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POCKETS OF DIVERSITY: The need to redefine the development narrative in India.

The rise of the middle class in India has driven arguments that rejoice the growing consumer economy of the nation. In 2007, the McKinsey Quarterly reported, in a very optimistic piece, that consumption patterns pointed toward a positive economic growth trajectory (Eric B. 2007). Ashis Nandy, in his interview, places this rise in the context of the social cost of fast paced economic growth. Costs of development in terms of the symbolic violence of the Indian middle class over the forgotten cultures that rest at the brink of extinction, must be given due regard. (Nandy 2017). Can India follow a model of development that goes beyond the rising figures? Can India preserve her identity as a land of diversity whilst promoting her image as an emerging economy?

This paper addresses such questions. It argues in favor of the need to recognize the concerns that Ashis Nandy raises (Nandy 2017). The paper begins with a socio-economic analysis of the rise of the Indian middle class and the values it serves to protect. It then discusses the social costs of economic growth. It then, through case studies, attempts to trace models of development that protect traditional frameworks of survival (and cultural diversity) and critically analyze these frameworks to decipher the possibility of following a model of development deeply committed to retaining the cultural heritage of India by nurturing pockets of diversity.

The Rise of the Middle Class

In 1991, when economic reforms opened up the Indian economy, India was believed to possess untapped economic potential in the form of a looming consumer market boom. By 2007, projections stated that the middle class would constitute nearly 40% of the population as compared to the previous figure of 5%. The same projections referred to the subcontinent as the 5th largest consumer market of the world. (Eric B. 2007).

However, the question to be asked here is, where is this boom emerging from? Who thrives in its aftermath? If projections are held to be true, most of the emerging middle class is concentrated in India’s urban areas. The pace of urbanization remains one of the slowest in Asia and the rural-urban divide is a harsh reality that the Indian development narrative points toward. (Eric B. 2007)

The International Growth Centre articulates in a working paper released in 2003 that macro-economic transformations like the one India underwent since 1991, result in structural changes within the economy. These structural transformations signal a need to assess the rural-urban divide post 1991, given that there exists a grave possibility that much of this consumption culture is concentrated in the urban areas. The nature of consumption patterns then leads us to question what segment of Indian society is included in the economic boom that the projections speak of. Are the new consumption patterns sustainable?

Here is where Ashis Nandy’s argument gathers steam. He speaks of the emerging middle class as reflective of the attractive yet illusive nature of growth. He speaks of the creation of a ‘floating proletariat’; a class comprised of floating migrants travelling across the nation in their quest for a livelihood. (Nandy 2017). Here, he may be referring to the development-induced displacement that has riddled Indian development strategy for a while now. Nandy goes a step further by suggesting that the relations between the emerging middle class and the displaced (tribal) communities is akin to the relations between the erstwhile colonial power and the colony. This ‘floating proletariat’ may emerge out of the destruction of livelihood structures in the name of national development. This displacement brings along with it the loss of art, medicine and other cultural creations that were embedded in the uprooted livelihood mechanisms (Nandy 2017). Such is the cost of development that is borne by the displaced and whose fruits are enjoyed by the middle class. Let us now consider the challenge of development-induced displacement in greater detail.

India and her tryst with water infrastructure.

Post-independence, India’s ‘five year’ plans symbolized a planned model of economic growth. What this then called for was the emergence of massive infrastructure projects. For instance, dams (Mohanty 2005 ).It can be argued that dams were of strategic relevance given that the growth trajectory largely depended on the prosperity of the agricultural sector. Dams gave the agricultural sector the technological base that was required to propel the agricultural productivity to new heights. The agrarian roots of the Indian economy largely depended on these infrastructure projects for irrigation and a perennial source of water.

However, this planned development brought with it a cost; displacement of thousands of individuals. The planning commission, in a draft paper argues that the visions of policy makers ignored the social and humanitarian costs of these mega projects. From the period of 1951-1990, the displacement attributed to building dams accounted for 77% of the total displacement figures that were linked to large scale development projects. In the same period, over 3000 dams were built across the nation. Mohanty B. in his study points out that most of these tribal communities that were affected, derived their existence from largely resource rich areas (Mohanty 2005 ). Development projects like dams were designed in areas that were resource rich (in this case water was the resource). When the projects were implemented, it meant a fundamental shift in land use patterns that uprooted communities that derived their livelihood from the traditional patterns of land use.

In practice, a response to challenges of displacement would ideally put into place effective programs for reintegration, rehabilitation and reconstruction of livelihoods of those who had been displaced. However, the response was far from satisfactory. The response was flawed in 3 ways which Mohanty points out in his article. The first, was the low financial resources deployed towards rehabilitation projects. Projections to that effect could be valued at less than 1% of total project budget (Mohanty 2005 ). Secondly, it was limited in its scope. Mohanty estimates that not more than 27% of the total displaced persons were subjected to such programs. Lastly, the administrative apparatus lacked the efficiency and the willingness to execute such projects. Centralized planning viewed reconstruction of livelihoods of local communities as falling in the domain of responsibility of the local government and beyond the ambits of theirs (Mohanty 2005 ).

Nandy would argue that this serves as an example of post-colonial economic structures following the tracks of extractive and exploitative structures of the colonial era. The ineffectiveness and ensuing futility of these R&R programs reduced the displaced communities to a point of powerlessness. The needs of the emerging middle class, reflected here by the need for prosperity and rapid industrialization, is enforced upon the weaker sections. Owing to their submissive, powerless positions, it becomes daunting for them to challenge these needs and advance their own. The hunger of the middle class is fed at the cost of resources that tribal communities derived their existence from.

It is not surprising then that India presents a plethora of instances where tribal settlements have resisted the economic adventures of companies. In Orissa, the Dongira Kondh tribe has resisted and rejected the plans of a joint venture by public and private sector companies to extract bauxite from the forests that surround Khambesi (the village where they reside). Their principal arguments echo the concerns that Ashis Nandy raises; the forests are a source of livelihood. Destroying the forest for resource extraction would destroy their culture, their heritage and their history. In Orissa alone there is a multiplicity of such instances. South Korean company Posco is among a group of companies looking for resources in the resource-rich state but face heavy resistance by the local forces.

Does this point us toward a trade-off ridden with complexity and multi-layered arguments from both ends? Is there a way to preserve tribal culture whilst promoting economic interests? Perhaps there is a path that policy makers could follow. A path lit by the fire of innovation and fueled by the multiplicity of cultural forces.

Self-reliance as a response: A Case Study from Gujarat

Having considered industrial expansion as a cause of large scale tribal displacement, it would be interesting to dwell more on the responses from the local tribes and the possible alternative development models that have emerged as part of these responses.

In Gujarat, industrial expansion into tribal heartlands (which host a treasure trove of resources) have generated a fascinating response from the tribes and civil society actors who wish to protect their livelihoods, culture and heritage. Their alternative models of development through self-reliance have added strength and depth to their efforts toward protection of livelihoods and traditions (Bhatt 2011)

The response comes in the form of what the tribes and civil society actors are referring to as ‘Green Economic Zones’ (GEZs) as an alternative to ‘Special Economic Zones’ (SEZs). The thrust behind these efforts comes from Bhasha, an NGO working for the development of Adivasi areas. GEZs were conceptualized by the Dr. Devy, a leading figure at Bhasha, who wished to propose a model of economic development that takes into account the ecological and cultural concerns that find themselves at the core of the concerns of the Adivasis (Singanporia 2009 ). The efforts span over 1200 villages in Gujarat and the idea is to promote micro-level linkages to boost agricultural productivity and promote self-reliance. An example of such micro-level linkages is the establishment of micro-credit groups as a technique to foster systems of financial independence. They have also been able to set up grain banks that can provide for food security requirements in times of low agricultural productivity (Bhatt 2011). The villages also collaborate with each other through knowledge sharing with respect to water harvesting techniques and organic farming mechanisms. (Singanporia 2009 ). By engaging in such collaborative, micro-level efforts, the local community is able to address its fundamental challenges; food security, agricultural productivity and indebtedness. Although challenges such as repayment capacity remain, the model is able to address those set of challenges that had previously created a susceptibility to dependence and a weakness in their efforts towards the preservation of their heritage.

By boosting agricultural productivity and creating systems that protect the livelihoods of tribes who depend on such productivity for their sustenance, the GEZ model of development offers an alternative to the fast-paced growth models that incur huge social costs in terms of loss of cultural heritage and practices. The model creates a discourse that shapes India as a land Ashis Nandy would refer to as a land ‘rich in its diversity’ (Nandy 2017). By protecting and providing for a cultural mélange, these models move policies away from a relentless pursuit of wealth, toward a desire to sustain the social, cultural and historical traditions that provide the Indian image with the richness of culture it is associated with (Nandy 2017).

Institutionalizing Cultural Continuity: The Adivasi Academy of Tejgadh

The state of Gujarat presents yet another technique of preserving cultural practices and ensuring cultural continuity.

Located in the Adivasi town of Tejgadh, Gujarat, this Academy is aimed at promoting the academic pursuit of tribal studies as a field of research and thereby preserve the traditional Adivasi practices.

The word ‘Adivasi’ carries in its essence, a reference to those communities whose presence in India has been argued as predating the dravidians (Guruswami 2016). In other words, these tribal communities possess perhaps the oldest seeds of cultural diversity in India. Theirs is a history of exploitation and displacement. The Adivasi leader, Jaipal Singh, in his speeches to the Constituent Assembly in 1946, raised such concerns. He spoke of the need to acknowledge and address the neglect of policy makers towards the Adivasi community. In the midst of those concerns he also placed his optimism and hope towards a newly independent sovereign nation. A gesture, the Indian policy makers respected in principle but not in practice (Guruswami 2016)

The Adivasi community still faces a daunting set of challenges. Their access to health and education is severely limited. Industrial expansion threatens to take over the lands they once called home and over 45% of the Adivasi community can be categorized as Below Poverty Line (BPL). Such looming challenges threatens not only their survival and their livelihood but also their cultural continuity. (Guruswami 2016)

The Adivasi Academy, through its institutional capacity serves to protect the Adivasi identity. Their activities are aimed at promoting and disseminating knowledge about Adivasi traditions and practices. Activities such as theatre performances, workshops and exhibitions provide a forum for the expression of a cultural identity brutally threatened by industrialization.

One particular initiative; Vasantshala is of prime relevance. Envisioned in 2005, this project created a learning environment at the primary school level such, that the high drop-out levels were drastically reduced. This was achieved by training Adivasi teachers in a pedagogy that promoted the use of Adivasi languages as a medium of instruction. Children are taught the government syllabus using a multi-lingual mode of instruction. In addition to having subjects such as art and craft, culture and ecology included in their education, this technique is proving successful in its capacity to inculcate the values of cultural heritage and continuity into the minds of young Adivasi children. Thus, the project offers a crucial insight; lingual continuity and cultural continuity might be more closely linked than we can fathom.

It can be argued that by acknowledging and advancing the field of tribal studies as an area of academic curiosity and pursuit, policy makers would be able to provide a boost for the protection and promotion of cultural diversity. Lingual continuity of tribal languages comes forth as a crucial strategy that needs to be adopted.

The Rule of Law: Comparative Models from Kerala and Orissa

A key component of a development narrative that attempts to encapsulate concerns that have been raised through this paper, is the rule of law. A Lockean argument in favor of the rule of law would be that it provides a framework of protection against the arbitrary use of authority (Jha 2010 ). This feature of a rule of law would then become a matter of paramount importance to ensure the protection and advancement of ecological and cultural continuity. It would be beneficial to engage with this argument through a case study;

The Dongria Kondh tribe of Orissa has been called upon in an earlier section. Let us consider their case once again. The paper has discussed their resistance to bauxite mining in the forests they dwell in. However, it would be beneficial to ask the question; why did their resistance matter?

Their resistance mattered because the process of granting leases to companies for mining and drilling had to be conducted under the ambits of a rule of law. The legislation in question is the ‘Recognition of Forest Rights Act’ of 2006. This Act calls for the formation of a ‘gram sabha’ or a community level political entity (village council), which was mandated (among other things) with passing a verdict in response to the needs of these companies. In the case in question, the body ruled against such needs. Of course, the verdict was not a final verdict, but it created a premise upon which the state (lease granting authority) would now take its decision 4.

However, the rule of law is as effective in protecting the interests of cultures as it is in not. Let us consider the case of the Kerala ST Amendment Bill 1996 to place this argument into perspective.

In 1996, Kerala unanimously passed the Kerala ST Amendment Bill. This was done amidst protests from Adivasi groups and those who supported their cause. The Amendment would enable all provisions under the Kerala State Amendment Bill of 1975 to be declared null and void. The latter called for the return of all those lands that had been transferred through engagements during the period of 1962-1982, to the Adivasi tribes who were recognized as the ‘original owners’ of the land (Viswanath 1997). Thus, the amendment proposed in 1996 was one that promoted a political discourse against the interests of the Adivasi groups and created systems of alienation.

Here, the argument can be made that the rule of law, powerful and effective as it is, has the capacity to both protect and harm the interests of endangered cultures. Thus, it is crucial to carefully decipher the implementation effects of the law. There is also a need to make decision making more participative and inclusive so as to provide a framework that can provide for and protect the pockets of diversity that India hosts (Nandy 2017)

In Conclusion

This paper thus makes the case that the Indian development narrative requires a deeper analysis and consideration of the social costs of economic prosperity. The displacement of tribes and the destruction of cultures fundamentally alter the ‘Indiannes’ that Ashis Nandy lays out (Nandy 2017).

India, then, must follow a path of development that creates self-sufficiency within the endangered cultures. Sustainable livelihoods can move these communities away from debt and dependency. The threat to cultural continuity must be duly acknowledged and institutionalized and lingual continuity must become a core strategy behind such efforts. Finally, the rule of law becomes crucial in the process of creating a system of protection from the arbitrary use of authority that may threaten and exterminate these communities and all that they stand for.

In her quest for economic power and prosperity, India must chart out a course distinct from the one the west has sailed. She must set sail toward a journey that allows the richness of culture to blossom. Her mainsail must capture the winds of growth while pockets of diversity suffuse her mast.


List of citations and references.

The author, Atharva Deshmukh, is a student of the Jindal School of International Affairs.

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