The students of our course in ICT4D and others from the MSW(Master’s in Social Work) had been for a 1.5 day workshop on Development in Melkote, near Mysore. An extremely beautiful place, we were situated in a place called Hosa Jeevana Dhari, which is one of the last remaining places where the ‘Sarvodaya‘ principle of Gandhi is being kept alive. It was run by a Gandhian named Surendra Kaulagi, and now by his son Santhosh Kaulagi. Surendra was a close associate of Jayaprakash Narayan and one of few surviving people who has actually interacted with J. C. Kumarappa.
Ashok Rao (to the right) is the professor and head of the ICT4D program we study in. The program started with Ashok Rao introducing the issue, which is the need to deliberate on the much maligned word called ‘development’ which causes chills to run down the spines of tribals and the underprivileged classes, and discuss alternate sustainable paths. Unlike the IIM workshop, this one actually managed to answer some of the questions posed on the first day.
The starting talk, which Kaulagi delivered, talked about the two paradigms which are in front of us today: one is Manmohanomics and the other Kumarappa’s view of the same subject. No one disagrees with the fact that mainstream development which is represented by Manmohan Singh today is unsustainable, if nothing atleast because it is over-reliant on natural resources (there is also the issue of what individuals contribute to this, but that is for later). Nature is seen as something to be exploited for human welfare. Kumarappa proposed a radically different view, which placed nature at the centre of all development, and which allowed people who were closest to nature (agriculturists and the like) to live in dignity without having to bow down to the dictates of an insensitive market.
Kumarappa’s and Gandhi’s vision were ridiculed and eventually replaced by Western ideologies like socialism and liberalism, but Kaulagi mentioned that neither Gandhi nor Kumarappa were shakeable in their vision, and always maintained until the end that this was the correct way to get things done. The main take-away for me from this talk was the answer to the following question: why did Gandhi and Kumarappa hold so firm to what they believed in ? Did not J. S. Mill state that we don’t know the entire truth, and therefore should not impose our beliefs elsewhere? Kaulagi mentioned that this steadfastness comes from an intimate understanding of the empirical facts: Gandhi and Kumarappa had spent many a year roaming about India to understand it from a ‘earthworm view’, so to speak. Kaulagi is a living example of such a breed, and holds those views with clarity that a professor from Columbia had to make clear for the academic world, that too from India: Be an example while holding on steadfastly to your principles.
But if you notice, there is hardly any part of our academia or education which stresses the importance of this perspective. Professors of development would never have spent years understanding people by interacting with them, nor does our education make us understand things by making us do things with our hands. Development occurs with people stating facts and figures and surveys, not stating what the people who are the eventual ‘beneficiaries’ think or know or care about. In fact, there is an entire legion of academicians who think that they can athoritatively speak about subjects, especially those as sensitive as development without ever being close to their objects of study, and interacting with them only as statistics (Planning Commission and Montek Singh Ahluwalia, anyone ?).
This kind of ‘study’ can be justified when we look at people in terms of compartments: material and normative. The material well-being can hardly have much correlation with the normative space. However, if we are convinced that development in material well-being (however that may happen) is most important and forget that people also require a certain set of values (especially considering that we are social in nature) to live a good life, then we can do Manmohanomics without much ado. If we are to widen our epistemic scope, then things look different. If we say that human welfare is intimately related to money and more of it means better, then Bangalore is a shining example of perfect development. If we say that people need more than material well-being to lead a good life, then Timbaktu is a better example.
The values that economics holds is still the utilitarian type, which is extremely different from what other people hold. Therefore, when the fundamental reasons for material well-being ( fulfillment of higher needs) are different, it can hardly be the case that one can hold with conviction to his/her values when all initiatives seem to mysteriously not work as planned. It is like teaching programming to someone who wants to learn MS-Office because you are a passionate programmer. All your efforts at making your students excellent programmers will fail, and you begin to wonder whether programming is for everyone. If you had bothered to spend some time with your students, then you would have understood that they hold music and dance or something else more dear than learning C and C++.
People in academia shape policy by their grandiose pronouncements on society and individuals. Therefore, it is imperative that they spend enough time in the right places to gain the conviction that their approach and views are correct, rather than vacillating knowing that the only thing you know are numbers.