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The Hindu on : On development and democracy

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Friday, September 03, 1999

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On development and democracy

By C. T. Kurien

HOW DOES one react when developmental projects become contentious and divisive issues? What will be one's position when the very concept of development is called into question? Recent events, especially the latest phase of the Narmada Bachao Andolan campaign and debates relating to it, have forced many to reflect on these questions.

There was, possibly, a stage when the concept of development appeared well-defined as an increase in national income, per capita national income, to be more accurate, and the way to achieve it was thought to be through an increase in capital formation by a stepping-up of savings and a reduction in population growth. Though this formulation was widely prevalent in official circles, economists themselves raised questions about it. Can countries desiring development achieve it on their own or will they have to rely on outside resources? Should the emphasis be on stepping up savings or on improving investment opportunities? Who should be the major agent concerned with development, the state or private enterprise? Should labour- abundant countries rely on labour-intensive technologies producing consumer goods or on investment goods and capital- intensive technologies? Is an increase in per capita income, which is only an indication of the average, an adequate index of development or should development aim at better distribution also?

These and other issues were discussed by economists themselves and have remained controversial. And, of course, anthropologists, sociologists and philosophers have had their views on what development is or ought to be. Development has thus always been a contested concept. One of the main contributions of Prof. Amartya Sen is to divert attention from development as resulting in an increase in goods and services to development as enhancing the capabilities and enlarging the freedom of people.

Indeed, the shift in emphasis from goods to people is one of the most radical changes in the approach to development. If the people are to be considered not only the beneficiaries of development but also those who define what development is, decide how it should be brought about and how the benefits must be shared, then there is a close connection between development and democracy. That democracy is rule for the people may easily be conceded but the claim that it is the rule of and by the people has implications which may not be readily accepted.

People will not passively accept what others are doing for them but would want to be actively involved in what is being done. People raise questions, they make noise, they challenge decisions, they mobilise to protect their interests. Democracy as a political order must not merely count people: it must permit them to express their aspirations, anguish and even anger. When it does, it can be highly destabilising. But if it does not, it can no longer be claimed to be the rule of the people. This is one of the dilemmas of democracy.

What does this mean for development? First, development means many things to many people. It may be growth for the economists and the new name for peace for the philosophically-oriented. But to vast millions it is a matter of life and livelihood. Those whose lives are adversely affected and whose livelihood is threatened by what others consider ``development,'' surely have a right to protest and organise to protect their interests. After all, those who have money and power and think of development as an opportunity to make more do the same when their interests are affected. They too protest, mobilise, oppose and even threaten. Protests against particular developmental projects and questioning concepts of development, even when they appear widely accepted, are very much the democratic rights of people - all people.

Second, the manner in which and the intensity with which people express their desires, claims and protests will vary. While at the bottom these are related to the claims and aspirations of individuals, seldom do they manifest as such. People come to know that democracy functions not through individuals, but through organised groups. Some search for and find readymade groups. Indeed, society is a collection of groups of various sorts. Others constitute groups of like-minded people, some small and shortlived, others emerging as large popular movements. But attempts to protect individuals are routed through groups. Democracy is not the rule of individuals, but of people. Individuals will become people only when they are with other individuals in some groups, formal or informal. Because individual interests that appear to have much in common are directed through groups, the expression of these interests takes different forms. For, groups differ in their composition, orientation and style of functioning. Some groups may wisely anticipate possibilities and be prepared for them. Others may react only when they are in trouble. Yet others may be in a position to manipulate things to their advantage.

In a democratic milieu, therefore, development never appears as a single defined objective, but as claims and counter-claims of a wide range and variety of groups. It is not possible to escape from this situation because democracy is the rule of the people. But democracy is not only of the people, it is rule by the people. And rule implies ordering, prioritising, selecting, rejecting and many more activities associated with rational decision-making and civilised behaviour. Democracy must let people be people. But if it does not become rule by the people, it will degenerate into mobocracy and worse. This is another democratic dilemma.

The crucial question, then, is whether democracy can at once be the rule of the people and rule by the people in dealing with development issues. A positive answer is possible as development is the concern of the people and people are essentially group oriented. This role assigned to groups in a democracy is often not appreciated because individualism has come to be identified with democracy and groups are considered anthithetical to it. But a group, whether it is as informal and intimate as a family or formal and organised as a trade union, is the locale through which individuals learn to surrender some of their self-interests for the sake of others and recognise the need for authority in inter-personal relationships. These are the first steps towards civilised behaviour and the search for a larger common good. Groups, thus, are sources of an experience of transcendence, recognition of and respect for the other that transforms individuals into persons. It is this experience that provides for the possibility of a collection of individuals becoming a rule of, by and for the people. Groups have the potential to serve as the basis for the democratisation of society and to be supporters of a democratic political order.

There is another side, though. Groups set boundaries drawing a distinction between those who are inside and those who are not, often treating the outsiders as hostile strangers. Where this happens to be the orientation and purpose of groups, they will become a threat to a broad-based democratic order. But this is not inevitable. Just as individuals experience transcendence within groups and accept larger common purposes, groups too can be made to recognise a larger common good.

This may not happen naturally. Educating of groups will have to be consciously attempted. Contentions and conflicts may still remain. Attempts must be made to reconcile them to the extent possible by constantly insisting that lives and livelihoods of all be secured and the search for the larger common good be sustained. This is the role of political parties which are the agents of governance in a democratic polity. That there can be and will be failures on all these fronts must be accepted. But democracy is essentially a learning process and lessons can be learned both from successes and failures. The learning process is never smooth. Where development is the development of the people and democracy is the rule of people, there is hardly an alternative.

(The writer is Professor Emeritus, Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai.)

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