Who Benefits From Development Anyway?

On a recent trip to India, my cousin Sujit applauded the impact of economic development efforts in Bangalore, a city referred to as India's Silicon Valley. It's the trickle-down effect, he said. IT Centers attract professionals; they bring families and friends and tourism rises. People are needed, from tour guides to ticket sellers to food vendors. Everybody wins. Development has enabled India to reinvent/invest in itself. People no longer have to travel across seas to make a good life. His argument sounded convincing. Has the opening up of borders to foreign markets revolutionized the quality of life for the majority of India's 1 billion people? Or, on perhaps a less ambitious note, can the high costs of development be justified by the creation of jobs and India's growing recognition in the global marketplace?

The series of interspersed stories presented here speaks to the complex, hybrid locations that are created out of ever-diversifying populations, cultures, economic and political forces. In particular, I hope to shed light on the rift between profit-driven enterprises dictated by corporate elites and people-centered struggles arguing for the sustainability of existing communities. I will draw upon experiences gathered on a recent visit to India realizing, however, this precarious tension resonates throughout much of the world.

I began my trip in the South, visiting relatives in Kerala, a state often touted for its 98% literacy rate, despite having insufficient jobs and an economy that depends on migrant labor. From Kerala, I traveled to Bangalore and had planned to end my trip in Bombay, to attend the World Social Forum (WSF). I left the Forum a few days early to visit an old college roommate and good friend, Anisa, who had been staying in Delhi. Anisa had taken a one-year leave from law school to work on a research project which involved having conversations with a diverse spectrum of laborers and documenting the conditions of their lives. She had written to me about her friend Sher Singh and urged me to pay a visit.

At the outskirts of Delhi, there is a place called Faridabad, which has become the site of numerous multi-million dollar companies. The streets are glossed with signs of Nike, Chevrolet, Ford and other indicators of foreign investment; 25 miles of factories and showrooms. Not far away, but invisible to the outsider, is a slum community where the factory workers live—those who by day toil in the basements and behind the scenes of modernity's most glamorous products. On our bus ride through Faridabad, Sher Singh explained later that urban planners had not designed housing for these workers, many of them from other states. So they were forced to carve homes in nearby slums.

Anisa and I took the early train into Faridabad. We left a message with the attendant at the local STD booth (a public phone facility), hoping that Sher Singh would be available for an afternoon conversation. Upon entering town, we made our way to the Library, where Anisa told me Sher Singh meets his friends. After some time, Sher Singh arrived; he had been distributing the latest edition of a collective newspaper, including personal reflections and commentaries by workers and others. There were no books in the library, no artifice, no painting by an obscure artist made to sound important by the caption. Aside from a tattered poster with a reference to Marx, there was no writing on the walls or much of anywhere. Sher Singh explained that when he was a student in the 70s, his politics took on a more militant approach. He stacked the library with books by radical authors. He embraced the idea of revolution and saw protest as the means of getting there. But over the years, he realized that books drowned in esoteric rhetoric were futile. Over the years, he changed his strategy. What is radical about texts that, by their very language, exclude the masses?

Sher Singh is intense about his politics. He is a middle-aged man; I couldn't guess his age because I couldn't surmise what toll his life has taken on him and if his solid gray hair had aged him beyond his years. But his smile and charisma make him approachable, deeply personable and incredibly, non-judgmental. Otherwise, he would have dismissed an eager, First-World, English-speaking (he prefers to speak in Hindi), "activist" like myself, in the manner many locals did towards WSF delegates from the U.S. I asked Sher Singh why he hadn't attended. He smiled, paused for a moment and said something to the effect: We use these words "activist," "progressive," "liberal." But in doing so, we cut ourselves off from the masses. 100,000 people gathered in Mumbai. But 100,000 select people who cheerleaded behind the conference slogan "Another world is possible."

Sher Singh answered in a way that was subtle, yet struck to the heart of the issue. It was a select participant pool who, through personal means or access to funding, had been enabled to participate in the dialogue. His suggestion was that by claiming the word "activist," we isolate ourselves, even moralize our actions, from others. We point fingers at those who (we think) care less about the world, or not as much as ourselves. We insist on categories based on difference and silence the possibility of, for example, making peace with our neighbors, our family members, those of different political persuasions, those in our own backyards. Instead we—the 100,000 people—flock to Mumbai. His point began to make sense. I was reminded of my uncle in Kerala; he had explained how he is now growing cocoa and vanilla to accommodate the demands of the market, despite the fact that these crops are not used in regional cooking. Yes, my relatives were more prone to the uneven effects of globalization, yet were unaware that the WSF was occurring in their home country.

But to be honest, I was a little taken back by Sher Singh's frankness. Had he not possessed such incredible warmth in his eyes, I may have dismissed his criticisms. I told Sher Singh about the "community" courthouse I was working at in Red Hook, a neighborhood in South Brooklyn also undergoing re-development. I mentioned how the courthouse held weekly "quality of life" sessions, forced upon those who violate what certain people have decided is important to keeping a community safe and clean. I was struck by how he articulately identified the parallels between communities as seemingly diverse as Red Hook and Faridabad.

As I revisit my cousin's narrative of an India in economic transition, I am trying to understand his context. Everything available in the West, he says proudly, is now available in India. Yes, cell phones and DVD players, fast food and foreign cars, shopping malls and talk shows—they're all available. Along with urban decay and overcrowding, gentrification and lack of affordable housing, under-resourced schools and a growing divide between rich and poor—which are almost inevitable. Regardless, India is earning its seat at the global table. Of course, my cousin holds a different stake in this version of the development story. He is a witness to and participant of this change. I visit India on leisure and depart at my luxury. I detect my cousin's skepticism when I tell him I am pursuing a degree in International Affairs, or when I talk about the lack of food security and clean drinking water in many regions of the world; these are research interests to me, they are day-to-day realities to others.

Upon returning to the U.S., I reflected with fellow delegates and others on the experience. Some criticized the WSF for its failure to offer a concrete solution to reconcile globalization's promise of improving standard of living, with the realistic constraints of how this was going to happen, and what might be compromised. Others, like Sher Singh, were skeptical of "event-driven" activism, where the rallying cry revolved around efforts for legalization and confrontation, and deeper spiritual needs of communities were often overlooked. And yet in spite of these criticisms, let me be honest. I was inspired, overwhelmed, silenced, frustrated and challenged, but at every moment, truly moved. Most conferences held in the U.S. (and I would argue, worldwide), center around the words uttered at the podium. From chanting to hip hop, spontaneous processions to planned protests, the diversity of ways to access the stimulation, so to speak, was incredible. One could sense the energy and dynamism just walking through the WSF grounds.

And perhaps, for First World people wanting to create change, this will be one of the largest gains—the encouragement to keep dreaming outside of what "we know," to challenge ourselves on how to organize in a space not confined to a hotel or university, to engage in serious dialogue with people along a spectrum of life experiences, to accept a "working agenda" but also give value and allow space for spontaneous discussion and dancing, processions and protest.

What role does dreaming, imagining outside of familiar paradigms, play in our construction of a new world? Just as the activists' dream of "another world" might be a democratic world, is it equally fair to allow others to dream of a capitalist-driven society? What happens when these dreams collide? And what is the role of development in all of this? According to a standard thesaurus, the word development can be replaced by: growth, expansion, progress, improvement. Of course each person's idea of what "growth" will look like, and who will be the beneficiaries, largely differ.

These are moral questions as much as they are economic questions. And while the WSF does not propose a single-tier solution, neither does Sher Singh, nor my cousin. What remains clear is that each of the currents is not always in unison. And however we might judge the impacts of time and technology, regardless of our personal opinion on the effects of development, development is changing us and our futures. Yes, development has enabled India and New York City and much of the world, to reinvent/invest in itself, for better or worse. And perhaps that's the only thing there will be agreement upon.

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Dear Amykutty, This article is profound! Not only scholarly, but also reflective of your deep concern and compassion. Keep up the good work! Lv, Susheela aunty

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