Four Glaring Holes in Modi’s ‘Vikas’ Agenda

19 November 2015

India needs a clear set of priorities that are driven by people’s ‘rightful share’ of national wealth. However, the set of domestic policies and programmes pursued by its government will produce neither inclusive, nor sustainable development.

A man walks past a 2014 election poster in Kochi, Kerala. Credit: Owen Young,/Flickr CC 2.0

A man walks past a 2014 election poster in Kochi, Kerala. Credit: Owen Young, Flickr
The Bihar Assembly election results stand testament to the holes in Modi’s ‘development’ agenda. It is increasingly characterised by high-handedness, lack of on-the-ground impact, and its continued reliance on mundane acronyms and ‘sound bites’. It’s lack of appeal became obvious in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s campaign strategy where the prime minister repeatedly attempted to evoke a fear amongst the Hindu majority of ‘the other community’ (read Indian Muslims).

James Ferguson’s beautifully crafted new book on people’s “rightful share” is based on how the populist, even racialised and belligerent politics of South Africa is reshaping the paradigms of redistribution of national wealth and income. Through careful application, the book might also offer us a very useful lens through which we can understand the processes at play in India under Modi. Ferguson cites the example of the South African politician Julius Malema, who vociferously champions the universalisation of ownership and sharing of national wealth – specifically, land and minerals. He argues that the stance politicians like Malema take has the potential to radically galvanise the paradigms that guide redistributive policies around people’s rights as citizens, and not around the de-politicised notions of neoclassical economic growth.

Though both Malema and Modi are strong voices indicative of the rising powers of the BRICS nations, the former’s appeal arguably emerges from the very real and recent histories of apartheid. Modi’s divisive agenda, on the other hand, is underpinned by a desire to communalise the electorate along fears that are largely imagined.

It is now clear that Modi’s strategy in Bihar failed at a monumental scale – the BJP struggled to win only 20% of the seats in the Assembly. The result can partly be explained by the rich complexities of caste and class politics in Bihar. I believe, however, that Modi has been in power long enough for the electorate to set his promises of ‘development’ against the glaring holes in his domestic policies and programmes.

In my view his ‘development agenda’ fails on four counts.

The poor

Notwithstanding all of the fanfare surrounding Modi’s development focus, India still accounts for the largest single share of the income poor – 35% of the world’s $2 per day poor people are Indian. The miracle GDP growth talked about by Modi ignores the fact that an astounding 61 million children, that is nearly half of all children under five in India, are stunted due to chronic under-nutrition. This implies a child-stunting rate higher than much of sub-Saharan Africa (48% in India compared to approximately 44% in Chad for example). One of the simplest answers to why this might be points to an unhealthy combination of the impact of open defecation (on average, a child in Chad is exposed to about seven neighbours who defecate in the open per square kilometre, while in India over 200 people per square kilometre defecate in the open), combined with a low status of women who lack the ability to influence child care and ultimately infant and child health outcomes. Modi’s development package announced for Bihar, for example, lacked focus on the chronically poor. What is more worrying, is that in a bid to portray a glorified image of Indian development, the BJP government is suppressing vital data on malnutrition from getting into the public domain.

Law and order

The policing system in India is struggling – there is just one police officer for every 1037 Indian residents, and roughly 85% of those police personnel receive next to no significant training in criminal investigation or crime fighting skills. This is far below Asia’s regional average of one police officer for 558 people and the global average of 333 people. The story gets worse: 90% of police station staff in India work for more than eight hours a day, and a significant majority of police stations across the country have personnel who work for 11 or more hours a day. A recent study by the Bureau of Police Research and Development found that nearly 80% of police officers have some debilitating health problem like joint pain due to long hours of standing. The same study found that 73% of police officers do not get even one day in the month as ‘weekly off’, and in the odd chance that they do get a day off, they are almost certain to get called back on emergency duties.

Outrage over police malpractice and incompetence spilt out onto the streets as thousands demonstrated following the news of a brutal gang rape of a young woman in Delhi in late 2012. That outrage seems to have now largely dissipated, and to the little extent issues of a broken criminal justice system enter political debates, they are unfortunately only geared towards the naming and shaming of police incompetence and malpractice – a strategy tuned more towards gaining media attention, rather than looking towards systematic and sustainable solutions of police reform. In contrast to this gimmickry, the task at hand is enormous: even an additional 300,000 nationally recruited police officers would not get India anywhere close to the UN prescribed police-population ratio of 222 personnel per 100,000 population. Living with fear or the threat of violence is becoming a daily reality for millions of Indians, but Modi has not given any indication thus far – other than to coin another gimmicky acronym – that this critical area is a priority for him.

Gender equality

While much hue and cry was raised about the ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’ programme (a scheme aimed at improving the woeful child sex ratio which currently stands at an all time low of 919), the government’s stance on gender equality is limited. At its core, the BJP has not shown any new energy in this regard, and continues to be hampered by a male dominated political structure. In the 16 times that the lower house of India’s Parliament has been formed since independence, the highest number of seats that women have held, 65 – marginally above 11% – is in the current parliament, but this remains almost exactly the same as the last UPA-led parliament. Compare this to Saudi Arabia (19.9%), Pakistan (20.7%), Sudan (24.3%), or Angola (36.8%). While the number of women in Parliament is not an end in itself, such a low percentage is emblematic of political functioning that cannot, or will not, prioritise women’s empowerment. A clear example of this is the forestalling of a constitutional amendment, which seeks to reserve 33% of seats for women, for nearly 20 years. Even in his close circles, Modi has appointed only 6 women amongst 26 Cabinet Ministers, and only 8 women out of a 64 member Council. And this despite more women voting than men in 16 out of the 29 Indian states, and more than 260 million women nationally exercising their right to vote in the 2014 election. Equality however is not a priority for Modi.

(Un)inclusive cities

For the first time, India has reported higher population growth rate in its urban centres than its vast rural landscape. Over the last decade, India’s urban population grew by over 90 million, representing a 31.8% increase. This was 2.6 times the corresponding decadal rise of 12.18% for the rural population. In this, the focus invariably falls on India’s mega-cities, like Mumbai, where billions are being invested in large-scale infrastructure projects like new airport terminals and double-decker flyovers. And yet, the real story of urbanisation in India may lie far from the purported glamour of megacities: there has been a 54% increase in the number of small towns (from 5,161 in 2001 to 7,935 in 2011). These small and medium sized towns have tiny revenue bases, face low rates of investment, and are beleaguered by crippled basic services. What bursts Modi’s “growth and development” bubble most poignantly is that in Tier II towns there has been next to no job creation, limping at between 2-5%, and as a result less than 50,000 new homes have been built and absorbed across the top 8 Tier II towns in India. If this is the situation in the majority of urban India, where will the miracle GDP growth figures come from?

The figures are worse for the poorest quartile of India’s urban population: only 40% of 12- to 23-month-old children are completely immunised, 54% of under-five year-olds are stunted, 82% do not have access to piped water at home and 53% do not use a sanitary flush or pit toilet. To add to this, Delhi is the most polluted city on this planet. A further five Indian cities feature in the infamous list of top-ten most polluted cities (these include Patna, Gwalior, Raipur, Lucknow, and Modi’s own Ahmedabad). The urban challenge is therefore vast and multi-dimensional, and strains the very idea of citizenship in Indian cities. In this context, Modi’s fixation on ‘Smart Cities’ and sweeping the streets for ‘Swachh Bharat’ seems completely mismatched with the very real struggles of urban life.

Righting the wrongs highlighted by these four staggeringly large sets of interconnected numbers is not insurmountable. Using Ferguson’s language, they spell the need for a very clear set of priorities that are driven by people’s ‘rightful share’ of national wealth. However, the set of domestic policies and programmes pursued by the Modi administration indicate a worldview that is neither inclusive, nor is it likely to produce sustainable development. Modi’s reverence of governance via 140-characters on Twitter, and tendency to either saffronise any and all issues, or blame past governments for his own inabilities, are proving yet again that for development, his party politics and power are dangerous bedfellows.

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