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Mainstream, Vol XLV No 22

Book Review: Understanding the Nuances of Development

Saturday 19 May 2007, by G Narasimha Raghavan


Development Discourse: Issues and Concerns by T.K. Oommen; Regency Publications, New Delhi; 2004 .

Back in 1965, Dudley Seers wondered aloud:

What has been happening to poverty? What has been happening to unemployment? What has been happening to inequality? If all three of these have become less severe, then beyond doubt this has been a period of development for the country concerned. If one or two of these central problems have been growing worse, especially if all three have, it would be strange to call the result ‘development’, even if per capita income has soared.

Juxtapose this quote with the following statement:

Over 50 per cent of the world’s scientists and engineers are engaged in military research. (p. 49)

Given that rise in per capita income and engaging in research are positive steps in the progress of a nation, do they really contribute to the development of a country, or even constitute what is called ‘development’? This, precisely, is what Professor Oommen is concerned about; and this gets manifested in his highly readable book, Development Discourse.

This slim volume, consisting of three lectures given by the eminent social scientist at the North- Eastern Regional Centre of the ICSSR, punctuates the need to conceptualise ‘development’ not in the ceremonious manner of girdling the term in simplistic dichotomies like local versus global development, or even the stale contrast of modern vis-à-vis traditional development. The leitmotif that runs through and through the book is the theme that development must be accepted as heterogeneous in nature and composition, and that it cannot be replicated dementedly.

There are three strains of development perspectives that can be decrypted: the mainstream perspective on development (MPD), alternative perspective on development (APD) and post-colonial perspective on development (PPD). Elucidation on the three perspectives forms the substance of the first lecture. Depending on the stage of development of a state, the dominant perspective will prevail. For instance, the MPD was essentially an exogenously induced development process by imperialists to ‘better’ the conditions of their colonies. Gradually, post-independence India saw the overriding the MPD’s measured transformation into a second phase, regularly called endogenous industrialisation/modernisation—a euphemism for indiscriminate Westernisation, identifies Oommen. In the case of the APD, there has been a shift on the onus of running a state, from the government to the people and civil societies. The alternative perspective comes as a response to the inefficiencies of the MPD and strives to do away income disparity. The APD achieves this by relocating the power centre to the hands of the people. Of late, a synergistic hybrid of the MPD and APD can be found in democratic nations that stretch their limits to create a self-reliant and resilient state. The third perspective, the PPD, considers the so-called development paradigms of the land as ‘illusions’, promoting to create a bigger rift between the rich and the poor. In essence, the PPD dons an anti-development garb, asking for “not more development, but a different regime of truth and perception” (p. 20) from the state/people. How have these perspectives affected the political character and economic structure of the First, Second and Third Worlds, is a question the author answers with typical clarity and ease. It is very interesting to see how well these relatable issues are embroidered into the lecture.


THE changing natures of the state’s role and the varying perspectives on development have led to forceful discussions on the quandary of intensifying deprivation. What is paradoxical, yet authentic, is the parallel advancement of the development and deprivation processes. During the initial stages of freedom, a state would have embarked on an ambitious route to development with the sole goal of trimming down deprivation. It is quite a disclosure to know that development engenders deprivation! This is the fundamental thought expressed in the second lecture. Noticing the simultaneous, if not synchronised, intensification of development and deprivation, support to the state came from voluntary organisations and the citizens. This paved the way for the establishment of a ‘welfare state’.

What is of contemporaneous interest in this development-deprivation context is the amended discernment of the term development: it was one thing for development to be ‘given from outside’ (as in the case of aid), and it was entirely different if it was indigenous and state/people-sponsored. As a result, the meaning of development accommodated people’s participation in the extra-parliamentary space as legal, permissible and acceptable. In a similar vein, it is imperative to record the collectivistic behaviour of the population in the development-deprivation challenge—be it the cumulatively dominated (low caste, poor workers, tribal) or the cumulatively dominant (intelligentsia, urban elites).

Oommen has always asserted the pluses of having technological pluralism, for the clichéd idea of ‘one size fits all’ has been disproved time and again. In the last lecture, the veteran scholar has looked at the practicability/achievability of the two paths needed to be traversed to get out of the development-deprivation predicament: applying the technology-driven development process, and conceptualising ‘development as freedom’. In technology’s case, there is the perennial opposition of appropriate technology to high technology. It is unwise and inexpedient to remark that ‘high’ technology is the only technology that is ‘appropriate’. Technology can be simple and need-based. The moot point here is that technology is a very powerful driver of development and can have crucial consequences—human marginalisation is one such dangerous effect. For this very reason, technological pluralism is advocated—each nation can opt for its degree of technology on the basis of its economic, social and political stance and altitude.

Amartya Sen’s ‘development as freedom’ model considers overcoming deprivation (defined as a multidimensional concept encompassing poverty, hunger, illiteracy, illness, powerlessness, insecurity, humiliation, and a lack of access to basic infrastructure) as central to development, that is, reducing neediness or broadening choice. An attendant issue in this line of argument is the question of establishing equity and efficiency. And this needs to be debated in the context of a mottled world with a variety of institutions, different economic and political systems, besides an assortment of markets. Again, the question of general welfare as against individual well-being also needs to make sense of. Oommen is pretty skeptical of Sen’s enthusiastic creed and its establishment on terra firma.

After reading Development Discourse one would well be inclined to appreciate and make a mental note of how concepts/notions can be made ‘simple without making them simplistic’. Stripped of redundant nomenclature, T.K. Oommen’s book will be a very apt introduction to every eager inquirer, raring to understand the oft cited, but little understood, ‘trajectory of development/progress’. As John Locke has said, “The great art of learning is to undertake but little at a time”, the three lectures are self-contained dialogues, suggestive of their brevity and succinctness. n

The reviewer is a Project Fellow and Ph.D Research Scholar, Department of Economics, PSG College of Arts and Science, Coimbatore.

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