A people-first development agenda for India

Sanjay Kaul proposes a set of focus areas for the country’s development while offering a way forward to activate the recommendations made.

Published : Nov 30, 2023 11:00 IST - 7 MINS READ

A meeting of self-help groups promoted by Sri Kshetra Dharmasthala Rural Development Project in Mangaluru, Karnataka, in June 2021.

A meeting of self-help groups promoted by Sri Kshetra Dharmasthala Rural Development Project in Mangaluru, Karnataka, in June 2021. | Photo Credit: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

For economic growth to be truly inclusive, and for all aspects of human life to flourish, human needs in all their diversity must be at the centre of what we call development. In his new book, An Alternative Development Agenda for India, Sanjay Kaul offers an actionable set of recommendations for such an approach to people-centred development.

An Alternative Development Agenda for India
By Sanjay Kaul
Routledge India
Pages: 211
Price: Rs.1,295

Kaul begins by pointing out that conventional approaches to GDP growth have not solved India’s critical human problems. Inequality has persisted; health and education indicators remain matters of great concern; there are acute and persistent gender disparities. Despite some progress, India still grapples with high levels of child mortality and malnutrition. A substantial section of the population remains food-insecure. Coupled with all these are low employment levels, poor levels of women’s workforce participation, and a rapidly increasing urban population, some of whom survive in appalling, even unliveable, conditions.

For India to achieve sustained economic development, it is essential to address livelihood issues and human development. Furthermore, contends Kaul, only large-scale planned urbanisation can lead to the required number of jobs. Towards a “people first” approach, the book proposes a set of clear focus areas for the country’s development agenda: health, nutrition and food security, early childhood, school education, livelihoods, gender, and urbanisation. The book also offers a practical and sustainable way forward to activate its recommendations.

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Administrators tend to see people as aggregates, statistics, and files; but every individual life matters, and it matters in all its complexity and individual context. Gandhi reminded us of this in the talisman he gave in one of the last notes he left behind, in 1948: to “recall the face of the poorest and the weakest person whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to them. Will they gain anything by it? Will it restore them to a control over their own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions?”

Policy design would be qualitatively better if seen through this prism of individual humanity: that is real people, with real problems and complex lives. Adopting this approach, Kaul asks us to imagine the everyday struggles in the life of an imagined tribal family from rural interior India in Jharkhand.

Birsa and Rasika Oraon have three children, Komal, Bindu, and Shibu, aged 8 years, 3 years, and 5 months respectively. They also had a fourth child who died as an infant, at the age of 3 months. Birsa and Rasika work as wage labourers. Sometimes the middle child misses attending the anganwadi; sometimes the older child must miss school because she has to look after the siblings. Sometimes Rasika is so trapped in her daily struggles that she does not take the baby for the scheduled vaccination. This narrative of the everyday struggles of a poor tribal family vividly humanises the issues discussed in the book, such as irregular immunisation, poor nutrition, and child mortality.

Building bridges, restructuring policy design

A key theme in the book is the need to build bridges and partnerships while meaningfully restructuring policy design. Human development requires the joint work of many actors: the state, frontline workers, civil society, families, and communities. Kaul advocates bringing a holistic and inclusive approach, and a sense of connectedness, to public policy.

The chapters on the young child and school education underline the importance of securing the well-being of the next generation. The discussion of the work of frontline workers and the need to improve their working conditions is welcome, both for their own welfare and for the impact it will have on their work.

Kaul points out that to achieve a “people first” agenda, people and communities must be involved in planning and decision-making. This requires consultations with local civil society and non-governmental organisations. It also means empowering local bodies and communities.

Kaul contends that large-scale planned urbanisation is the inevitable way forward for India. Cities and their governance are not yet geared up for this urban future. People coming to the cities from remote interior districts in faraway States are part of the city’s workforce and its human foundation, but even 30 years after the 74thAmendment to the Constitution, their needs are often invisible to policy.

Urban governance is often regarded even by so-called urban sector experts as involving mainly roads, drainage, and transport. This leads to the gaps in public service provision in urban areas remaining invisible—whether in health, nutrition, early childhood care and development, school education, housing, or sanitation.

The SHG movement

In a book about people-centred development, it is heartening to see an entire chapter devoted to gender. Kaul points to evidence from the self-help group (SHG) programme and the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) about promoting savings in poor households and leveraging the SHG movement by shifting microcredit to livelihood finance instead of the current system that only meets consumption needs. He also points to the need to pass into law numerous constitutional provisions that prohibit gender discrimination.

He gives the example of the reservation of 50 per cent of teacher posts for women under the Operation Blackboard scheme (initiated in 1987-88), which led to a massive increase in the number of women teachers. An enabling environment for enhancing women’s work participation at higher levels of the value chain, he emphasises, would improve women’s empowerment and the quality of their lives, as well as have a multiplier effect on economic growth.

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One aspect of 21st century governance that surely merits greater attention in a book about people-centred development is the growing use of technology to deliver social welfare services. It has been recognised that technology can address the problem of inclusion errors, but it can also centralise processes, sometimes leading to exclusion. Another area that one would have liked to see in the book is rural local governance and how policy should evolve to meet the needs of rural communities. On urbanisation and circular migration, one must ask how the architecture of urban governance can be expanded to mainstream circular migrants into the processes of development.

Kaul is a development analyst with four decades of combined experience in the civil service and the corporate sector. He has worked in various areas of development, including health, education, child development, nutrition, food, agriculture, and industry. He led the working group that produced Karnataka’s Human Development Report (1999), the first such report to be produced by a State government. He recently chaired the government of India’s Taskforce on Early Childhood Care and Education. His association with reputed organisations like the Karnataka Health Promotion Trust and Mobile Creches,  along with varied public and private sector experience, gives him a unique perspective not only into what can be done but also how to make it happen on the ground.

Kaul notes that flawed policy design and weak implementation continue to be major challenges of social welfare policies: “It is equally crucial to be conscious of governance structures, bureaucratic capacity, and political realities. The government must prioritise as it too has limited ‘bandwidth’; its capacity is often needlessly stretched because it tries to do too many things. A fundamental challenge for policymakers is to identify strategies and programmes that both make for good economics and have broad electoral appeal.” In an appendix, he presents his estimate of the annual budget required to implement these proposals, which translates to about 2 per cent of the GDP.

A final word about the dedication of the book. It is dedicated to the memory of Anita Kaul, another extraordinary civil servant, who believed, as we all should, that making development responsive to human needs does not have to remain a utopian dream. 

Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta is in the IAS. 

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