In the 90s of the last century, an outrageous idea started to emerge. It held that apart from the government agencies, corporates, the cooperative sector, and other citizens could get together for common developmental causes. In some ways this was the creative and “developmental” aspect of what is today loosely called the Fifth Estate. It began in a small way. A former IIM, Ahmedabad director, Ravi Mathai, chucked it all up one day and decided that he would spend his life in seeing if he could develop what a student of his later called ‘the bottom of the pyramid’.
Ravi set up a “university” for artisans — the rural university.
In Gujarat, former IAS officer Anil Shah got involved in a similar initiative. He set up the Development Support Centre at Bopal, near Ahmedabad (now a part of the metropolis). By then, the Fifth Estate was old hat. In fact, the first round of problems had begun to emerge. There were conflicts with government and corporate entities — all those who had “sanctioned budgets”. There was corruption and no one to lead the well meaning when problems arose. The apocryphal story was the so-called message from Bihar that said my son is doing well and has registered an NGO. So a Magna Carta was needed.
Development required technology, capital, and other resources but above all, motivation and capability of the concerned people to utilise their resources in efficient, equitable, and sustainable manner. Such participation was the core of sustainable development. The decade of 90s saw sweeping, almost revolutionary changes, in the way rural development — particularly matters relating to the natural resources, crucial for the well being of people living in rural areas — was conceptualised. Rural communities were required to prepare and implement micro plans appropriate to local conditions and needs. Joint Forest Management (1990), watershed development (1995), participatory irrigation management (1997) and Swajaldhara (2003) are good examples.
Those working for participatory management of natural resources were hoping to strengthen and carry forward the participatory approach in 2000-2001 at the time of the formulation of the Tenth Plan. However, the trends in the 10th Five Year Plan were alarming. They point to distortions and reversals of the healthy trends of the 90s. This was forcefully brought out by Anil Shah, by now at the Development Support Centre. When his paper reached M S Swaminathan and me, we encouraged Shah to organise a national deliberation to draft the principles that should guide the formulation and modification of schemes pertaining to natural resources management by the Centre, states or donors.
This led to a national-level meeting on January 16, 2005 at Bopal. It was attended by about 30 leaders from NGO community, academics and policy makers from various parts of India. The deliberations were guided by me and the late B N Yugandhar. That meeting prepared eight declarations based on eight principles proposed by eminent leaders in their respective field.
The first proposed by MYRADA was the centrality of community-based organisations (CBOs). The second proposed by SEWA Mandir at Udaipur was about equity. The third, mooted by the irrigation department in Andhra, was decentralisation. The fourth, proposed, by the N M Sadguru Water Development Foundation, was about the need of a facilitating agency. The fifth by BAIF at Pune pertained to monitoring and evaluation. The sixth, mooted by V B Eswaran, an IAS officer, was about training and software. Anil Shah proposed the seventh as sustained momentum of development — so that the success story is not just a flash in the pan. And the eighth was proposed by my college friend at Wharton, Pradip Khandwala — organisational restructuring.
Around each declaration is a brief text adopted at Bopal on January 16, 2005. Each principle was elaborated with examples from centrally sponsored schemes and other projects. We lobbied for the execution of these principles in Delhi, with opinion makers, including the press. They had an impact.
If we decide to plan again with the large number of new schemes that were declared after planning was abolished, we must reinvent these principles. I have just returned from my morning walk and saw some slum dwellers doing their thing in a defecation free city. Let’s do Bopal again.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 2, 2019, under the title ‘Bopal In Times Of Niti Aayog’. The writer, an economist, is a former Union minister