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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

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