What the candidates in India’s general election are ignoring

the lone farmer. Credit : Indrajit Bhattacharya (indrajit.triveni@gmail.com)

A lone farmer in India. Photo by: Indrajit Bhattacharya (indrajit.triveni@gmail.com)

What the candidates in India’s general election are ignoring


By Smita Srinivas

India’s manufacturing and agricultural productivity needs serious attention right now. Yet, remarkably, prominent Lok Sabha (lower house of Parliament) candidates have said precious little about it on their campaign trails.

It is even more remarkable that Indians might vote these candidates into office despite knowing so little about their views. Political parties have assumed that India’s geopolitical future can grow rosier through urbanisation, exports, skills, and industry booms (after all, this is what the IT sector seemed to represent). However, what the candidates are not saying about India’s future is worth attention.

The political parties are staunchly advocating a largely single economic mantra to distinguish their parties. But for a country where agricultural and industrial diversification and improving skills are crucial for livelihoods and social equity, these single visions are unrealistic.

In addition, despite the frequent allusion to village life and history, they have increasingly emphasised urbanisation and cities.

Finally, most of these parties are referring to manufacturing in a country where it simply does not play the same role as it plays now in China or played in the U.S. or Europe.

The parties, national and regional, have much to do. The Modi Model alludes to a single approach. Ironically, even the national Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s Sitaram Yechury, a Rajya Sabha (upper house of Parliament) MP, who has argued that grassroots sensitivity is needed, has somewhat ruined the effect by arguing that the unifying vision of his party can counter those of the Congress or BJP.

The regional parties too appear to have missed an opportunity to emphasise their proximity to grassroots economic problems and the need for diversity.

So why should we reject single economic visions? Diversity is necessary for more than geographic and cultural variety as it has distinct organisational features. After all, it will not be national or regional governments as employers, but the private sector that will generate the most jobs. And whether public or private sector-induced, the informal economy and non-manufacturing jobs will form the majority of India’s employment for the near future. Urbanisation and manufacturing don’t necessarily go hand in hand. Even India’s largest metropolises are vastly different from each other, and so too are the non-metros. That in itself showcases an enormous economic diversity. Whether a call to an ‘India Shining’ or a Modi Model, India clearly needs some attention to diversity.

Gujarat is an example of such diversity and of  one of the more urbanised and industrialised states of India. The proponents of the Modi Model have lost an important chance to claim its relevance outside Gujarat. Indeed, if there is a model at all for Gujarat, it is a complex, diverse one: that entrepreneurs, the rural White Revolution, the Green revolutions, new technological advances, and urban industrial investment, have all helped move the state forward. Perhaps even Mr. Modi has helped too. It does seem that all parties are missing the obvious history lesson that Gujarat demonstrates for the rest of India: that a variety of economic options exist, that they are geographically diverse, and economic policy must respond to this variation. With smaller states such as Karnataka and Orissa still larger than most European economies, why depend on a single economic vision?

In no other election since Independence has there  been as crucial a crossroads for decentralised economic plans. Yet, no national party or regional party candidate has specified a clear agenda on how to grow and adapt Indian economic policies to its villages, cities and towns on these principles. Greenfield development plans such as the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor  (DMIC) to create industry agglomeration and high capacity freight transportation facilities are no hopeful strategy when the fortunes of tens of thousands of villagers and town residents are to be overwritten without much consultation. A more prescient approach would be to require economic, physical infrastructure and spatial plans to meet a minimum threshold on employment, skills, education, environmental standards, mobility, health, and housing criteria.

These would reflect industrial and economic policies as far more than real estate speculation and closed-door land deals. It might help us recall that industrial futures in most of the world have been premised on industrial diversification and deepening, built in multiple decades not months, and certainly not by land-use alone. If we are attentive to history, we might envision industrial freight as a public works project (even with private partners) with long-term vision on technological capabilities, vocational training and education; on sanitation, roads that connect much smaller villages and towns; and with an open dialogue on mobility, amenities and housing. And yes, freight also includes tempos (three-wheeled trucks used for commercial transport in Asian countries), bicycles, bullock carts, wheelbarrows, and head-loading (carrying heavy goods on the head).

If ‘multi-modal’ ceases to be a trendy term and attends to actual Indian diversity in the composition of industry (large, medium, and micro), we are immediately in the realm of urgent urban needs.

In 1951 India had five cities with a population greater than one million and 41 cities of more than 100,000.

At that time most of India lived in approximately 560,000 villages . In 2011 in contrast, there were three cities with a population greater than 10 million, and 53 cities with population of one million. More than 833 million Indians now live in 660,000 villages but 377 million live in approximately 8,000 urban centres.

Whatever Rahul Gandhi or Mr. Modi may say, we do not need greenfield development of cities à la China. We must first attend to making the ones we have more dynamic and humane.

An integrated economic, spatial planning and policy framework with deep environmental and health roots must be the working backbone of the 74th Amendment  and economic devolution.

The 73rd Amendment from 1992 too has assumed an economic devolution that it has unevenly delivered.

Unlike China, South Korea, Japan, or Taiwan, Indian politicians and bureaucrats have unevenly specified how decentralized industrial governance and regulatory cohesion might come about in order to allow towns and villages some semblance of sustainable growth.

All parties have been quick to point out how how technology can fix local issues. The Telegu Desam Party, a regional party in the southern state Andhra Pradesh,  did so years ago (one of the key initiatives of the Chandrababu Naidu government was e-governance. Hyderabad was soon dubbed Cyderabad owing to its fast growth into a global IT hub attracting many multinational software giants); former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi began the trend for the Congress Party by mixing administration and data advances; the Unique Identification Authority of India continues it with Aadhar (the individual identification numbers being given to every Indian resident) ; the BJP assumes it in the industrial aspects of the Modi Model, and Arvind Kejriwal supporters offer it as an anti-corruption and grassroots organisation tool.

But economic governance is not e-governance  It requires far more to establish an industrial and agricultural strategy for future decades, and much more to ensure that it can be tailored humanely in every state.

Neither national nor regional parties, nor  state governments have offered such details or shown that they can capture do this.

Diversity is also not merely generating many plans and policies. The UPA I and UPA II governments ambitiously rolled out Missions and Plans of every sort: the Missions associated with rural employment guarantees, urban labour, health, and energy, are all steps in the right direction. But they must be debated. With some exceptions, how these Missions and Plans are to be connected and embedded in their locations remains largely unknown. For Mr. Gandhi, Mr. Modi, or for Mr. Kejriwal, and for the regional parties, the nuts and bolts of connectedness and dynamism in India’s economy remains vastly under-debated at this crucial time.

The stakes for this unique type of federalism are high as we see in Telangana’s case (Telegu-speaking people demanded their own state to be carved out of Andhra Pradesh, claiming the districts where they lived were under-developed and ignored; Parliament caved in to their demands and the new state will be created in June 2014) or that of continual education and skills challenges in India. The skew in regional water infrastructure, concentrated agricultural land holdings and indebtedness, low access to education and vocational training, uneven concentration of industry and employment opportunities, and specific cultural roots of economic diversity have been ignored for decades.

Political leaders have not done their homework for their narrow manifestos. They could have talked about how diversity is explicitly built into their plans. The National Skills Development Corporation (NSDC) is a long overdue conversation.

They could  have spoken about experiments all over India that are pursuing industrial and social goals : solar and wind energy, car-free urban days, biomedical and agricultural advances, water treatment facilities and toilet innovations, metering for electricity consumption, locally governed clinics, and rapid response by government.

Even now whilst so much political attention (and pollution) hovers over Delhi, Hyderabad and the large Indian metropolises, India’s small and medium towns are growing much faster. For many of their residents, the attraction of the metros is minimal. The jobs in the largest cities may be attractive, but congestion, perceived cultural degradation, unaffordable housing, inaccessible transport, sub-standard daily services, are not.

So although large-scale urbanisation is not attractive, India continues to urbanise.

It is time for a debate focused on Indian economic diversity.

Urbanisation and industrial transformation are here to stay, but their specific relationships (and there are potentially many) will define India’s future.

For China this transformation has meant mass migration, labour and land disputes, and an Eastern seaboard defined by dormitory housing, pollution, and massive special export zones.

For South Korea, a defining characteristic of the industrialisation-urbanisation link was public and private investment in skills and technology transfer agreements, long-run infrastructure plans, and substantial labour repression.

Japan has increasingly focused on transforming urban industrial investment to adapt to environmental crises, healthcare, disability and ageing. These issues pose new challenges and possible economic opportunity for its waning economic power.

Social spending can create jobs as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) has shown. However, there is much more to be done to move this from a paternalistic welfare measure to a vital economic activity.

The National Urban Livelihood Mission document introduced by UPA II holds promise. Yet to do this, the Mission must acknowledge the diverse industrial and employment landscapes that can fill in its institutional scaffolding. There are indeed many jobs to be had and many social issues to be addressed. Attending to the environment and to social services can generate both public sector and private sector livelihoods.

Creating jobs and setting up vocational institutions involves responding to the complexities of youth, caste, gender, religion, and language, a complex array of government, private sector training and apprenticing systems that have existed alongside family and kinship systems through the life of the nation. This diversity is India’s strength.

If the dominant economic paradigms are the DMIC or Special Economic Zones and other large infrastructure build-outs, India  simply demonstrates that it can do civil engineering works, not economic development or industrial governing.

In a country where the greatest scams in the last few years have been deeply ingrained in industrial sectors and in UPA and Congress involvements (the coal scam, mining scams, spectrum allocation scams; and possible holes in defence technology procurement) the time has come to specify how the people will benefit from the industrial transformation in more detail and clarify how economic and decentralised plans might accomplish this.

Thus far, neither Mr. Modi nor the UPA, nor Mr. Kejriwal have offered a discussion of how the Government or industrial institutions can address technological learning, housing, transport, or environmental improvements.

If we take any lesson at all from East Asia, it is that, as a democracy, Indians have more options than those economies had, and thus much more to debate in the post-election phase.

Recognising economic diversity through the mechanisms of Government is vital. But all the main Lok Sabha candidates have yet to tell us if their vision of industrial growth  is adaptable to Indian reality.


Prof. Smita Srinivas is an economic development and industrial policy scholar at Columbia University, USA. She is the Director of the Technological Change Lab (TCLab) and part of the Urban Planning faculty. Prof. Srinivas has been a senior advisor to the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS) and a high-level economic and technical expert to multilateral agencies such as the OECD, ILO and UNCTADShe has worked with NGOs and grassroots organisations including SEWA and the Mahila Samakhya Scheme, over the years. Her most recent book is Market Menagerie: Health and Development in Late Industrial States (Stanford University Press 2012). Srinivas holds a Ph.D. from MIT and pre- and post-doctoral fellowships from Harvard University.


Voting in the six-week Indian general election ends today, 12 May. The results will be declared on 16 May.

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