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Decoding accident of development

Development is the catchphrase of modern times. No word has gained so much political currency as development in the last few decades. The popular media in India is abuzz with many kinds of development talk today. We constantly hear about Modi style of development with the tagline ‘maximum governance with minimum government,’ or Sonia-Rahul Gandhi style of development, which is said to be a welfare state model, or even the Nitish Kumar style of development, which some claim is an inclusive one. Media often relishes in pitching one kind of development against another as if no other form exists for the people of India.

Development today is considered a natural world order that is just and desirable for all and not something that comes as a result of political will or social construction. This trick of equating development with the natural progression of life itself plays an instrumental role in thwarting any possible critique of the idea, which is at the root of what the French anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu called ‘symbolic violence’.

Even after the tremendous appeal contained in the word, today the simple idea of development poses many questions. So we find many prefixes being added to the concept, as if standing alone development is a dirty word. There is ‘social development’, there is ‘sustainable development’, and even the example of ‘human development’. We can rightly ask the question why do we need to associate ‘human’ with ‘development’? Is it for the reason that it could be inhuman at times? We rarely try to find these answers.
 
Now it is an irony that the arrival of the word ‘development’ in our contemporary socio-political discourse was merely an accident. The Inaugural address by US President Harry Truman on 20 January 1949 for the first time brought the notion of development in public sphere: ‘The old imperialism – exploitation for foreign profit – has no place in our plans. What we envisage is a programme of development based on the conceptions of democratic fair dealing.’ Louis J Halle, who worked at the state department, then documented his role in including this part of the presidential speech in an article called, On teaching International Relations. In his own words, this action was a ‘public relations gimmick thrown in by a professional speechwriter to give the speech more life.’ The chain of events that made it possible is as such:  One evening Halle, in a meeting with Deputy Director of American Republic Affairs (DDARA), talked about a possible programme of technical assistance for the Latin American countries. Both contended that similar ideas can be applied to other regions as well. During the time when Truman’s inaugural address was in the process of being written, his speechwriter’s assistant asked the state department for some proposals. So in a talk with Director of Public Affairs (DPA), the DDARA recalled his conversation with Halle and proposed ‘how about a programme of technical assistance for underdeveloped countries, like that in Latin America?’ (the word ‘underdeveloped’ had not yet been coined). So as an extra fourth point this was agreed to be included in the speech.
 
However, in the routine clearance, this point was dropped and Halle thought it might be possible that State department was in the dark about the intended actions associated with the suggestion. The draft was sent to the White House with earlier three points but President found it uninteresting and asked whether something ‘original’ could be added to it. So, the Director of Public Affairs then in a call to White House mentioned about a missing point four and after explaining what it was, they asked it to be put back in the speech.
 
Neither Halle nor President Truman had any idea what this new word ‘development’ was all about when it appeared in the international circle through the inaugural address. But next day when the newspapers all over the world splashed headlines on ‘bold new programme’ launched by the President, it also took White House by surprise. It was only then that ‘machinery was set up in the government to look into the possibilities of such a programme and make plans.’ Yes, development did not arise from decisive and well-researched planning by accomplished scholars or distinguished leaders. But with time, institution after institution was set up to ensure its continued presence in the public imagination. The word contains so much power in itself that even during the Cold War, great powers could disagree on myriad of issues but agreed on a single agenda – development for the Third World.  
 
Today, when the leaders in countries of the global South like India rest their political agenda on the idea of some ‘unknown’ development, we, instead of asking critical questions, get swayed by the awesome persuasive power of the word. This becomes quite relevant when mainstream media and politicians continuously debate on the future land acquisition bill or on food security legislation of India. We are relentlessly told that ignoring corporate India’s view on such crucial issues will be populism and will halter the development of our nation. Whose development and what is beyond development are the pertinent questions here.
 
It is unfortunate that today increased GDP, FDI, rapid urbanisation and similar issues are equated with the idea of development, but strangle enough, notions of subsidised food, health, and education for the majority of people becomes ‘populism.’ Another example would be to consider economic reforms as development but not land reforms. It is high time that the trend of leaders piggybacking on the power of the word to forward the agenda of some crony capitalists must be stopped forthwith.  
 
Else, development will remain an accident for the vast majority of people, which was only conceptualised by some US diplomats to maintain the dominant power structures in the world through their strategic foreign aid programmes. IPA
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