Skip to main content

Culture of poverty: Why are urban migrants yearning to their villages


By Moin Qazi*

Anthropologist Oscar Lewis, who travelled in India in the 1950s to assist the Planning Commission coined the phrase “the culture of poverty” which was lapped up by legislators and economists to deny what the villages needed to flourish. Since villages were considered inert, inefficient, backward, and lazy, it was thought it would be unwise to funnel our resources and energies to transform them, just keep them going with subsidies.
It has been an urban refrain for many years that agriculture pulls India’s economy down; that manufacturing is the way forward; that villages need to be urbanised, that they become an extension of cities. And for what?
To sustain cities because that’s where the future of India is. It’s beyond ironical that the future, in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic which has left deep scars on the urban psyche has shown how inefficient has been our urban planning, can only be saved by agriculture. The Indian economy is getting bailed out, in whatever limited measure, by villages through agriculture.
With thousands trekking back home after being made pariahs by their very people whose property and fortune they helped build, these migrants who had all along been captivated by the tinsel world have now seen the wisdom of their forefathers who remained firmly tethered to their native home and hearth.
When the ambitious Etawah project was launched with tremendous hope by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, it was expected that the country would soon achieve Gandhi’s dream of swaraj which he considered as “wiping every tear from every eye”. Since then we have rolled out a record number of programmes in trying to achieve a quick fix. Sadly, we have not been able to achieve even short fixes.
Most of these programmes were myopic and the state lacked the political will. Most of India’s rural development history has been marked by a lack of seriousness on part of the politicians and policymakers. The current pandemic has reversed the migration tide in a big way and the country will have to focus on long term planning. This would require a more nuanced understanding of the issues and the underlying dynamics.
The 21st century in India has been defined by grand utopian schemes that have brought disruption to millions, wrought by the negative consequences of faulty programmes and impractical schemes. Conventional development policy has always been driven by grandiose plans, moving from one big fix to another, one set of best practices and universal blueprints to the next.
Why do well-intentioned plans for improving the human condition go tragically awry? In his acclaimed book “Seeing Like a State”, James Scott argues that centrally managed social plans misfire when they impose schematic visions which encumber complex interdependencies that are not and cannot be fully understood.
The success of the design of any programme depends upon the recognition that local, practical knowledge is as important as formal, theoretical knowledge. Scott makes a persuasive case against “development theory” and imperialistic state planning that ignores the desires, values and objections of its “subjects”.
What we need instead are policy innovations tailored to local societal contexts, economic circumstances and political complexities. Two critical elements are (a) local solutions, particularly in areas like infrastructure – local roads and local water storage solutions like check dams, basic healthcare and primary education, and (b) trust in the innate ability and intelligence of the local community to understand and harness opportunities for their social and economic well-being.
Well-crafted development plans emanate through the mutual synergy of all stakeholders, and are identified, tested and sustained locally, not by professional technocrats spending huge sums to assemble and deliver them to beneficiaries as a charity handout or dole.
Familiarity with the local context is necessary for lasting impacts and outcomes. Several well-intentioned policies and programmes fail because they are not well grounded, leaving important gaps that cause unintended harm.
The development community seems constantly in search of a singular approach that will deliver “sustainable development”, unveiling new theories every few years only to toss them aside. The fundamental flaw with this system is that each new approach fails to break out of the underlying technocratic and specialised paradigm. We must acknowledge that there is no precooked blueprint for successful ground-level programmes. What we learn from one successful programme may supply the ingredients for the next, but a palatable recipe will need a cultivated blend suited to local demands.
There is so much diversity even in contiguous villages that a blueprint for one village may need a drastic change a short map’s distance away. So why does the replicating of successful models in diverse contexts continue to be a guiding mantra of development programmes?
When we look to specific experiences, searching for parallels, we must not also recognise the personal charisma of inspirational leaders, which is not facilely transferable; nor can passion be transfused.
Leadership remains the most vital element of the success of any new initiative. Leadership in rural development programmes is an art and people need insights that come after long and sustained empathetic engagement with communities. It is imperative that we appropriately reward and recognise good performance so as to further enhance it.
The failure of so many “normal” professional solutions points to the need to re-examine the perceptions and priorities of these professionals: the degree-bearing urban rich who define poverty and prophesy what should be done about it. The other need is to examine the perceptions and priorities of the poor themselves. Neither has received much attention in anti-poverty discussions.
Most such professionals – politicians, bureaucrats, scientists, academics, professionals, activists and others – have neither the time nor the incentive to examine their own predispositions, leave alone those of the poor. Development administrators, professionals, authors and writers strain themselves to burnish their credentials on rural development and planning.
They arrogate to themselves the right to hand out certificates on best practices. They shut themselves from the ground realities and give lengthy opinions on the basis of reports and statistics. Senior managers usually turn into glib talkers on poverty and underdevelopment, and tragically or by design, they are the ones who influence the directing of public policies and programmes.
If you want to serve the marginalised and underserved, and serve them reliably and consistently, your work should not end at providing clients with mere prescriptions. You have to remain partners with them during the entire project cycle. From the drawing board to delivery, you have to inhabit the product and the programme, living every detail as though it were a living, breathing organism.
You put so much of your life into this thing. There are such rough moments that I think most people give up. I don’t blame them. You have to be burning with an idea, or a problem, or a wrong that you want to right. If you’re not passionate enough from the start, you’ll never be able to achieve the desired goals.
We have to walk with our clients every step of the way with the right accoutrements and with hands-on support. Our active involvement can be ensured by making ourselves present, and by engaging meaningfully so that our actions are in sync with community wisdom in order to achieve maximum effect.
We need to build trust and rapport with the people we serve by working alongside them to develop practicable and sustainable solutions. It is preposterous simply to assume that we know best: this approach will justifiably scare the community away.
Consultants have for long been the key people in policy mechanics, and there have been glaring over-dependence on them. It is extremely necessary to moderate their reports with ground realities. Practitioners ask why, if the consultants are so confident of their advice and plans, they don’t simply execute these themselves. They change the old adage about teachers: “Those who can, do; those who cannot, consult.”
This should not however, prevent us from recognising the contribution of consultants in guiding several successful programmes. There is something of continuing value about bringing an outsider in. If the consultant is experienced, he or she can ferret out problems. Deep knowledge of the way many other organisations have handled similar problems can help provide solutions to the new context. In addition, consultants can act as disseminators of state-of-the-art expertise and practices in the academic and practitioners’ worlds.
Community development is not an academic discipline. Universities don’t offer clinical courses on the subject, nor is there a talisman for it. It may not be possible to locate a common denominator for a successful development manager. It may also not be possible to lay down a standard blueprint for a rural development programme.
But the development community does possess a vast trove of expertise and wisdom in advancing social change. Not all of it is accessible, locked as it is in people’s heads or within organisational memory. It is important to enabling access to these valuable insights in order to move the field forward. From their own experience, rural development veterans can spell out the ingredients for successful programme drivers. But local practitioners will have to work out their own recipes for blending these ingredients in the changeful right proportion.
If the primary focus is to transform the lives of communities driven to the margins, we must establish a partnership with them so that they learn from one another, and collaborate in pursuing common goals. It is also human nature to come together and fix problems.
As Verghese Kurien, the father of India’s Milk Revolution, repeatedly emphasised, “India’s place in the sun will come from a partnership between the wisdom of its rural people and the skill of its professionals.”

*Development expert

Comments

TRENDING

Although sporting genius, Wasim Akram was mascot of cricket globalisation era

By Harsh Thakor*  Since Independence India and Pakistan produced a galaxy of cricketing stars that permeated cricketing artistry of legendary heights. Amongst this bunch.Wasim Akram manifested pure cricketing genius to the greatest height.I speculate how India’s fortunes would have changed had partition not taken place and Wasim playing for India. Wasim Akram explored realms untranscended in bowling wizardry, like a painter devising new art forms or a scientist experimenting. He simply re-defined the art of reverse swing, reversing the ball in and out. There were bowlers quicker, more accurate and with better records, but none equalled Wasim in an all-round package. He was more lethal with a new and old ball than any fast bowler ever. Wasim could produce balls that were surreal, with his reverse swing, defying laws of bio mechanics He was simply the epitome of versatility, possessing a repertoire of six different deliveries within an over itself, disguising deliveries in the manner of

Zakir Naik tumult, Catholic Church power abuse: will Anwar Ibrahim save Malaysia?

Anwar Ibrahim By Jay Ihsan*  Anwar Ibrahim, a hardcore reformist who took a punch to his eye in 1998 from then inspector-general of police, Rahim Noor, has finally been given the mandate by Malaysians to serve as the nation's 10th prime minister. Anwar knows too well the burden of staying true to both trust and faith the people have in him requires every once of commitment and dedication. The question is will he be apologetic for his transgressions enroute to "rebuilding" Malaysia? In his overzealousness to get the job done, Anwar, 75, needs to safeguard every bit of gumption to address prickling issues plaguing the safety of the nation especially those involving communal sensitivities. For one, dare Anwar get rid of terrorist hate preacher and fugitive Zakir Naik for inciting religious unrest in Malaysia? In November 2016, India’s counter-terrorism agency filed an official complaint against Naik, holding him responsible for promoting religious hatred and unlawful activi

Galileo-Catholic church affair: must history repeat at Malaysia’s St Francis Xavier church?

By Jay Ihsan*  Christianity is the enemy of liberation and civilization -August Bebel Christianity taught men that love is worth more than intelligence -Jacques Maritain Real Christianity can be summed up in two commands: Love God and love people. - Joyce Meyer Pious XI was too neutral to mention the gas chambers; decent people like my own family were turned into devils by crude Christianity - Lionel Blue Religious doctrines cannot escape the liberty of thoughts and expression. To each their own, so it is said. From all things nice to all things that make one cringe - religion is polarised and in this regard, Christianity has over time faced the wrath of bigotry espoused by those "bequeathed" to protect it. Take Pope Francis for example. He had a secret meeting with giant pharma Pfizer chief executive officer Albert Bourla last year while the world struggled to make sense of the word "lockdown" and suffer adverse effects of the Corona virus vaccines produced by Pfiz

Qatar World Cup has a strong Bangladesh connection: stadium construction, t-shirts

By Mashrur Siddique Bhuiyan*  The FIFA World Cup fever has unquestionably cut through the minds of mass people all over the world. Stadiums in Qatar are buzzing with football fans and athletes representing their countries at the “Greatest Show on Earth". The magic of the FIFA World Cup is so enormous that even being unable to participate does not matter much to the fans who support different nations. This is one of the highest viewed events in the world, with the 2018 event viewed by about 3.6 billion people worldwide. But this crowd is not aware of the contribution of migrant workers who helped build the very stadiums where the matches are playing in. Qatar won the bid in 2010 to host the FIFA World Cup 2022, which got the oxymoron of celebration and controversy. This also created the potential for Qatar to Showcase its monumental economic achievements and unique culture on the global stage. The motto for Qatar’s bid team in 2010 was ‘Expect Amazing’ and migrant workers across th

A classic, 'Gandhi' ignores merciless cruelty unleashed on militant freedom fighters

By Harsh Thakor  The movie ‘Gandhi’ produced by Richard Attenborough, which was released 40 years ago on November 30th, 1982, was classic in it's own right. Ironical that it took an Englishman to embark upon the making of a film on this legendary figure. I can't visualize a better pictorial portrayal of Gandhi's life or an actor getting in the skin of the character an exuding the mannerisms as actor Ben Kingsley. Episodes are crafted and grafted surgically, illustrating how Gandhi wove fragmented bits into a cohesive force, to confront he British empire. Most boldly the movie unfolds how British colonialism subjugated the Indian people to barbaric cruelty. With great mastery the cinematography captures the vast Indian landscapes and essence of livelihood of Indians under colonial rule. The movie most illustratively shows the crystallisation of anti-colonial fervour from the embryonic stage and how it fermented into an integrated movement. In a most subtle manner it illustr

Implementing misleading govt order to pollute Hyderabad's 100 year old reservoirs

Senior activists* represent to the Telangana Governor on GO Ms 69 dated 12.4.2022 issued by the Municipal Administration and Urban Development (MA&UD), Government of Telangana: ‘...restrictions imposed under para 3 of said GO Ms 111 dated 8.3.1996 are removed...’: *** Ref: GO Ms 111 dated 8.3.1996: ‘To prohibit polluting industries, major hotels, residential colonies or other establishments that generate pollution in the catchment of the lakes upto 10kms from full tank level as per list in Annexure-I...’ We come to your office with grievance that GO Ms 69 dated 12.4.2022 issued by Government of Telangana not only contains false information issued ‘By Order and in the name of the Governor of Telangana’ , without any scientific or expert reports, but also that implementation of the said GO is detrimental and can be catastrophic to the Hyderabad city as two 100 year old reservoirs Osman Sagar and Himayath Sagar were constructed as dams on river Moosa and river Esa, with the first and

Film on evidence of viability of in situ communitarian urban water management

By Rahul Banerjee  Over the past few years it has become increasingly clear that centralised urban water management in India is in deep crisis. Water supply is both inadequate and extremely costly, water harvesting and recharging and used water treatment and reuse are mostly absent and storm water management is a disaster. Under the circumstances, the only viable solution is communitarian in situ water management and this is what has been proposed in the latest guidelines of both the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation and the Swacch Bharat Mission. Our NGO, Mahila Jagat Lihaaz Samiti , has not only implemented communitarian in situ water management but has also carried out research to provide evidence of the unviability of centralised water management and the suitability of the former. Here is a film based on a detailed research that I did on urban water management in Chhattisgarh for the National Institute of Urban Affairs, New Delhi, that succinctly critiques cen

Terrorism and right-wing politics in Bangladesh: Exploring the nexus

By Shafiqul Elahi*  Although terrorism as broadly understood as violent extremism or militancy has long historical roots, in Bangladesh, it surfaced in the 1970s through leftist militants. Later, it shifted to Islamist extremism in the 1980s and flourished throughout the 1990s, and reached its peak in the early 2000s. The menace of terrorism particularly in the form of Islamic militancy has widely been felt in Bangladesh's society and polity since 1999. Since then, several militant groups have gained ground and started to challenge the government over the issues of the political process and social systems in the country. The central goal of the operations of the militant groups is to establish an Islamic regime in the country. The Fifth Amendment of the Bangladesh Constitution under the Zia regime in the late 1970s and the eighth amendments of the Constitution under the Ershad regime in the early 1980s have placed Islam at the state level to recognize its importance in the country

Chemical project promoters of Tamil Nadu have a lot to learn from Gujarat

By NS Venkataraman*  When good investment opportunities in chemical industry exist which are known in a region and which are yet to be exploited, it can be said that the chemical industry in the region is at the cross roads. However, when there are good investment opportunities in chemical industry but which are ignored and focus shifted to some other sector, it can be said that the scenario amount to poor strategy. Tamil Nadu government has now fixed a target for achieving one trillion dollar economy in the state by 2030. This is a bold and forward looking initiative and certainly this target is achievable, even though the year 2030 is only seven years away. With the target of achieving one trillion dollar size economy, it is necessary to give due role and importance for the growth of the chemical industry, since several chemical products are feed inputs for several other industrial sector such as automobile, electronics, textile and so on. Growth of such chemical in

Floods: As ax falls on most vulnerable, Pak seeks debt cancellation, climate justice

By Tanupriya Singh  Even as the floodwaters have receded, the people of Pakistan are still trying to grapple with the death and devastation the floods have left in their wake. The floods that swept across the country between June and September have killed more than 1,700 people, injured more than 12,800, and displaced millions as of November 18. The scale of the destruction in Pakistan was still making itself apparent as the world headed to the United Nations climate conference COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in November.  Pakistan was one of two countries invited to co-chair the summit. It also served as chair of the Group of 77 (G77) and China for 2022, playing a critical role in ensuring that the establishment of a loss and damage fund was finally on the summit’s agenda, after decades of resistance by the Global North. “The dystopia has already come to our doorstep,” Pakistan’s Minister for Climate Change Sherry Rehman told Reuters. By the first week of September, pleas for h