Mantras for a New India


Moin Qazi – TRANSCEND Media Service

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
— Franklin D. Roosevelt

25 Sep 2017 – In India, the priorities of village people are constantly undergoing changes. These   are, in fact, a result of the changes the development landscape is undergoing. A generation or two ago, ending hunger would have been the overwhelming need. Not any more even if malnutrition remains a challenge. Development also has brought electricity, more roads, pumps and overhead tanks — all non-existent a generation or two ago.

But we haven’t woken up to the reality that the effective maintenance of these assets and the effective provision of services is what are now needed. Nothing so cruelly mocks village India as electricity in the wires but bulbs  which don’t switch on; or pumps costing several thousand rupees rendered idle because a five rupee rubber washer needs replacement. We give Harijans free pucca houses because they cannot build their own. Yet how many of them suffer from substandard construction and water seepages we don’t care.   .it is time we ask the people what they want. Or, better still, leave it to the people to ask each other what they want and then decide themselves how they want to spend their resources.

Development economists acknowledge that the poor act rationally, however straitened their circumstances. If their undertakings are too small, or their efforts too thinly spread, to be efficient, it is not because they have miscalculated, but because the markets for land, credit or insurance have failed them. Good management of even the smallest asset can be crucial to very poor people, who live in precarious conditions, threatened by lack of income, shelter and food. To overcome poverty, they need to be able to borrow, save and invest, and to protect their families against adversity they need to be insured. With little income or collateral, poor people are seldom able to obtain loans from banks and other formal financial institutions.

For serving the poor and underserved, both reliably and consistently, a new development approach will have to be designed ones that treat the rural poor not as objects of charity, but that holds the development administration   accountable and   responsive to their needs. This is only possible when the instruments and institutions of development are placed in the hands of the poor. Although imported programmes have the benefit of supplying “pre-tested” models, they are inherently risky because they do not grow out of local culture and may not take root when transplanted. Home-grown models have greater chances of success.

For development interventions to catalyze fundamental change, they have to engage with people’s identity and values, whether they be individuals, communities, organizations or indeed nations. A participatory process helps ensure, a greater degree of local ownership, more active engagement by local people and increased reliability and quality assurance. It also helps overcome some of the ethical issues around such processes, including agreeing on its scale and scope, who is involved, and who has access to the data.

None of us knows when the skills we have polished in the day-to-day routine become exactly what are needed in a given moment.  So we have the story of David and goliath that offers a very powerful inspirational lesson. A sling shot might be considered a simple weapon; but it is the weapon David had experience with, and he effectively used it in the standoff with Goliath. David hadn’t gone to the camp so he could save the day. He was a shepherd who simply, but magnificently, used the skills he had honed through daily practice.

How important it is for each of us to value the qualities and skills we have polished in our daily endeavors, without comparing them to the accomplishments of anyone else. Many times in history a humble idea has paved the way for substantial movement of thought and action in a difficult situation. It really is humility of the right sort to recognize and value the role each one plays in bringing healing solutions to the events of our day.

The development community in India has a vast trove of expertise and wisdom on advancing social change. However, not all of it is accessible, locked as it is in people’s heads or within organisations. It is important to enable access to these valuable lessons, insights and decisions in order to move the field forward.

Most of the governments reports on several development programmes as on the education system in villages are based on cooked up figures .However, this rarely finds its way onto the record. Principals telling the truth are likely to be penalized for “poor performance”. Better to cook up the numbers.  That is how governments lie to themselves .An officer recording figures honestly will be seen as an inefficient one. More so when a neighbouring district produces figures that are music to the ears of the government. The junior officials have to tweak the figures before submitting them to the district headquarters. Officers filing cheery reports become the favoured boys of the management.

What is needed most of all is moral leadership willing to build solutions from the perspectives of poor people themselves rather than imposing grand theories and plans upon them.  . Big ideas that are impractical and are not shared by the people who implement them are doomed to failure. Rather, what is needed is leadership that understands how to facilitate the process of idea creation within the context of a community.

Programmes can be more effective when issues and problems are identified by the people.   Though well thought, externally introduced projects can help development, absence of people’s active involvement and linking these projects with their problems, such projects will most likely not be sustained.   When villages organize, identify needs and communicate problems, the community becomes the solution.

Amartya Sen has consistently struck with his stand   that “growth rate is a very daft—and a deeply alienated—way of judging economic progress.” Sen and Drèze warned as early as 1995 that reforms that boost growth, though important, were not enough to improve the living conditions of the poorest, let alone dismantle caste and gender hierarchies and generate employment. They “have to be supplemented by a radical shift in public policy in education and health.” They wrote.   Bangladesh, which is only half as rich as India measured by per capita income, now exceeds India in, among other social indicators, life expectancy, child mortality, and immunization.

India needs to bring in the poor to the conversation. Interventions that take the end user into account almost always have better success rates than top down decision-making ones. When poor communities think at the human level, all their goals are interconnected. But under the internationally conceived top-down model, communities are not treated as equal partners, and the goals have been compartmentalized into project mode, to suit donors and governments. Where possible, I think it’s much better to support local groups rather than those international organizations, as the locals cost much less than foreigners and they usually have a much better idea of what people need. Outside aid prevents people from searching for their own solutions, while corrupting and undermining local institutions and creating a self-perpetuating lobby of aid agencies.

The most powerful weapons for reducing poverty are policy instruments that benefit poverty reduction without in any way harming the dominant coalition of political power   . If a set of instruments harms the interests of the dominant coalition, it will not be implemented, even if it is known to reduce poverty. Advocacy for poverty reduction must mean not only advocacy for instruments that we know will lead to this outcome, but also for a realignment of the dominant coalition in a way that will orient it to the interests of the poor. We should alternately advocate for empowerment of the poor so that they can indeed challenge the dominant interests, and reengineer alliances in a way that will make possible policies and interventions for poverty reduction.

During the last several decades, Third World governments, backed by international aid organizations, have poured billions of dollars into cheap-credit programmes for the poor, particularly in the wake of the World Bank’s 1990 initiative to put poverty reduction at the head of its development priorities. And yet those responsible for such transfers had, and in many cases continue to have, only the haziest of ideas of what they achieved, and how their interventions could have been better designed to achieve real impact.

The international poverty industry is worth trillions of US dollars a year. It’s bursting with experts, advisors and consultants. There is a surfeit of reports studies, books publications, PhD grants, consultancies, loans. Rural development is now becoming an old-fashioned cause.   It is now dominated by a new breed of savvy professionals calling themselves development experts. Social entrepreneurship is another of its kin and has become the bandwagon everybody is clambering on and every progressive politician across the country wants a piece of the development pie? There is big money in these development projects .What the new bandwagon implies is, a new way of development in the villages.

Although imported programmes have the benefit of supplying ‘pre-tested’ models, they are inherently risky because they may not take root in the local culture when transplanted. Home-grown models have greater chances of success. The hundreds of millions of households who constitute the rural poor are a potential source of great wealth and creativity who, under present institutional, cultural and policy conditions, must seek first and foremost their own survival. Their poverty deprives not only them but also the rest of us of the greater value they could produce if only they were empowered and equipped with the right tools.

I saw villages that enjoyed a dramatic increase in crop yield and incomes after agricultural scientists advised farmers on watershed techniques—a fancy term for digging ditches so good that soil is not washed away. While it will not solve India’s deep-rooted agriculture problems, better information can significantly boost food production and rural incomes.

If only they could be convinced that building the foundations for development, such as constructing water-harvesting structures, or investing in good breed animals for future dairy profits, was of equal importance to that of building the a community well, then rapid changes in the livelihoods of the people could happen.

The “bottom up” approach, which is being repeatedly emphasized in the development discourse, is about living and working with the poor, listening to them with humility to gain their confidence and trust. It cannot be bought and manipulated with money, or by grafting urban assumptions of development which will destroy existing workable low cost structures. It is about respecting and implementing the ideas of the poor, encouraging them to use their skills and knowledge for their own development. It is about taking a back seat and providing the space for them to steer themselves.

We now have the techniques and resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.


Moin Qazi, PhD Economics, PhD English, is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment and author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker. He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades in India and can be reached at


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 25 Sep 2017.

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