Sustainable Development Goals: Prayagraj experience

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Sustainable Development Goals: Prayagraj experience

Sunday, 23 June 2019 | KK SRIVASTAVA

Economic development's overall target is expansion of people's capabilities. But most important of all development goals is the inclusive growth. And in Prayagraj, people claim, ‘Everyone is enjoying these changes. These are public goods and hence all persons irrespective of caste, religion, groups are entitled for these fruits of development.’

May 2019, on my visit to Prayagraj, a book accompanied me in Air India flight wherein I read this stirring


“But today, for instance, Mr M’Choakumchild was explaining to us about Natural Prosperity,” said Sissy.

“National, I think it must have been,” observed Louisa.

“Yes, it was. But isn’t it the same?” she timidly asked.

“You had better say, National, as he said so,” returned Louisa.

“National Prosperity. And he said, Now, this schoolroom is a Nation. And in this nation, there are fifty millions of money. Isn’t this a prosperous nation, and ain’t you in a thriving state?”

“What did you say?” asked Louisa.

“Miss Louisa, I said I didn’t know. I thought I couldn’t know whether it was a prosperous nation or not, and whether I was in a thriving state or not, unless I knew who had got the money, and whether any of it was mine. But that had nothing to do with it. It was not in the figures at all,” said Sissy, wiping her tears. 

This dialogue, from Charles Dickens novel: Hard Times, between Ms Louisa and Sissy Jupe, a girl student not given to dictates of philosophy at her school that “nothing but facts” matter, was not an ordinary dialogue, for Sissy was only a student generally not supposed to be having nuanced wisdom to reflect on wider implications of a mal-behaving economy but the visionary author could fathom and put in Sissy’s mouth the real distress of a girl student who knew macro prosperity held no guarantee for prosperity at micro level. Equally important if not more is, at her age, she also knew what was “National” was obviously “Natural” too. Thus emerge these two important lessons from aforementioned interaction having tremendous relevance for developmental efforts underway in different countries.

Reading Dickens may initiate readers into an emotional churning: a good way to proceed further but there is no gainsaying the fact that issues involved in modern day life’s variedness when juxtaposed along with complexity of socio-economic developmental models render any analysis far too complicated.  Let it be belabored further in terms of some of the principal concerns as expressed in literature on welfare economics.

In the absence of refined weapons in their armory, conventionally economists have used a crude measure i.e. per capita income as indicative of human welfare. Justified criticism asserts and with good logic that this single crude measure provided by per capital income is inadequate and the need to assess a number of distinct areas of human life in determining how well people are doing can hardly be overlooked. Economists and policy makers now are almost unanimous that we should instead measure people’s capabilities, that is, whatever they are able to do and that too in a variety of areas of life. That has been the seminal way of egging on debate on factors affecting and consequentially improving the quality of life with a view to making available to policymakers options for taking measures, including corrective ones, to promote human well-being and welfare.

When the prosperity of a nation or the quality of life of its inhabitants is talked about, how much money or let us say “goods” and “services” are available for a given number of people (the dilemma Sissy confronts Louisa with) is not a comprehensively equipped tool to explain away national prosperity. Larger questions involving distribution of these resources and more critically what that distribution of resources does to people’s lives lurk around. How people with these resources conduct their lives is what economists and philosophers tend to look into. There are a lot of indices one has to gauge like people’s life expectancy, health care, medical services, education — and not only about their availability, but about their nature and more crucially their quality.

Philosophers and economists have by and large reached an uncompromising consensus that the life a person leads can be seen as a combination of various doings and beings, which can be generically called functionings. Some functionings may be elementary matters like being adequately fed, nourished and disease-free, while others may be more compounded, such as having self-esteem, preserving human dignity, taking part in the life of the community, and so on. The term “capability” of a person connotes various alternative combinations of functionings, any one of which (any combination) a person can choose to have. In this sense, the capability of a person corresponds to the freedom that a person has to lead one kind of life or another. Capability is linked closely and is dependent upon “entitlement approach” which emphasises a person’s actual command over bundle of goods and services and that person’s actual position in the system that operates through set of rules regulating usage of commodities. For instance, in an economy overall ratio of food to population may be high but there might be people or groups not having sufficient command over food and these people or groups might suffer.

Further, a basket of goods and services may be very appropriate for a young man but the same will be disastrous for an old man. Similarly, a basket of goods and services for a man suffering from severe diabetes may not be very appropriate for a diabetes-free man of the same age. Or alternatively, goods suitable for extreme summer will not be suitable for severe winter. Climate too matters.

With an alarming number of persons affected with psychiatric problems like schizophrenia, manic depressive psychosis and other severe and not so severe mental disorders, sooner or later appropriate policy strategies have to be thought out and in place to address their concerns: both physical and psychological. Pertinent here is to recall John Rawls’ “difference principle” which offers an explanation for “most deprived group of persons”. Deprivation is defined in terms of availability of “primary goods” which can be very diverse in nature and this in turn necessitates construction of an overall index of various primary goods. Rawlsian version is alleged to have been insensitive to persons with special needs: the disabled, sick and “mentally defective” as Rawls called them. Policies aimed at tackling poverty, hunger and deprivation must take care of people of these groups.

There are some important issues in entitlement and capabilities approach. Since it is agreed that economic development’s overall target is expansion of people’s “capabilities”, principal concern should focus on what people can do in consequence of having benefitted from enhanced capabilities. Second issue is to understand the process of economic expansion and structural changes through which capabilities can be expanded. While goods and services are valuable, they are not valuable in themselves. Their value lies in what they can do for the people, or rather, what people can do with these goods and services? Third, let us assume that the capabilities of each person are uniquely related to total availability of goods and services, then one can go ahead with focusing on the total supply of goods and services. But that assumption can never hold good. We have the problem of the division of the total output between families and individuals and in addition, we are fronted with the fact that the conversion of commodities into capabilities varies enormously with a number of parameters, e.g. sex, health, age, class background, education, social relations, etc. 

For example let us take one goal of Sustainable Development Goals launched worldwide in 2015. In case of goal number 2: zero hunger which necessarily involves food and nutrition, the nutrition of people depends on the availability of food per head in the community, but distribution considerations too weigh heavily. Additional factors that need to be looked into are the person’s age and sex, a woman: whether pregnant or lactating, metabolic rates and body size, activity levels, medical conditions including presence or absence of stomach parasites, climatic conditions, etc. The problem of distribution of food within households is a serious issue. Sex bias is an accepted fact. There is no simple equation between the capability of a person to be well nourished and availability of food. Unless other related capabilities like enjoying food, social intercourse, general happiness in family, etc, are enhanced, no useful conclusion can be drawn about well-being of a human being.

Prayagraj Experience:

In Prayagraj, I asked a few persons as to their views on five best indicators of development they noticed during last two/three years. Unanimously, they agreed on one: 24 hours electricity supply everyday as compared to 4 to 8 hours cut previously; two: 24 hours water supply everyday as compared to intermittent cuts/no supplies previously; three: about 90 per cent congestion on almost all roads gone.

“Widening of almost all roads. We freely move on roads we used to fear going two years back. Now cars can travel at 50 plus an hour and that was unthinkable previously,” said the taxi driver.

Four, neat and transparent administration with no or very meagre delays. “Responsible behaviour is the rule. Sense of discipline prevails,” remarked another retired officer. But the fifth was the most important thing which they commonly shared, “Everyone is enjoying these changes. These are public goods and hence all persons irrespective of caste, religion, groups are entitled for these fruits of development. The fascinating beauty of these achievements is these are uniformly available to all.”

One evening, I walked Rajapur road I used to go to fetch vegetables and other eatables during 1990-95 when I was posted at the then Allahabad. I was for utmost surprise. Road was really wide, clean, well-lighted and traffic was highly disciplined. Pleasure accompanied me as I moved on that road. I thought “Yes, it is all inclusive growth. And that was what Sissy Jupe had in her mind when she disagreed with Louisa. We are amid times when everyone is assured of uniform benefits of development; benefits are not confined to a few persons, groups or organisations. No one needs to quarrel as did Sissy Jupe.”

Such a development has many invisible positive effects. Wide roads and less congestion leads to less and reduced stress and hypertension levels which in turn contributes to general happiness, no or less altercations on roads, no or lesser accidents and so on so forth. 24-hour availability of electricity makes studies by students irritation free and rewarding. Time lost in looking at the clock waiting for current to come can have serious implications for students. Continuity of concentration goes and what they lose is simply immeasurable.

Salman Rushdie’s THE GOLDEN HOUSE: Monologue of V Arsenyeva:

Let me end the article on a literary note akin to the way it began. Charles Dickens critically looked at iniquitous behaviour of economy through a character Sissy Jupe. Rushdie has Vasilisa Arsenyeva, a Russian girl with origins in Siberia, in mind. She now lives in New York and sometimes in Florida. She intermittently reflects on issues like her own poverty, need and love. In her monologue, she emphasises a vital fact about “poverty of her origin”. A time comes in a poor person’s life when in place of cursing his/her sufferance, he/she starts relishing it. Arsenyeva looks “with contempt” at those sympathetic with her poverty. She admits, “Poverty is a disgusting condition and to fail to emerge from it is also disgusting. The past is a broken cardboard suitcase full of photographs of things I no longer wish to see.”

The question of food, the question of clothing, the question of warmth were all important questions for Arsenyeva but “there was never any question about a sufficiency of drink for her father.” But she excelled at all things she did and that moved her to America and she felt no need to thank anyone because she came to America due to her solo efforts. Need causes love. To live happily in a house, you must build “a solid house”.

Economists value capabilities and entitlements because these apart from paving the way towards freedom of achieving happiness, also create plethora of correct, transparent and unbiased opportunities for the overall development of people. It is a question of the command that people have over their lives. It is all about leading a life which enables one to live up to what Arsenyeva’s monologue confirms, “I am the general of myself and my body is the foot soldier that obeys what the general commands.”

Let us ponder over her exclamation and imagine the inner happiness that once impoverished and deprived but now capable Arsenyeva has achieved. Looking at Prayagraj experience, it is clear that the society is steadily heading towards times when ongoing developmental efforts will ultimately provide people with what Paul Streeten calls, “the opportunity for a full life”.

(The author hails from Gorakhpur and is currently Additional Deputy Comptroller and Auditor General in office of Comptroller & Auditor General of India. He is a poet writing in English with three poetry collections. His fourth book SOLILOQUY OF A SMALL TOWN UNCIVIL SERVANT, a semi-autobiographical literary non-fiction, has been published by Rupa Publications, New Delhi in March 2019. The views expressed in this article are his personal views.)

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