Lessons In Development: Then And Now

by | Dec 24, 2021

On the second day in my current home, Khandar, a tehsil in Sawai Madhopur, Rajasthan, my idea of development took a major hit. After spending the day under hot sun, it started pouring heavily and the area was filled with water. Since the majority of the inroads I have seen here are kachcha, the roads are waterlogged and sometimes you can even see fish floating on the road (not kidding!). This time, right in front of my gate, the water had gone a few meters high and I had to climb the compound of the next house to get in and out of my house for a couple of days.

If you ask a guy like me, who was brought up in a city, this is a lack of development, because for us having pacca roads and an adequate drainage system are some of the necessary indicators of development. However, the next day, I saw the labourer who works here removing his slippers, carrying it in his hands and walking straight through the water.

The main road was filled with one foot of water but nobody seemed to be bothered about it. People effortlessly rode their motorcycles through it. No fuss, no cribbing, no cursing the government for their supposed plight. This is their regular life and I was just getting a peek into it during the rainy season.

In the days that followed, we had multiple meetings in the villages where I’m working. These meetings had to be done in the evenings since this was the only free time available to men and women who leave for their fields early in the morning and return during dusk. Some of the common places didn’t even have a light bulb to be able to see each other while talking but these meetings with the farmers helped me understand their needs and challenges. They asked for specific interventions required in their farms explaining how these interventions can make their lives better.

Their inputs and the common attitude to be okay with infrastructural nuances made me realize this:

Local interventions or solutions need to come from people we are working with. It can’t be the other way round where we go to places we consider backward and tell people how they need certain things that will lead to development. We need to immediately stop the top-down approach to planning, facilitation, and development where some known-to-be highly qualified individuals make plans for people living in villages and tell them that this will make their life better because of the preconceived notions of development.

Making pucca roads in these rain-flooded areas may no doubt make their commute better, but they aren’t bothered about it. To them, it will be more beneficial if one can install fences to their fields because their crops are being destroyed by wild animals who enter into the fields at night.

We need to stop telling people what needs to be done and listen to what they want. The problem needs to come from the community and the interventions have to be decided by them, too. You merely act like a facilitator who takes up the issues they have addressed and tries the best to deliver on the solutions they’ve asked for. You can sometimes improvise on the solutions if you have better options and ideas but they have to revolve around their insights and can’t be your own creations.

The core here also lies in the depth of your understanding of the people and their surroundings. I realized how I see some things as problems which seem perfectly fine from the point of view of the villagers because for them, that’s how things work. It’s business as usual. One person tells me, “yahan ka system aisa hi hai“. 

On the flipside, the lackadaisical attitude regarding some of the issues seems to also emanate from ignorance. The same person in one of the conversations regarding open defecation said, “Hamara system badhiya hain na! Aapke sheher mein toh chaar deewar ke andar hi baithke karna hoga, hamara bada khula maidan hai.”

Development for who and what is now a constant question on my mind, as I continue to observe the ongoings here and interact with more and more people. On one hand, it seems rather good that people are content, in spite of several shortcomings and lack of amenities. But on the other, it appears as they have a minimal understanding of how their life can actually become better and easier.

In many villages here, there is large-scale usage of chulha in the open instead of the gas and stove which is used only during the rainy season when it’s not possible to use the open-air chulha. This is due to the increasing cost of gas cylinders and easily available firewood for free. While many people may think of carbon monoxide pollution as a consequence but I have seen some really good benefits of using the chulha apart from the fact that the food is tastier.

During winters, men huddle around the chulhas to get some warmth. They indulge in conversations with laughter, lend a helping hand to women in adjusting the firewood, and socialise with each other.

The more time I am spending in the village, the more I am convinced that there is a need for a holistic approach to development based on the unique requirements in healthcare, education, livelihoods and infrastructure. Individuals and organizations should stay in a particular region and spend a significant amount of time, resources, and efforts in understanding and addressing the developmental needs of that region.

We have to be specific in our approach that would differ based on the inter and intra regional disparities that exist in an area. It would be disastrous to have a one-size-fits-all approach. We are all bogged down by different ideas, theories, and technicalities of development on any given day but it seems to have its own definitive structure and modality.

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