“Locking the stable after the horses bolt” is an old saying that seems to apply to many decisions concerning development in India. Among them are the decisions about river dredging and river cleansing. A decision has been taken to dredge the Brahmaputra to reduce floods and facilitate navigation and water transport.
The Ganga is being cleaned for three decades and the present Union Government has formed a Ministry for the purpose, thus indicating that this action will continue for at least a few decades. They are among the examples of locking the stable after the horses bolt. They deal with the symptoms of the disease and ignore the causes.
The rivers are silted because of deforestation in their catchment area. According to experts like Prof Madhav Gadgil, it has resulted in their level rising by ten to fifteen metres and that is the main cause of excessive floods and droughts in recent decades. The solutions found of building bunds and dredging the Brahmaputra without any other preventive measures deal with the consequences of deforestation, not the cause.
They can keep the contractors busy for many decades because siltation will continue unabated and constant dredging will be required if the cause is not addressed through massive reforestation in the catchment area. Similarly, rivers are polluted because the drainage system of cities let industrial and human waste flow into them. Instead of finding alternatives to it, the planners keep cleansing the Ganga. Ways have to be found of preventing such pollution by recycling human, industrial and solid waste. But very little is being done in this regard.
As water gets polluted, those who can afford it can switch over to bottled water. But they are beyond the reach of 50 per cent of Indian villages that do not have a source of clean drinking water within two kilometres. Polluted water is a major cause of water borne diseases. Hardly anything is done to prevent it.
Prescribing more medicines may help the pharmaceutical industry. But the patient has to go back to the same polluted water and return to the doctor with more water borne ailments or respiratory diseases caused by air pollution. Such diseases do not have a permanent solution if pollution is not prevented.
Measures that deal with the symptoms have been the norm in health care beginning from the 1950s and it has remained unchanged since then. DDT was sprayed to prevent malaria. BCG injections were administered against tuberculosis. DDT can be effective if side by side action is taken to clean the swamps and other sources that produce mosquitoes. Those steps were almost non-existent so the water bodies kept generating more mosquitoes that have got immunised to DDT.
Instead of disappearing today malaria has become a menace in many regions of the country and kills tens of thousands of people every year. While administering BCG very little attention was paid to its causes such as malnutrition. Today more than 100,000 persons are estimated to be dying of TB every year and India has the biggest number of people in the world going to bed hungry. Last year India was 100 in the hunger index among 119 countries, much below Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
A similar approach seems to be followed in the Swachh Bharat campaign. Its focus is on building toilets and declaring a district or State “open defecation free” (ODF) without proper auditing. A decade ago the country was told that 67 per cent of Indian households were ODF. But the 2011 census showed that it was true of only about 29 per cent of them. What happened to the rest?
Studies show that since the toilets was better than their house, many families used them as their store rooms and even as temples. Some studies indicate that in order to declare households ODF today toilets are built without drainage and other facilities. Such structures are of no use to the people. The statement about dealing with symptoms is true also of many other schemes like education.
These efforts are laudable no doubt but they cannot solve the problem. One believes that they belong to what some scholars call a “soft state” that attempts an easy way out of complex and difficult situations. India has opted for a technology-based approach to development which its decision-makers interpret only as economic growth and infrastructure building.
Today development is judged according to GDP growth alone. Human a social growth is neglected. Its result is a growing gap between the rich and the poor between high and low castes, rich and poor and men and women. A recent study shows that as a result 1 per cent of the population owns 50 per cent of the country’s resources. Riches grow, so do inequalities.
About 30 per cent of the population gets its benefits but an equal number goes to bed hungry, lacks health care and access to education. Child labour is rampant among them. Such development also results in environmental degradation.
The solution is not to abandon development but to make it people and environment friendly. One can learn much about social development from East Asian giants like the two Chinas, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. They invested much in employment generating industries and at the same time allotted 10 to 15 per cent of their GDP to education, health, nutrition and hygiene.
They thus prepared most of their population for the benefits of development. India on the contrary concentrated on technology and invested in development understood as infrastructure building alone. It spent less than 6 per cent of the GDP on the social sector. Even the focus of this sector was on specialized urban institutions rarely accessible to the poor. The rural sector was neglected. The situation has deteriorated in recent years because of focus on GDP as the sign of growth and development. Investment in the social sector has gone below 5 per cent.
To solve these issues one has to first question the present paradigm that excludes the poor from the benefits of development. The caste and gender based unequal Indian society ensures that its benefits reach the already powerful and exclude the poor.
Overuse of the natural resources by those who get its benefits destroys the environment and causes greater poverty among the already poor. A way out of it has to be found by investing more on the social sector and by reviving the environment instead of taking only curative measures such as dredging, river cleansing and bunds.
Dr Fernandes is Senior Fellow, North Eastern Social Research Centre, Guwahati. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org