The Cost of Lives– The Dark Side of Development

The strength of a nation is determined by its level of economic development. As countries have strived to attain development over the years, many ideologies have come into conflict with each other. In this backdrop, after achieving Independence, India adopted a mixed economic model combining both the ideologies of capitalism and socialism. However, despite their differences, capitalism and socialism alike have failed to account for the possibility of the human costs of development. The undeniable reality is that development, as we know it today, comes at a great human cost, far greater than what we recognize it to be. The question that arises now is, how do we account for it and overcome it?

The Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster

On 26th April 1986, one of the four nuclear reactors in Chernobyl, Ukraine, exploded during a normal safety test procedure. With inadequate knowledge about the management of nuclear disasters and unwillingness to accept their inefficiency, the Soviet Union attempted to cover up the incident. The cause for the explosion was a safety test conducted in, ironically, unsafe conditions. But the real underlying cause was the adoption of cheap technologies, that minimized costs but maximized risks. The backdrop of the Cold War added to the tensions as USSR was unwilling to seek help from the capitalist countries like West Germany and USA.

The recent popularity of Chernobyl stems from the HBO miniseries that has captured the depth of this painful tragedy, going to the roots of the ideologies that it was founded upon. Hundreds of people were involved in clearing up the damage that the explosion had left behind, without adequate protection. As the clean-up process continued, it slowly becomes clear that it was the ideology and its reputation, that was given importance over the needs of the people. Today, the entire region has been declared inhabitable due to the nuclear radiation and entry is restricted.

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster is one of the chilling and costly reminders of how technology for development and ideology can interact in fatal ways. In this context, the pressing questions that would strike one are: Do people indeed have a say in what they actually want for themselves? Do they really know about the effects that nuclear plants could have on them? Even in India, many people are displaced due to developmental projects. Do they even have a say in this regard?

Development in independent India

The question about whether people do have a say in development, can be understood by defining the terms ‘development’ and ‘welfare’. Development, in common terms, is equated with growth and a general state of improvement in the living standards of a country. Welfare is generally equated with the living standards of the people. The question that we need to ask is that, who benefits from development and welfare? We can get more clarity by looking at the history of development in India.

Our first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, had a huge task ahead of him. The country had to establish its political and economic independence and he planned to do this through a policy of self-reliance. Nehruvian socialism was different from the Bolshevik socialism of the USSR. It was a mixed economy model where the state played the role of the front runner, but did not take control of all property. He emphasized on massive investments towards the development of heavy industries and basic infrastructure. He saw dams and huge industries as the modern temples of India.

The benefits that society derives from these projects are often very huge. The irrigation systems that came along with dams have led to massive growth in agricultural output. These mega dams and heavy industries today form the backbone of the Indian economy. Nehru’s dream has unquestionably paved the way for the development of India. However, does everyone benefit from these projects? It is obvious that some do more than others. Some people even end up losing to development projects. This is where the question regarding people having their say in development becomes relevant.

Clashes of development interests

 It is quite possible that people may not have the same or similar interests and expectations from the developmental approach of the government. This conflict of interest is always present because the needs of the people can often be in direct clash with each other. In fact, this diversity of opinion forms the very cornerstone of a democracy. Movements like the Narmada Bachao Andolan are testimonies to this reality. While some voices are heard, the others are silenced by the mainstream notion of development.

It is possible that a development project can negatively affect some groups of people. The people who get displaced by mega projects like dams, those who have to relinquish their land due to land acquisition schemes have something to lose to developmental projects. The problem lies in the fact that we fail to take into account that these losses can completely devastate the lives and livelihoods of people. The dilemma here is that the person who gains and person who loses are both equal citizens of the country. The farmer losing his land and the person getting cheap electricity from the dam are both citizens of India.

The question that arises now is how we can justify these projects. The usual narrative is that if a project delivers benefits for a larger number of people than those who are negatively affected by it, it is justified. This is much like the marginal approach of economics. But we can never fully estimate the human costs associated with development because of the fact that we are not fully aware of the extent of damage that it can cause. This is applicable to all development projects from roads to nuclear power plants.

Despite these drawbacks, we really do not have any other option. The government cannot refuse to do something because they cannot acquire land for projects such as highways or building factories. The harsh reality is that we can only choose the less problematic option because there is not really a drawback-free choice. So what’s the solution now? How can we move forward without creating any hurdles in our way? These questions can be answered if we reconceptualize the idea of development at the level of policy making.

Reconciliation of approaches

The general notion of development is based on the trickle-down effect. It is based on the assumption that benefits from large projects tend to trickle down across the economic strata in society to reach the people at the bottom of it. Therefore, projects may not benefit all people at once but their advantages are expected to percolate down to various sections of people over time. This is where a reality check becomes important. It could be highly possible that the benefits do not trickle down to the lower rungs in society. This would eventually create a gap between those who have benefited and those who have lost and would then defeat the very purpose of development.

One way of addressing this is through a bottom-up approach. Development should target the most vulnerable section of the people so that they can be brought at par with the others. This could also imply that we would be able to produce maximum impact with minimum cost. This approach can be implemented through decentralized planning, which has indeed proven to be successful in the state of Kerala where the human development indicators are similar to that of a developed nation. Decentralized planning was an outcome of the People’s Plan Campaign in 1996 which attempted to distribute power to the local governance structures with regard to development. Every development project undergoes a long process of vetting and approval before it can be implemented. Need identification is used to prioritize the basic needs of the people based on popular consensus. By building a decentralized power structure, the state was able to enhance the say that people had in determining the nature of development projects.

The basis of democracy is that it stands for the people. However, the ways in which we have conceptualized development tends to favour some over the other. This in a way, makes it necessary to re-conceptualize development, bringing people at the center of it. Placing the people at the focus of the development process by giving them a voice is thus necessary for building a strong democracy.

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