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Traversing the Field of Development Studies

Reclaiming Development Studies: Essays for Ashwani Saith edited by Murat Arsel,Anirban Dasgupta and Servaas Storm, London and New York: Anthem Press, 2021; pp 300, $40.

The academic field of development studies as a domain of research and policy advice is a contested terrain. Scholars from different social sciences with divergent ideologies have contesded its scope for decades. Yet the two major branches—development economics and “interdisciplinary studies of socio-economic and cultural change outside the capitalist core”—have synergised in the past while they competed with each other. The field was eclectic. Despite their diff­erences, participants communicated across ideologies and disciplines. Today, according to the editors of this interesting book, Reclaiming Development Studies: Essays for Ashwani Saith, the fields have separated. Neoclassical development economics has gained dominance and evicted interdisciplinary socio-economic analyses from the centre stage. The 13 essays assembled here in honour of Ashwani Saith aim to reverse this trend. They share the ambitious objective of reclaiming development studies from the stifling dominance of modern development economics.

These essays traverse a wide range of themes in which Saith has contributed. These include several traditional areas of development studies that remain central in today’s policy debates. Among them are persistent unemployment, surplus labour, informal enterprises, casual labour, migration, marginalisation, hunger, poverty and social inequality, the divergent growth paths of China and India, the remarkable recent achievements of Bangladesh, policy autonomy of dev­elo­p­ing countries under globalisation, and labour law and market reforms. The essays revisit these areas and attempt to update our understanding. Their tone is often combative and critical. They challenge the complacent acceptance of the dominant paradigm. This is a valuable exercise. Teachers and students would benefit from reading it. It would be useful in postgraduate courses on development and in stimulating research towards a new synthesis of understandings of development.

The introduction by the editors (Murat Arsel, Anirban Dasgupta, and Servaas Storm) explains the rationale of the book. The dominance of neoclassical development economics (with its focus on quantitative analysis and randomised controlled trials methodology) has displaced the broad vision that characterised earlier development studies and policy. Consequently, “the analytical centre of development studies has been vacated” (p 5). In particular, the “original notion of emancipatory development as a social project” (p 6) has been lost. The essays here aim to redress the balance.

Scope and Overview

The individual chapters vary a great deal in their purpose, scope, academic discipline, methodology, and use of data. The empirically oriented chapters concern the following issues: the Indian rural non-farm economy (Shreya Sinha and Bhaskar Vira), economic development of China and India (Ajit Ghose), labour laws and manufacturing performance in India (Servaas Storm), poverty reduction and social progress in Bangladesh (Wahiduddin Mahmud), inequality of access to English medium education (Vani Borooah and Nidhi Sabharwal), and India’s social inequality (K P Kannan). Two chapters are methodological and theoretical. These examine “surplus population” from a Marxian perspective (Bridget O’Laughlin) and the macroeconomics of effective demand when surplus labour is present (Marc Wuyts). Two other chapters are intense critiques of well-known influential articles: Storm’s essay critiques the paper by Besley and Burgess (2004) that argues for the repeal of protective labour laws. Sathyamala critiques Sukhatme’s (1978) famous work that argued that food deprivation (and poverty) was being overestimated in India. The remaining chapters address broad development processes. Azizur Rahman Khan and Anirban Dasgupta question whether globalisation restricts national policy autonomy of developing countries. Jan Breman examines the long-term processes that created informal labour. Nineteenth century Europe and its Asian colonies serve as the background. Breman then draws parallels with contemporary India. Finally, Arsel’s chapter on the myth of global sustainability argues that present global arrangements are woefully inadequate to deal with the environmental challenge.

Each of these diverse essays deserves extensive comment. However, for want of space, this review will not discuss each paper in detail. Rather, it will comment mainly on those essays that especially sparked the reviewer’s interest. The introductory chapter is engaging and sets out the context well. It is a useful review of how the development field has evolved and points out key trends. The new concept of “global development” has obliterated the earlier distinctions that existed between developed and developing countries, the North versus the South, etc. These earlier distinctions had opened the space for detailed multidisciplinary study of distinctive features of specific countries, including their culture and society. The processes of social progress, including struggles involving classes, gender, caste, market, and state do not receive the attention that they deserve.

Ajit Ghose’s analysis of the divergence in the development paths of China and India is of great relevance. Why did India fall behind, despite having started on a similar level? Ghose probes this complex problem in depth empirically. He examines the contrasting patterns of structural change. The findings are convincing. China surged ahead after the 1978 reforms because she saved and invested more than India and also because investment was more productive. The sectoral reallocation of labour away from agriculture was higher. This was possible because China paid attention to education and health early on. A large semi-skilled labour force was ready when demand from the manufacturing sector increased. The superior rural infrastructure created during the commune period had facilitated rural industrialisation. Two observations by Ghose are particularly significant for understanding China’s superior performance: (i) rural industrialisation was a more important vehicle for labour reallocation from agriculture than the later
export-oriented industrialisation; and (ii) China had clear strategic policy objectives even as it globalised, unlike India which adopted a non-strategic policy of freeing private enterprise and opening international trade and investment.

Storm’s detailed critique of Besley and Burgess is powerful and persuasive. It attacks the celebrated paper’s anti-labour bias. Besley and Burgess had provided scientific support for labour reforms in India. They had argued that “pro-labour” legislation has the opposite effect than intended and harms the interest of workers. Storm critically reviews the econometric methodology of the paper, its interpretation of data, its neglect of state-level differences in industrial structure and refutes them in detail. It is a comprehensive critique. Storm’s style is polemical, but its substance cannot be brushed aside.

The proliferation of informal labour is a burning issue of our times. Several essays here grapple with the issue from multiple perspectives. The rural non-farm economy and labour relations are add­ressed in papers by Sinha and Vira for India, by O’Laughlin for Southern Africa, by Marc Wuyts who rereads Michael Kalecki and Richard Kahn, and by Jan Breman who adopts a global historical perspective. The disciplinary basis and methodologies employed in these papers are very different. Sinha and Vira argue that rural industrialisation had been ignored in India’s development strategy. Now policymakers see it as a means to create employment. However, attempts to boost rural non-farm employment in the absence of rural industrialisation are likely to fail. The contrast with China’s experience is evident. South Africa has a large magnitude of unemployment, crowding of the marginalised people
in reserves and anti-migrant violence. There is a debate over how to cope with the “surplus population.” Why did this apparently unemployable population emerge in South Africa? O’Laughlin explains this phenomenon from a Marxian perspective. She argues that this results from the process of accumulation of capital, and the “dynamic struggle” between capital and labour.

However, capital is interested only with the availability of wage labour, but not with how worker households survive. Hence, “living labour” households must fend for themselves in order to survive, while they supply wage workers. Struggles over land, the interventions of the state, and petty commodity production all play important roles in the livelihood struggles of the working class. Since wages are inadequate for survival, informality and adaptation assume myriad forms—this is how the “surplus population” survives. O’Laughlin gives several illustrative examples from Southern Africa highlighting the role of women. She emphasises ongoing struggles which have had indeterminate outcomes. But what should be done? The weakness of O’Laughlin’s paper lies in her reluctance to offer a recipe for policy or a theory to predict outcomes. She seems to imply that development strategies do not work.

Wuyt’s paper by contrast is about economic strategy. This is motivated by Tanzania’s revival of development planning since the 1990s. Can the investment rate be increased without creating macroeconomic imbalances? This is an old issue for development planners. As long as surplus labour exists, a high investment rate can employ the required workers without sacrificing agriculture output. However, if additional agricultural output cannot be supplied due to constraints in agriculture, prices will rise. As Wuyt notes, Kalecki and Kahn (stalwarts of the Keynesian era) had recognised that the resulting inflation would involve a sharp increase in the relative price of necessities, with negative distributional consequences for the poor. He argues for a redistributive policy favouring the marginalised rural workers. This would involve wage restraint for the urban workers and capitalists, combined with “quick-yielding investments” in rural areas to increase employment of surplus labour. Exclusive focus on increasing growth rates should be avoided. This is an interesting and important policy recommendation.

Breman’s interesting paper describes how a marginal and redundant labour force was created. The causes of entry to casual labour observed in Victorian Britain are similar to India today—economic distress, dismissal from permanent and skilled jobs, temporary cyclical migration, etc. The households initially tried to maintain a rural base and also tried to access the public support system. However, the “poor laws” were amended (in 1834) to classify the poor into the “deserving” and “undeserving” (descri­bed as “lazy,” “work-shy”) and targeted public support to the former. This exclusion drove the latter from their rural habitat triggering a “massive upheaval and dislocation of the fabric of society” (p 149). This danger currently exists in the developing world with its huge poor informal population and policymakers need to prevent such disastrous outcomes.


In conclusion, this review will make very brief comments on some other papers. Mahmud’s paper on Bangladesh’s socio-economic success highlights the role of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), social campaigns, and media in promoting attitudinal transformation on gender roles, investment in children, and on health and education. Public investment in infrastructure improved local rural road networks. Political parties included social development in their electoral agenda. Hence, there are policy lessons for India, where NGOs face funding constraints, and infrastructure spending is largely on highways. Mahmud does not, however, explain the reasons for high economic growth in Bangladesh. Khan and Dasgupta’s chapter argues that, contrary to common perception, globalisation did not constrain the policy auto­nomy of developing countries. National governments chose wrong policies. They list a series of alternative policies that China and India could have adopted. For example, China could have legalised private enterprises and combined them with support for small entrepreneurs. I found such assertions unconvincing because they ignore the political economy context of policy choices. What were the specific policies chosen and why they were chosen are issues that need a fuller discussion. Kannan presents a detailed empirical analysis of the persistence of social inequality in India. He considers five social groups (based on caste and religion) and measures the relative distance of each group from the socially advanced group across a series of indicators (net worth, consumption, education status, health, housing deprivation, and employment). The findings confirm a durable hierarchical pattern of group-wise inequality. Dalits and Adivasis are the most deprived on all the parameters. What should be done to reduce such entrenched durable social inequality? Kannan does not offer advice but hopes that education will pave the way. Sathyamala challenges Sukhatme’s contention that human bodies adapt to low calorie intake by reducing height but remaining healthy. She rejects the nutritional scientific basis of this argument. Borooah and Sabharwal demonstrate that inequality of access to English medium education exists across social groups, gender, poverty status, and rural/urban location, and that it has increased during 2007–14. It is a detailed empirical analysis. They do not, however, offer policy advice. Finally, Arsel discusses the content of the United
Nations’ sustainable development goals. He warns that these targets are not adequate for responding to the environmental crisis because it does not do enough to limit growth—which is a basic requirement for sustainability. This book makes for an absorbing reading. Ashwani Saith should be pleased.


Besley, Timothy and Robin Burgess (2004): “Can Labour Regulation Hinder Economic Performance? Evidence from India,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol 119, No 1, pp 91–134.

Sukhatme, P V (1978): “Assessment of Adequacy of Diets at Different Income Levels,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 13, Nos 31–33, pp 1373–84.


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Updated On : 8th Aug, 2022
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