman’s face and she seemed unperturbed by her socio-economic condition. It sounded ironical that on one hand Governments, civil society groups, development experts and donor agencies are talking about food security, creating access to health, education and other public services and ensuring social and economic justice for these marginalized people, while on the other hand here was a Mal Paharia tribal family untouched by either the debate or the benefits of such development interventions.

Recollecting this incident still leaves me confused and disillusioned. Confused by what constitutes ‘Development’ itself! Is it merely the provision of health, education, food, nutrition, livelihood, water and sanitation, roads and other infrastructure or is it something more? Shouldn’t families like this one also be entitled to a decent and dignified existence? Shouldn’t their aspirations go beyond the next meal and shouldn’t the Government and other agencies ensure that they receive basic public services? On one hand we talk about an ‘entitlements based society’ but on the other we seemed to have excluded millions of such marginalized people from reaping the benefits of a growing economy. We budget millions of rupees in the name of development but fail to include these communities in deciding what their development should be. The debate on development has intensified over the last 3-4 decades and it gathered real momentum after the United Nations made the grand announcement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). They are eight international development goals that were officially established following the Millennium Summit of the United Nations in 2000, following the adoption of the United Nations Millennium Declaration. The aim of the MDGs is to encourage development by improving social and economic conditions in the world’s poorest countries. All 193 United Nations member states and at least 23 international organizations have agreed to achieve these goals by the year 2015. The goals are:

  1. Eradicating extreme poverty and hunger
  2. Achieving universal primary education
  3. Promoting gender equality and empowering women
  4. Reducing child mortality rates
  5. Improving maternal health
  6. Combating HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
  7. Ensuring environmental sustainability, and
  8. Developing a global partnership for development

As we get closer to 2015, the United Nations and other NGOs around the world have woken up the fact that these goals were indeed very ambitious and are far from being achieved. While progress has been achieved in some areas, we need to reflect on not just our understanding of development but also on how we should go about achieving it for the nearly 7 billion people around the world. We need to redefine development from going beyond mere ‘income growth’ to including not just these goals but something more comprehensive. We need to realize that a mere imitation of economic growth models of the western world does not necessarily mean a better life for our citizens. We need to remember the words of Amartya Sen, who said “India should not hope for the social benefits of economic progress, but rather look towards the economic consequences of social progress.” India now needs to define its own metrics for measuring its progress and development – something that is culturally appropriate and contextually relevant. We need to look more towards emerging economies like Thailand, Indonesia and Brazil for success stories rather than be dictated models of development by multilateral agencies. We need to appreciate that development has to result in a constant expansion of human capability. This expanding human capability is what can ensure the provision of all kinds of securities for our citizens. India needs to be a pioneer in translating this vision of development into concrete reality where the rule of law is the norm rather than the exception, where no Indian will go hungry, where human rights is not a mere slogan but a way of life, where democratic participation is not a fanciful aspiration but an everyday expression of citizenship, and where food, nutrition, livelihood, infrastructure, education, health care and religious freedoms are not mere political promises but entitlements of an empowered citizenry. Only when this happens can we call India a ‘Developed Nation’.


Categories: Musings