India’s ‘weedy and unwieldy’ growth questions its development story

As the world turns more careful and looks to build with caution and care, the Indian State is going berserk in multiple directions with the goal of showing its strength outside India while ordinary Indians are getting the rough end.

Jagdish Rattanani Jul 03, 2024
Representational Photo

One way to make sense of the shocking roof collapse at Terminal 1 of New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport, or the monsoon flooding and road cave-ins in and around areas of the hastily-inaugurated Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, is to inquire into the idea of development that has taken root in India, broadly since liberalisation in 1991, and more particularly over the last ten years that the BJP has been in power. Given the political investments in the temple project, or the high visibility of the airport and the class of people who get hurt or inconvenienced, events like these hit the headlines. They bring attention to shoddy and hastily-designed development plans, which is good. But they equally distract attention from a host of development-led disasters that have been unfolding, slowly and quite unspectacularly, delivering disastrous changes in slow motion. These changes mostly go unnoticed because they appear so routine, so disconnected from each other, and come across as so unspectacular.

          For example, in Mumbai, the rush of gated community constructions has inevitably brought flooding in areas surrounding the new and high-priced apartments in these complexes, many built by influential and well-connected builder groups. The flood waters inevitably bring discomfort if not harm to those who have not moved out of their humbler dwellings, usually families with lesser means, so that there is a slow change in the character of bustling neighbourhoods, bringing with it growing and uneven suffering, changing aspirations and rising social inequities and tensions. The drama unfolds in bits and pieces. Some people die as pedestrians or motorists when trees fall on people or cars. Some others die as tree-cutters because they work without helmets or harnesses. This is standard protocol; the picture can be seen on the streets every day.

In Bengaluru, once noted as India’s “garden city” and now the IT services hub powering India’s global business presence, water leakage was reported at Terminal 2 of the Kempegowda International Airport after unusually heavy rains in May this year, a day that also saw water-logging across the city and a spate of tree collapses that also endanger life. Delhi has its own disasters seen in the flooding on its main roads, in the Gurugram development belt and in the most recent incident, the flooding of the Pragati Maidan underpass.

Lopsided development 

          The overall thrust of development is to get it done, to get it done now and to move ahead in a nation that is supposed to be racing on the path to growth amid an economic boom and supposed global dominance. Scale and speed are the favoured words, but in the absence of an understanding of and consensus on development, and what kind of development India ought to have, we have fancy airports and failing bus services sitting side by side side, or gleaming malls where lakhs are spent in a day and garbage dumps where workers have no protective gear or health insurance.

Worker protection in factories, haphazard construction in hilly terrains or sensitive ecological zones, fancier cars on logjammed roads, the story of rising NPAs and slackening banking services for ordinary customers while “wealth” customers get special attention are all reflections of a growth story that isn’t going well and cannot end well for India in the long term.

Mahatma Gandhi called this “weedy and unwieldy growth” and he had warned against it long before the dangers were visible to anyone at a time India became independent. In remarks dated Jan. 27, 1948, three days before he was assassinated, Gandhi noted that the nation “has won political freedom, but it has yet to win economic freedom, social and moral freedom.” Political freedom was easy, he argued – it was right in front as a goal to be achieved. But other freedoms “are harder than the political, if only because they are constructive, less exciting and not spectacular,” and so the hard work in building India was all waiting to be done. He raised then what remains the burning question of today: “How to get out of the weedy and unwieldy growth?” The “Father of the Nation” had warned that this would be a “difficult ascent to democracy … leading to corruption and the creation of institutions, (which were) popular and democratic only in name.”

That is the precise picture unfolding in the India of today.

Collapse of growth story?

As the world turns more careful and looks to build with caution and care, the Indian State is going berserk in multiple directions with the goal of showing its strength outside India while ordinary Indians are getting the rough end. In this light, the mishaps in Delhi and Ayodhya represent the smashing of the showcase and they signal the coming collapse of the story of growth. The pain and destruction that follow will have to be faced by the ordinary people.

This debate on the kind and quality of development is critical in India today. On the one hand is economic development seen mostly in a number, like the GDP growth of a nation, desperately seeking development as an objective concept to drive people to higher standards of living – a notion long challenged and since dismissed globally. On the other is a broader idea of development (the well-being dimension of growth) that includes health, education, environmental protection, worker safety nets and also material consumption. 

This broader approach gives us the UN’s Human Development Index, by which standards India sits at rank 134 out of 193 countries, below countries such as Bangladesh, South Africa, Sri Lanka. Similarly, India’s NFHS draws attention to development indices, like measuring how many of our children are anaemic, which would be an indication of poor health and the tendency to a higher U5MR number (Under Five Mortality Rate). Just seven Indian states (Sikkim, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Tripura, UP, Uttarakhand, West Bengal) report less than 50% of children under the age of five years as anaemic. India cannot have sustainable growth with this kind of NFHS statistics.

In the classic ‘Freedom as Development’, Amartya Sen noted: “Development requires the removal of major sources of unfreedom: poverty as well as tyranny, poor economic opportunities as well as systematic social deprivation, neglect of public facilities as well as intolerance or overactivity of repressive states. Despite unprecedented increases in overall opulence, the contemporary world denies elementary freedoms to vast numbers – perhaps even the majority - of people.” This wisdom is well studied and age-old by now. India will do well to heed it.

(The writer is a journalist and faculty member at SPJIMR, Mumbai. Views are personal. By special arrangement with The Billion Press)

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