Author:Tripathy, Jyotirmaya

This paper is about the making of culture, its problematic relation with national and global discourses on development, but more than anything else, the shifting nature of what we call culture and the place of development in it. It offers a critique of both the modernist framework, which sees culture as development's other as well as the post-development tendency to exaggerate local cultures as the space of genuine development. Instead, it makes a case for approaching culture as a site of conformity and contestation and where development realities are produced, thus making development a temporal and discursive construct. The questions that guide this paper are whether culture exists as a fixed essence on which development works in an antagonistic relationship or development constructs culture in a complementary alliance, and whether culture is a homogeneous space of belonging or a slippery site where multiple meanings and truths scramble for legitimacy. These questions are answered by drawing from, and expanding on, existing cultural development literature, as well as by engaging with two environmental movements from India.


Culture has been represented in development theory and practice either as a realm outside the sphere of development (as in modernization theory) or as a site where development is materialized (as in community development initiatives). That said, the culture question remains at the heart of the debate around development and the way development is made meaningful across peoples and places. The following pages are an attempt to engage with development dilemma vis-a-vis culture, which will also address some of the provisionalities associated with culture in the project of development. But before we proceed, let us share a story, which problematizes uncritical assumptions of the culture/development dyad.

Mr. Aman Nath, one of the co-owners of Neemrana Heritage Hotels in India, had an interesting cultural/developmental experience in a Rajasthan village, which could have happened to any sensitive development planner. After spending a lot of money on the restoration of an old fort to a heritage hotel, Aman Nath, like any other socially conscious entrepreneur, thought of providing piped water to each household in the adjoining village. A survey was made to implement his project, which Aman Nath thought would bring some cheer to the women and save them from the drudgery of carrying vessel loads of water under an unrelenting sun. But one fine morning, he had a group of women visitors who were visibly upset about this piped water plan. Their grievance was that fetching water every day is not a chore for them; in fact, they look forward to it to break the monotony of an insulated life, which their patriarchal society imposes upon them. While going to fetch water, they get together, share one another's experiences, complain about their in-laws, or just enjoy one another's company. Contrary to Aman Nath's understanding, carrying water was tedious but also a gateway to these women's happiness through which they transcended the humdrum of daily life, its servitude and submission. Aman Nath listened patiently, dropped the piped water plan instantly, and in consultation with the women, drew a plan of digging up a few more wells.

Thus, what we consider human well-being and freedom are mediated by our cultural world views and the values they offer to make sense of the world. If this story tells us about the need for imagining development through culture, there is another story (to be elaborated later) that reveals the "acultural," or even anti-cultural, nature of development. In April 2013, the Supreme Court of India authorized the Dongria Kandhas around Niyamagiri Hills of Odisha to decide the fate of Vedanta Resources, a UK-based company, which had planned to invest 2.7 billion US dollars to mine bauxite from the Niyamagiri hills and process the same in a company-run refinery in nearby Lanjigarh. The problem was that the Niyamagiri hill was worshipped by the Kandha tribe as their god. The court recognized that the Dongria Kandhas have a right to worship their sacred hill, and ruled that mining activity in Niyamagiri infringes upon their cultural and religious practices and as such cannot be allowed without their consent. It ordered a referendum to know the wishes of the people through local village councils. Not surprisingly, all the councils rejected mining activity, and thus the culture of the Kandhas prevailed over externally driven development.

The real-life stories mentioned above are not intended to propose that culture of a particular people or region is a singular experience offering its adherents consensual frameworks to imagine the good life, nor do they contend that culture understood as such is universally opposed to development. Rather, they function as entry points to proceed further in my diagnosis of the culture/development debate and invite the readers to approach culture as a multidimensional site of conformity and contestation. Against the conventional wisdom that culture is too vernacular a practice to play any meaningful role in the global process of development, this paper is aimed at offsetting that residual status for culture in development practice. Critics like Peter Worsley, Thierry Verhelst, Vincent Tucker, and Wendy Tyndale have already mourned the omission of culture in development thinking and planning. Though these authors used culture as a fixed ensemble of symbols and material practices, thereby restricting cultures appeal, they successfully highlighted the invisibilization of a dynamic aspect of peoples lives vis-a-vis development. (2) The present paper is intended to carry this debate forward by imagining culture as a dynamic space of consensus and conflict where development contributes to what we understand as culture.

The first part of the paper is intended as the theoretical framework with the aim of evaluating the core concepts in the domain of cultural development. It traces the elision of culture in mainstream development thinking, interrogates a universalist understanding of development praxis, and implicates a global/national development discourse in the production and sustenance of local cultures. The second part uses two resistance movements to argue that what counts as culture is in fact produced in representation, and that it does not exist autonomous of global forces. The third part engages with the same movements to make a case for local culture as a site of contestation where multiple versions of cultural meanings coexist. The concluding part reiterates the thesis that culture is neither a homogeneous space of belonging, nor is it always characterized by resistance to global forces, but is a process of becoming.


The United Nations World Decade for Cultural Development from 1988 to 1997 brought culture and development together in mainstream institutional practices. This was a movement away from the earlier modernization theory in general and Rostow's model of the five-stage trajectory of economic growth in particular, where culture and tradition are something that needs to be relegated and repressed for development to emerge. Rostow had gone to the extent of arguing, in Hegelian fashion, that the evolutionary story of national economy is not just "a theory about economic growth," but also a "theory about modern history as a whole." (3) Later, post-development thinkers like Alvares, Sachs, Latouche, and Sardar tried to unmask the pretensions of modernist development as an acultural universal and its representation of the underdeveloped world as a space of culture and particularity. (4)

It was not just the Western modernizers, but also the leaders of newly independent countries in the postcolonial world of Asia and Africa who were equally convinced about the modernist formula. For India's first Prime Minister Nehru, Indian people could prosper only if they weaned themselves away from the illusory comforts of tradition. As he famously declared, "there is only one way traffic in time." (5) However, in the 1980s, customary development thought, with its one-dimensional focus on economy, was seeking to go beyond the impasse (6) and beyond the practice of the First World experts studying the Third World from the comforts of their armchairs. (7) Also, theoretical developments in social sciences created a critical vocabulary hitherto unavailable for development policy research and helped see normative development thought as a discourse. These new theoretical templates unmasked the complicity of development knowledge with power, created a deconstructive and disruptive lexicon, and equipped us with tools to interrogate all universalizing certainties. Now we know that development is a certain type of temporal and discursive product and is no less cultural than the backward cultures it seeks to act upon.

The culture of the non-Western world, which is seen as an impediment to modernist development, is not a space of homogeneity and uniformity. It may come as a surprise that development does not act on preexisting cultures all the time; it often produces certain types of cultural character. Thus, using culture only as an instrument to fulfil a development project may be counterproductive because cultures are way too many (even in an apparently homogeneous region) to offer a coherent pathway for development goals. Though imagined as complete wholes and containers of peoples values, cultures may be a contradictory enterprise, often leading to easy appropriation and co-option. If the modern development complex sees poor/underdeveloped people as disposable, intellectuals and activists see in these people and their lifestyle the last remnants of pure humanity and innocence. What is elided in this theorization is the constructed nature of culture itself, the struggle of its members over meaning...

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