Urban bias aplenty

Urban bias aplenty

The rural and agricultural sectors have not received much attention from our policy-makers irrespective of the party in power. While the urban bias of the government policy-making is often blamed for this persistent neglect, the nature and vocabulary of the economic theory that have contributed to the bias are often overlooked.

The discipline of economics, which is central to modern policy-making, conceives of a society dominated by a caste system that classifies people according to their ability to work in the midst of modern technologies and management systems in a market setting. This society/economy excludes by design rural people in developing countries, who are described as unskilled.

They might be unskilled from the perspective of modern market economy, but otherwise they possess a wide range of skills that enable them to participate in the traditional society. These people are bearers of surplus labour if we compare their contribution to “national” income and their population share.

They are idle if we consider the fraction of their time devoted to profitable economic activities. However, they have many other commitments in addition to contributing to national income. They take care of family shrines and graves, live their folklore, and protect their sacred groves, among other things.

The excessive reliance of economists on mathematics and statistics has meant that they work behind a screen of numbers from where real people are hardly visible and their voices are inaudible. The distance makes it is easy to describe the economic “others” as idle, unskilled, and surplus.

Such descriptions that are common place in, say, our 5-year plan documents which first deny the non-urban people equal participation in the economy and then allow them entry on terms decided by the modern city. These callous descriptions legitimise policies to “educate” villagers and relocate them to places where their (new) skills can be more profitably utilised.

In short, the manner in which economics measures the worth of people and the language it uses to describe rural people and the traditional economy have contributed to the urban bias of policy-making. However, analytical and theoretical inadequacies have made economics blind to the socio-ecological disequilibria generated by the mass displacement triggered by the urban bias of government policies and modern economies. An illustration is in order.

Circumstances forced a villager to migrate to an industrial city, where he worked as a labourer. He lived in the most squalid quarters of the city. His son went to college and eventually became the CEO of a company. The son bought land in the countryside to spend time with his family away from the pollution of the city. There his family enjoyed nature, went fishing and hunting, and also built a that-ched hut. However, unlike his father, who did all this until he was labelled unskilled and idle, the son is admired and adorns the cover pages of leading magazines.

Skills for jobs

To compound the irony, the son is cheered as a responsible corporate leader when he makes tax-exempt contributions to foundations that record endangered languages, folklore, and oral knowledge and encourage villagers to pick up skills that will help them find jobs in cities. Most of the displaced villagers will, however, never be able to go back to nature. They will not get the opportunity to sing their folklore and speak their languages except when a researcher approaches them to museumify/anthropologise their “past.” Unlike the successful son, they cannot even console themselves with an illusion of achievement in the middle of the slums from where they can be evicted any time.

Unfortunately, given the asymmetry of power and the deepening policy-induced rural/agrarian distress, people are increasingly compelled to leave villages. The lucky among them find themselves reduced to CCTV-monitored robots embedded in the midst of frighteningly large and fast machines. Perhaps they begin to contribute more to the (market) economy and national income after being relocated and retrained. However, the hidden “costs” associated with the loss of self-respect and confidence in large sections of the society that are declared backward, unskilled, and surplus and then uprooted are enormous.

The discourse of development/backwardness has convinced millions that they have nothing valuable and transformed them into passive recipients of ideas generated by “advanced” people. The annual interviews of prospective students at my university offer glimpses into the reading habits of a wider cross-section of students. I have found that students from Indian language-medium schools do not think twice before proudly proclaiming familiarity with the likes of Chetan Bhagat. Even those who are familiar with the works of Jnanpith/ Sahitya Akademi awardees in their languages prefer to mention names of English writers because they have been made to believe that English is the language of knowledge and culture.

Economics abstracts away from such “incidental” issues such as the loss of self-respect, language and culture, which cannot be measured and subjugated to its mechanical analysis. So, economics can’t be a reliable guide to policy-makers in developing countries as it systematically suppresses the unmeasurable compon-ents of the costs of resettlement/ displacement, urbanisation and modernisation.

The insensitive language of economics cannot take the entire blame though. A commitment to modernisation theory, which pervades social sciences, is essential for the intellectual justification and operationalisation of the insensitive, if not hostile, attitude toward things non-modern that are seen as a residue from the past that should disappear with time.

The urban bias of economics can be corrected through, among other things, curricular reforms. Indian literature and fieldwork can be included in the curriculum, for instance. These changes will help limiting the discipline’s metaphorical violence against economic “others” by exposing young economists to ground realities and humanistic descriptions of society alongside impersonal mathematical representations of social “problems.”

(The writer teaches economics at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru)

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