India Semester Abroad

India Semester Abroad

University of Guelph

  An informal pre-departure orientation from a participant’s perspective.




Academic: Development

UG India Semester 2008











What is development?

Everyone understands development differently, but it is generally perceived to be a desirable process of economic, political, social, and cultural growth. Development is often defined through dichotomies ( modern vs. traditional, developed vs. undeveloped) where one is assumed to be preferable to the other.

In India, development is usually assumed to imply increased wealth, fairer distribution of resources, more education, and representative and accountable government.

Confused? Rightly so. Let’s look at development more specifically.

So how can India promote development?

At the moment, the most popular buzzwords in development are ‘good governance’ and ‘liberalization’. Basically, most people right now think that countries will develop if they adopt a free and fair democratic system of government that is accountable to the population. Secondly, these people think that governments should stop interfering with the supply and demand of the market, and allow capitalism to create efficient economic growth.

It all sounds so easy, right? Most major international organizations, national aid agencies, and many NGOs agree that democracy and economic growth are fundamental to the development process. However, critics of this strategy say that unbridled capitalism only helps the rich to get richer. Instead, they argue that governments need to protect the poor by providing social services that maintain a basic standard of living. These critics often advocate increased participation at the grassroots level, to empower citizens to build a sustainable high-quality lifestyle that is accessible to everyone.

Photo: Meeting with a successful rural NGO in Rajasthan, where villagers told us about the steps they are taking towards improving health, education, income, and gender equality. We could only speak through a translator, but we shared songs and dance and a lot of laughter with each other nonetheless!




Historical Context

In many ways, the current emphasis on good governance and liberalization is a reaction to the past failures of other development theory. Over the last 50 years, a series of approaches to development have been unable to accomplish their goals, leaving Indians looking for a new strategy.

After India achieved independence from Britain in 1947, the mood was optimistic. Newly-independent states like India were expected to progress in just a few years under the guidance of centrally-planned governments. At the time, development was all about replacing ‘backwards’ traditions with modern western values and institutions. This theory, called ‘modernization’, was applied indiscriminately to all poor countries around the world, without taking into account the individual needs and contexts of each place. Unfortunately, change was not as easy as planners thought, and many of the development programs in the 1950’s-70’s left Indians and others dissatisfied and no better of than before.

This failure was compounded by the ongoing ‘Cold War’ between the United States of America and the Soviet Union. Both sides used development finding as a tool to make allies. This resulted in lots of money being spent on ineffective projects like big dams and industrialization instead of improving basic quality of life.

Part of this trend was the Green Revolution of the 1970’s, which revolutionized Indian farming. Traditional methods and plant varieties were replaced with genetically modified seeds, chemical fertilizers, and machines. All of this cost too much money for poor farmers, and put agricultural labourers out of a lot of work. The result? Big and rich farmers reaped all the benefits, and the rural poor was left with even less options.

The 1980’s are often referred to as the ‘Lost Decade’ of development. Investment in large-scale development continued, funded by increasing borrowing from developed countries. When the interest rates suddenly rose, developing nations were left with unmanageable debts. Many countries were unable to keep up with the interest payments, let alone pay back the principal, leading to a worldwide debt crisis among poor nations.

In reaction, international financial institutions in the 1990’s began imposing Structural Adjustment Plans (SAPs) dictating strict fiscal management for governments in the developing world. The World Bank gave India a SAP in 1990, forcing the government to reduce deficits, privatize publicly owned corporations, reduce spending on social services, and opening up trade and commerce to market supply and demand.

The Current Situation

What was the result of Modernization and Structural Adjustment? The reduced spending on education, health, and other social support programs leave the poorest Indians with even fewer resources and opportunities. The government still keeps the price of some basic foods (such as rice, wheat, and milk) artificially low as a means of support, but around one quarter of all Indians are below the poverty line. As of 2003, more than 40% of Indians were illiterate, and life expectancy was only 63 years.

The present development paradigm, based on good governance and liberalization, is an attempt to correct the perceive failures of past development strategies by increasing efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability. Everyone is looking for ways to help promote development in India, but it is not easy. Ideally, development should improve the lives of the population by increasing their wealth and opportunities without taking away from their freedom or dignity. However, in practice it is extremely difficult to achieve economic, political, social, and cultural development all at the same time and in a sustainable way.

Many of the responsibilities previously held by the government are now being taken up by NGOs. Ranging from huge international organizations to tiny grassroots initiatives, these institutions do everything from providing education, health services, and agricultural support to forming cooperatives, lending money, and resolving conflicts. At their best, NGOs are flexible, efficient, and tailored to the specific needs of a population; however, their success is sometimes hampered by lack of resources, outside agendas, and lack of accountability to participants.

At the moment, development theory is moving towards advocating culturally appropriate solutions, based on grassroots initiatives and increased citizen participation at all levels. No one knows if this will work in the long run (given the past record of failures, I must say that it seems unlikely!), but we can only hope for the best!




For more statistics about India’s development, take a look at the 2003 United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index at

If you are looking for a more hopeful spin on India’s development, read this article about development success in the southern state of Kerala from The Guardian newspaper in Britain -– an excellent and reputable slightly-left leaning news source.




Updated: 2006 November 16