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Thursday, September 24, 2020

Mind the knowledge gap

True development calls for a redistribution of knowledge between India and Bharat.

Written by Milind Sohoni | Updated: December 25, 2018 4:01:38 am
If there needs to be redistribution, it is not only of wealth and opportunity, but of knowledge and power, and it is not only within Bharat, but across India and Bharat. (Illustration: CR Sasikumar)

As we approach another general election and look back, perhaps the biggest contribution, and disappointment, was the introduction of vikasvaad into our lexicon, and its incomplete articulation and poor implementation. It is also the frittering away of a historic opportunity to correct the structural problems which pin us down. The question remains: What is vikasvaad and why do we need it?

India is a land of great diversity and inequality. Add to this a massive vikas deficit, that is, the poor provisioning of sadak, bijli, paani and health, a large informal sector, struggling enterprises and a poverty of good jobs. All this was true at the birth of independent India and continues today. What is worse, we have lost our environment and a way of life more aligned with nature and the seasons. Yet, let alone modernity, even a modicum of certainty and dignity eludes us.

At Independence, in spite of the massive mobilisation of people, there were but a few imaginations of how India should be governed. The primary concerns then were, how will we stay together and what will pull our people out of abject poverty. The three broad options were: First, Ram Rajya. That is the politico-cultural stewardship of a popular and benevolent despot; second, a variation of Mahatma Gandhi’s decentralised Hind Swaraj; and, finally, Nehruvian modernity, a paradigm of elite stewardship, which won the day and the approval of Gandhi.

Elite-vaad was the shoe-horning into existing colonial frameworks, a highly centralised and institutional meritocracy led by elite “national” bureaucrats and scientists. It was a concentration of knowledge and power, insulated from provincial politics, and a belief that this would rapidly take India and its people to a secular modernity. It is this vision that gave us the elite IAS, institutions like the IITs, CSIR laboratories, UGC, centralised regulatory and funding agencies. The motto was scientific temper — unfortunately, a false binary between an apolitical and elite-supervised laboratory science and residual regressive practices of the ancients. This theme continues to this day as centrally employed scientists march to protect science from a backward people, but not to analyse their hardships.

Predictably, the Nehruvian model has failed the common vernacular people, that is, Bharat. They remain poor, lumpen and jobless. Some states, especially from the South, tuned out of this imagination of the nation, instead preferring social comprehension and vernacular mobilisation, and they have generally done better. However, the model did lead to the flowering of English-speaking India as a successful satellite of the branded global economy and its business models. India is served by an army of delivery boys, janitors, watchmen, waiters, drivers, maids and cashiers from migrant Bharat. It may live in gated townships but the environmental collapse in Bharat is catching up. And yet, the hold of India over Bharat is almost complete. India eats what Bharat produces, drinks its water, extracts rents for most services, destroys its language, defines curricula and holds competitive exams, coaches its students, controls the media and decides what Bharat consumes and aspires for, materially and intellectually. Indian science refuses to measure and document the lived reality of the people of Bharat, of the long treks to fetch firewood, the empty wells and broken public transport. This consolidates the hold of the bureaucracy and shraddha over the destiny of the people of Bharat.

While politicians at the Centre may weigh in on defence, the railways and GST, it is in the provinces that the Nehruvian model tilts the balance of power in favour of the elite bureaucracy. In states with poor social awareness, this has led to cultural and developmental stagnation.

One would think that as social awareness improves, allegiance to the Nehruvian model would reduce. This is indeed happening in several states. However, a curious alignment of events and ideas has led to a revival of elite stewardship, and Indian intellectuals have played an important role. The first was the release of the Mandal report, which reopened a horizontal division of the people of Bharat along caste lines. This was reinforced through many centrally-sponsored rights-based schemes and a jargon of the disadvantaged and the oppressed, and, a delivery through key NGOs and people of good intentions, bypassing so-called local vested interests. Next was the emergence of big science and a theory of cosmopolitan and liberal humanism in the West, steered by its elite universities, professors and multilateral agencies. This was used to justify elite stewardship and to rejuvenate a narrative of historical continuity of Hindu orthodoxy, caste oppression, guilt and reparation. This is of course risky business, since there are several pasts but only one present in which to settle accounts. All the same, elite stewardship now presents itself not as the provider of vikas but as the saviour of science, humanism and the oppressed.

The result is that the typical community is now effectively divided into various overlapping and contesting classes of beneficiaries and interests — SC/ST, APL/BPL, landless peasants, woman-headed households, OBC non-creamy-layer, large farmers, that is, a community without citizens. The sarpanch and the petty government servant are the key contractors. The rights-based discourse also ignores the decades of community work by hundreds of vernacular social reformers, the Baba Amtes of the provinces. The narrative of historical grievance has become more shrill, polarising and self-fulfilling as positions harden on both sides of the caste equation. Finally, it has converted the government job itself as a distributional social good, and deflected attention from the poor service that the typical government servant provides. The job definitions of most government employees, like the collector, the secretary, the teacher, the junior engineer or the gram sevak, are completely outdated and have stopped delivering value long ago. This is the crux of the development delivery problem, and harms the weakest sections of society the most, and yet it is the least analysed by Indian science.

So this is how Bharat is now — divided, angry, thirsty and parched. Indeed, what unites Bharat is the cultural deprivation, the absence of role models and trust, and the brutishness of a people kept stupid. If there needs to be redistribution, it is not only of wealth and opportunity, but of knowledge and power, and it is not only within Bharat, but across India and Bharat. This must begin by reform at the top, of bringing elite science to serve the common man, of enforcing accountability and discipline on the elite bureaucrat, and a programme of social comprehension at the bottom. The takht of Delhi must gently descend for a new paradigm of the Centre-state relationship to emerge. That is the route to vikas and that should be the manifesto of vikasvaad.

The writer is head of department, Centre for Technology Alternatives for Rural Areas, IIT Bombay

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