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Fantasies of Development and The Democracy Deficit in North East India

by Sanjib Baruah, 27 February 2009

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Eastern Quarterly
- (Publication of the Manipur Research Forum, Delhi)
- Vol. 5, Issue I, April – June 2008, pp. 61–65

’A Road, Smooth and Sleek like a Snake’: Development and the Rhetoric of Vision

"The World Bank will be replacing the old rundown road with a new road that will be smooth and sleek like a snake."
- –Zoramthanga, Chief Minister of Mizoram [1]

Zoramthanga’s choice of metaphor, though wonderfully resonant with the Northeast Indian landscape, is perhaps unusual. But to readers of ‘vision statements’ about the region’s future, the spirit may be familiar. Development in this genre of writing, like Zoramthanga’s image of a road of the future, is a fantasized object, not a realistic vision of the future that people can relate to.

The editors of Eastern Quarterly [EQ] deserve our gratitude for organizing a discussion on a new document, Peace, Progress and Prosperity in the North Eastern Region: Vision 2020, put together by the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy [NIPFP] and brought out under the auspices of the Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region.

B. George Verghese, one of the authors of Vision 2020, opens the EQ discussion. “The stage appears now to be reasonably well set,” he writes, “for a major thrust forward. Things are changing and there is ground for cautious optimism. Development and opening up to its neighbours could provide impetus for the next stage.” [2] In contrast to the radical views of the other contributors, Verghese’s approach might seem conventional—though his ideas on institutional reforms are anything but that. I will refer to those proposals later in the essay. He estimates that the Northeast will have to grow by 12 to 13 percent every year in per capita income and basic social indices, if it were to catch up with the rest of India by 2020—assuming a 9 per cent growth rate for India. “Closing the gap,” he believes, “will not be easy but is doable.” However, the centre will have to make major investments.

Contrast this way of thinking about development to that of Prasenjit Biswas who rejects the very idea of a region lacking development. The idea of “lack,” he says, “is not simply a negative idea, it is rather a complex outcome of developmental practices.” On a similar note, Rohan D’Souza rejects the foundational notion of economic backwardness. Once the absence of markets is “declared to be indicative of backwardness,” it “leads almost automatically to the desire for markets for development.”

Politics of Representation

The major question that Biswas, D’Souza and others raise is this: Can development theory and practice ignore the politics of representation? I mean ‘representation’ both in the political sense, and in the sense of ways of seeing, and portraying. The way we represent poverty and underdevelopment has consequences. Some of our official categories and those of the social sciences – Economics in particular – are good at capturing certain realities, but not others.

Let us take the example of a poor community with a degree of reliance on a public lake where people fish. We can see the people as a community that survives, using a mix of market and non-market goods. Or we can see them as part of an aggregated mass of people “living below the poverty-line.” If taking the latter view, a development agency decides to finance commercial fishing—even on a modest scale—it could make one or two people rich, a few more would find employment, but many more people might be worse off if they catch fewer fish, because of the mechanized fishing methods now in use in the same water. In terms of basic nutrition, they would be worse-off. Theoretically, the dynamism that the new enterprise could bring to the local economy might in future compensate for that. But the stakes are simply too high to take leave it at that.

Development, in my view, is not just one thing: self-evident and predictable. It is not good or bad in some a priori sense. If it is about removing major sources of un-freedom, “poverty as well as tyranny, poor economic opportunities as well as systematic social deprivation,” [3] we must ask very concretely, whether it enables or restricts freedoms and capabilities. These questions must be asked about each and every intervention that claims development as its goal. The answers will not be easy: inevitably, there will be winner and losers. But at least one thing is obvious. The state should not regard itself, to use Monirul Hussain’s words, as the “development giver,” and treat the people as “development takers.” And since increasingly, the central government is the major source of funds for the development of the region, [4] and the bureaucrats in Delhi are key players, questions of voice and representation are more important than ever.

It is not enough to point at elections, and ignore substantive questions about representation. “The restless and discontented,” says Verghese, “fall prey to adventurism and subversion.” Others understand the strength and persistence of insurgencies, at least partly, in terms of the diffuse presence — in the background — of an inchoate constituency that feels un-represented. Let us assume for the moment that Verghese is right. But does it allow the authors of Vision 2020 to go from there, and make a set of assertions implying that it is what, the people of the Northeast want? As Rohan D’Souza suggests insightfully, the authors of the NIPFP document appears to have the remarkable ability not only to speak for the people of the Northeast, but what the people want, happens to match exactly with what these “visionaries” want to see in the region.

The Pagladia Dam and the Politics of Development Finance

Monirul Hussain’s account of the protests against the on-again-off-again Pagladiya Dam project in Assam brings out the politics of development finance. The dam is likely to displace more than one hundred thousand people from agricultural lands and homes. Originally conceived as far back as 1968, it has been shelved a number of times because of grassroots opposition—but only to be brought back later when the political climate changes. At each phase of confrontation between the state and the protesters, an extraordinary gap becomes evident between official and local knowledge. The area where initially, the government intended to settle the displaced people was officially “vacant,” but the people about to lose their land found out that the land was already occupied, albeit “illegally.” Among the people that would be displaced by the project are some that lack legal documents to prove property ownership. The protesters knew only too well the reality of bureaucratic practice; that it would be hard to resettle and compensate those without proper land documents.

The interesting question that arises is this: why has the state and its agency, the Brahmaputra Board, been so persistent? The answer that emerges from Hussain’s study is simple, but quite revealing and persuasive. The government agencies —and the contractors lobby—seem to salivate at the prospects of laying their hands on the money allocated to the project by the central government. For politicians, the patronage possibilities that large sums of money open up far outweigh any other consideration. Hence, the persistence in efforts to revive the project.

International Finance Comes to Northeast India

If one goes by this insight, things are only likely to get worse, suggests Ramananda Wangkheirakpam. The coming of international financial institutions such as the Asian Development Bank [ADB] and the World Bank, he fears, could only mean growing “disempowerment and helplessness of the people in the region.” The ADB, he points out, has completed technical assistances studies on sectors including tourism, roads, urban development, waste management, waterways and governance. Their entry could mean that, decisions that would impact millions of lives would be made in places, much further than New Delhi. Drawing on his experience as an activist, he writes, “getting access to key policy and project documents now requires writing to Manila and/or Washington DC and to complain against a project one might need to even spend meagre resources to go to these Headquarters to meet project officials.”

A Reform/Revolution Debate?

If D’Souza radically challenges the very idea of development, Biswas while sharing some of the vocabulary of post-development thinking, has instincts that are Marxist in a more familiar sense. He is concerned that Vision 2020 seeks to reproduce “capitalist relations of reproduction,” and the language of comparative advantage simply, a way of making the natural resources of the region available to global markets. His alternative does not threaten the old left-liberal consensus on development. The focus, be believes, must be “on improving economic condition for the poorest, through the creation of economic growth opportunities.” That would require “structural change”: a shift of employment opportunities from agriculture to industry and service.

Thingnam Kishan Singh is radical in his reading of colonial economic history. During that period, he says, economies of Northeast India went through “a transition from its various pre-capitalist social formations to a quasi-capitalist organization of productive forces.” When it comes to options today, however, he too settles for conventional left-liberal answers. He accepts that a low gross domestic product is not “congenial for improving the living conditions of the people” and “people in areas with low per capita do not live well.” He advocates strategies that would develop a production base that uses the region’s resources to benefit its people.

As I have indicated, Verghese’s proposals for institutional reforms are innovative. Northeasterners should not shy away from debating them. He proposes ending Inner Line and Restricted Area permits. He recommends Trusteeship Zones for disputed areas between Assam and Arunachal, as sites for “railheads, airstrips, communication hubs, warehouses, cold storages, entrepots, [and] training centres.” He proposes expedited cadastral surveys of land in hill areas, and non-territorial electoral constituencies for workers brought in from outside the state to work.

Development and the Democracy Deficit

The discussion in EQ brings out sharply one major weakness in our way of trying to develop Northeast India: the region’s democracy deficit—a consequence of decades of insurgency and counter-insurgency. Sources of funds being sources of power, and development financing becoming a way of imposing other people’s priorities, are not unique to Northeast India. But observers far less radical, than the contributors to this issue of EQ, have been struck by how democracy deficit presents unusual difficulties for development projects in Northeast India. A World Bank Strategy Report, for instance, finds “the paternalism of central-level bureaucrats, coercive top-down planning, and little support or feedback from locals” to be the principal obstacle to the utilization of the region’s vast water resources for sustainable development. These observers are struck by the extraordinary phenomena of potential beneficiaries of embankment projects, opposing them. There is deep distrust of the central government’s development-oriented institutions like the Brahmaputra Board. As the World Bank report puts it, local stakeholders in the Northeast simply do not believe that most developmental initiatives are designed to benefit them. [5]

Indian elites do not like to acknowledge that. Thus our bureaucrats and politicians quote World Bank reports on many other matters—mostly when they appear to authorize more money—but not when it comes to this crucial political insight. It is unlikely therefore that the radical voices represented in this issue of EQ, will get the attention they deserve. Given this state of denial in our national public intellectual life, vision statements about Northeast India’s future, like the epigraph at the beginning of this essay, are bound to sound like the marketing pitch of salesmen selling snake oil.


 [1] Cited in Lipokmar Dzuvichu, “How Many Roads Must the State Build?” p. 30. Biblio [New Delhi], May-June 2008.

 [2] Since this essay is a discussion of six articles published in Eastern Quarterly 4 (III & IV) 2008, only references to works other than these are footnoted.

 [3] Amartya Sen, Development and Freedom, Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 3.

 [4] By saying that development funds originate in Delhi, I leave out an important structural question that insurgent intellectuals implicitly raise: Does the Northeast really get a fair share of its natural resources in our system of public finance? Are grants and subsidies, the most accurate way of describing what comes to us from Delhi?

 [5] World Bank, Natural Resources, Water and the Environment Nexus for Development and Growth in Northeast India. Strategy Report. (June 28.) Washington D.C., World Bank, 2006, pp. 13-14.