Part II-Dignifying Development
If you are not obsessed with hedonistic personal trivia so that you are concerned about social concerns, and if you are neither a dogmatic free market-oriented Rightist nor a dogmatic party-led dirigiste Leftist, and wondering how you can be an ‘argumentative Indian’ about how economics and politics can be galvanized to serve the cause of a fairer society, then I invite you to readBhaduri (2005). This is a tiny book (priced at Rs. 45/50 that can fetch you more than a crisp ‘masala dosa’ and even a cuppa of filter coffee on the Bengaluru kerbs in Nagarbhavi). By the way, this write-up is also available in Hindi, Kannada, Oriya, Punjabi, Tamil, Bangla, and Telugu besides in Portuguese and Korean and may be by now more foreign languages!
This is a celebratory intellectual material, coming from an ‘organic intellectual’ a la Antonio Gramsci! You can enjoy reading this booklet about the possibility and feasibility of pro-people‘destiny and free will’ more than and longer than you can enjoy your ephemeral consumption of ‘dosa and coffee’. In fact, I would be happy for you, especially if you are a third year undergrad exposed to introductory development economics, if you will read this and Frontier (2011) a few times, repeatedly with an in-between break, along with down-to-earth books such as Oyewole et al. eds. (2018) and Eversole (2018) as it would certainly help you out in sorting out the deficits of understanding development theory and practice. If you do not read books and articles like these, then you will never know the difference between socially useful work and useless toil, and consequently what you purposefully want to contribute to good life and good society in terms of economic and political democracy.
So, what is to be done?
We have to deal with the unbearable shame on us in terms of the problems of unemployment, poverty, lack of basic elements of sustenance, rights to life and livelihood, and the absence of the democratic control of the people over their own destinies and natural resources, right to democratic space, and, freedom from oppression.
Our unforgivable failure on the above lines all these years in post-independent India can be set right by envisaging a programme of moving rapidly towards full employment as a means, and an achievable end, to eradicate poverty and ensure proper livelihood for all by radically altering power relations in rural areas at first so as to empower the landless and poor peasantry and guarantee community rights and control over resources, and achieve greater democratic control over political, administrative and financial processes. This is diametrically opposite to what the neoliberal economic model has done in our country—achieving growth sans employment and trickle down of economic benefits, and debasing the people as worse than beggars and street dogs.
Since our objective now is development with dignity—development with high employment and participation–India needs a universal employment guarantee scheme at a legally stipulated minimum wage. The right to regular income for a decent living, and the duty to contribute to social production constitute the essential economic content of participatory democracy. The poor need to be given a sense of full participation in the economic life both as producers and consumers.
In order to achieve this objective, we must pay greater attention to the size of the domestic market compared to the foreign market. Focus on expanding the share of the external market and keeping the stock market happy typically results in anti-poor policies in the name of the labour market flexibility, lower government expenditure on economic and social development, and even shedding of labour for higher productivity. More importantly, these policies tend to depress the size of the domestic market, making development with high employment and participation impossible. We need to go beyond the jobless growth (i.e. a high GDP growth achieved mostly through higher productivity growth in the organized sector induced by focusing on labour cost reduction) that we have already experienced, towards a path of higher productivity that goes with more employment at satisfactory wages. The road to this development will focus on the hitherto ignored 90 percent of India’s working population eking out their livelihoods in the unorganized or the informal sector of the economy, mostly covering agriculture, small industries, petty services related to trade, transport and commerce. These working people work without any formal labour contracts and other labour rights. They are the ‘scum’ of our nation in the eyes of the elites who do not treat them as the strength and wealth of our nation.
In relation to these people, when we offer wage employment opportunities at a legally stipulated minimum wage, two things would happen. First, those who really need the minimum wage would ‘self-select’ themselves to work at that wage. This would avoid many bureaucratic problems and corruption in defining who needs the job. Secondly, it would also provide, indirectly though, a wide cover of social insurance to the most vulnerable sections of our population. It would be their fall back position in terms of alternative employment opportunity, even if they do not need to take up the offer in normal circumstances.
Note that we are here basically devising an imaginative combination of rapid expansion in the domestic market and purchasing power of the poor people with their participation in building decentralized productive capacity. This has to be done mostly at the level of the gram and nagarpanchayats. The expansion in purchasing power would come from public works financed initially through deficits of central and state budgets. The public works could consist of projects relating to a range of activities like rural communication, warehouse, local water management schemes, watersheds, school buildings, health centres, local forestry work, etc. So long as excess capacity exists, the increase in supply would come both from better utilization of capacities in the short run, and additional productive capacity created in the longer run through new projects chosen by local people to meet local needs. The panchayats need to have full financial autonomy and responsibility to design and implement projects subject to the crucial condition of transparency and accountability, which materialize when the participants in a project begin to monitor its progress in their own self-interest. We need transparency not just through right to information but change of mind sets. When the chosen projects generate local public goods that benefit mostly the workers engaged in building them, the right to employment and income merges with the responsibility and obligation to contribute to social income through work.
Many local public goods (like the construction of the building of a local health centre, the primary school, a warehouse, drinking water supply, sanitation, work in local forestry and village common resources, etc.) can be a supplement to the standard of living of the local workers. In this sense, they can even become a component of ‘social’ wage supplementing ‘private’ wage. And, if the projects are well executed, the standard of living of the workers involved can begin to improve even without an increase in the money wage.
It should be stressed again that these possibilities are realizable only when public works are decentralized with autonomy and accountability at the level of the panchayat. Besides, people’s initiative in terms of the organization of the landless and poor peasantry and their collective struggles for people’s protagonism in the form of popular control over local bodies of governance can effectively promote participatory democracy and challenge all the established power structures in the villages and elsewhere bent upon sabotaging the above broad strategy.
If you are attracted to this coherent plan of action, then you must also feel grateful to Madhu Bhaduri simply because “without her enthusiasm this book would not have been written.” If you are wondering why our and external policy makers have missed the bus on these lines all these years and how the professor has torn apart all the dubious arguments against this humane strategizing, you will have to pick up the book and just read!
Bhaduri, Amit. 2005. Development with Dignity: A Case for Full Employment.National Book Trust.India.
Eversole, Robyn. 2018. Anthropology for Development: From Theory to Practice. Routledge.
Frontier. 2011. Development with Dignity: Looking Beyond. A Programme for Peoples’ Protagonism.Vol.43. No.43. May 8-14 (freely downloadable public good).
Oyewole, Dapo et al. eds. 2018. Development as Dignity: Frontline Stories from Development Experts in the Global South. The Aspen Institute. Washington, D.C. This is a short book, and freely downloadable public good.
By Annavajhula J.C. Bose
Department of Economics, SRCC