November 2, 1982

Mohan Kumaramangalam Memorial Lecture

Sixth Mohan Kumaramangalam Memorial Lecture

Professionalism vs Practicality : A Dilemma in Management of Rural Development

V Kurien


National Dairy Development Board

Administrative Staff College of India


November 2, 1982

Shri Dharma Vira, Chairman, of the Court of Governors of the Administrative Staff College of India, honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen –

It is an honour to be invited to deliver the Six Mohan Kumaramangalam Memorial Lecture. I did not have the honour to know Shri Mohan Kumaramangalam personally, but I did know him by reputation. He was particularly reputed for the integrity and dedication with which he pursued the tasks which society entrusted him with. He was clear in his thinking and, unlike so many in public life today, he did not try to be “all things to all men”. He knew that one cannot please everyone all the time. On the contrary, once one determines a desirable course of action, one probably has to dis-please quite a few people; that is one of our dilemmas in the management of rural development, to which the title of this lecture refers.

Objectives of rural development

In tackling the topic of professionalism v/s practicality, in the management of rural development, I should start by emphasising that, as I have been a professional manager who is employed by farmers for a little more than thirty years, that is the view-point from which I inevitably look at the whole task of rural development: a task which occupies so much space in our national debates, even if there is more emphasis on the rhetoric of rural development, rather than on its practice.

I find that much of the confusion, which presently obscures the meaning of rural development, stems from the multiplicity of objectives which we claim to pursue in the name of rural development. These objectives fall into three major categories:

  1. First, since most of our rural population is dependent on agriculture and is poor, the first objective of rural development is concerned with agricultural production and productivity. The country needs more food, more cotton, more timber – so we talk much of “increasing agricultural production”. And, somewhat less often, since we know that all kinds of production depend on the manner in which scarce resources are deployed, we speak not only of increasing agriculture production but also of “increased agricultural productivity;”
  2. Since we also know that a large proportion of our rural people have too little to eat, we usually add a rider to the objectives of increased agricultural production and productivity: namely, we say that this must be accompanied by improved nutritioin for the rural poor. There is some debate about this word “nutrition” we fear that it is used to avoid less congenial phrases such as “alleviation of hunger”….. in any event, any discussion of the nutritional aspects of rural development, inevitably leads to the identification of a third set of objectives –
  3. I refer to those objectives which can be summed up by the word “equality”. Whether we regard this set of objectives as primarily social or primarily economic, we know that we cannot eliminate hunger unless there is substantial redistribution of income.

In our debates on rural development, ends often get confused with means. Not only do we have multiplicity of objectives, but often we confuse them with the means by which they are to be achieved. For example, a large part of the practicalities of rural development depend upon the rural poor obtaining more effective access to applications of modern technology – not only for producing food and fibre, but also for obtaining housing which can keep the rain our during the monsoon, for obtaining drinking water which will not give babies diarrhoea, for obtaining cooking fuel which women and children will not have to talk ten km to find, for obtaining basic health services and an environment which is conducive to healthy development of the young.

As if this was not enough, one sees intuitively that these tools for better living are unlikely to get into the hands of rural poor unless there are better services, especially in the fields of education, health, communication – and, less tangibly perhaps, in the whole area that can be categorised as “culture”.

When we come to a loaded word like “culture”, we realise that we are treading dangerious ground glass, reaching into matters that affect not only the minds of men and women but also their hearts. Like all good technocrats, we tend at this point to dismiss such thoughts as sentimental and we look for firmer ground, taking refuge in which we are familiar with: some objective concept like agricultural technology, for example – and this brings us a full circle, back to rural development’s most familiar objective, “increased agricultural production and productivity”!

The size and nature of the task

On this occasion, however, let us know be daunted by the multiplicity of objectives which we face in rural development. Let us ignore (for the time being) our confusion between ends and means. Instead, it is necessary to consider the size and the nature of the task of rural development, because it has certain characteristics which, I believe, help to explain why we are less successful in rural development than in other areas of development.

Among the most important of these characteristics is the problem of “numbers” – the sheer size of the task is something which we shy away from. If we look at it administratively, we tend to think first of the administrative unit, the district. Our districts get bifurcated and then rejoined with quite surprising rapidity, so that it is difficult to keep up with the exact number, but I believe that the country has at the moment 400-440 districts. On an average, there are probably 1300-1400 villages in each district – and, in each village, 900-1000 human beings – a total of 500 million people! These are the parameters of rural development and it is not surprising that more of us, for most of the time, do not like to dwell on these daunting numbers.

In addition to the size of the task of rural development, its nature is also complicated by the multiplicity of functions involved. Even if we were able to concentrate on the most technocratic objectives of rural development, increased agricultural production and productivity, we would soon encounter the difficulty that increased agricultural production has to be accompanied by such functions as storage, transport, agricultural processing – and even the elusive function which is referred to as “marketing”. And marketing itself, for the purpose of rural development, includes not only the marketing of agricultural outputs, but also the marketing of agricultural inputs.

However, one categorises the function to be performed in rural development, all approaches to rural development soon stumble on the need for redistribution of resources. So much so that much of the debate on rural development comes to a dead end when it reaches to topic, “land reform”. Since land is the major resource employed in agricultural production, it is, I suppose, inevitable that we should have sought to improve the equality in our society by redistribution of land, even though some other societies have achieved somewhat greater quality without any mandatory redistribution of land – and even though we know that, if tomorrow we could cut up the available land, and distribute it equally to all who depend on it, we would be distributing poverty rather than plenty…. I sometimes feat that we resort to the subject of land reform when we want to console ourselves with the thought that rural development is a utopian concept. Perhaps we should, instead, pay more attention to the distribution of the quantum and distribution of earnings from agriculture, rather than placing greater emphasis on the distribution of land itself.

Then, also, another peculiarity of “rural development”, as our society views it, is that its objectives clearly indicate the need to design, organise and manage a variety of services which I would categorise as “welfare services” – and most of these services, since they usually require expenditures which are not directly associated with matching income, are usually considered to be the responsibility of the State.

Even if one accepts my over-simplified view of rural development, I think one can fairly easily see why our efforts to achieve it have met with such limited success so far. If one takes together its four major characteristics – the mind-boggling numbers involved, the numbers of functions involved, raging from storage to marketing, the question of whether one is talking about redistributing an inadequate resource base or increasing and improving the distribution of the returns from that base, plus the need to provide welfare services on a scale and over spaces which defeat our present techniques for management of welfare services – these four sets of characteristics would be sufficient to explain why our progress in rural development is so slow.

The approaches of other societies

But all these reasons can be dismissed as being largely “technical”. There are other reasons for our slow progress in rural development which can be categorised as “political”.

By and large, other societies have approached the task of rural development by one of two routes which can be characterised as “collectivism” and “capitalism”, whereas we are trying to follow a path somewhere between these two extremes. We justify this on the ground that unbridled capitalism puts the welfare of the more fortunate individual before the welfare of the society as a whole, while strict collectivism sacrifices the individual for the greater good of the general mass. While there is merit in these arguments which support our middle-of-the-road approach, one sometimes wonders if we have not let it deteriorate into an effort to be all things to all men, to placate all parties, but there-by satisfying none.

It was His Excellency the Late Mr. Alexei Kosygin, when he visited Anand in March, 1979, who said to me, “You have taken thirty years to cooperativise the milk business and put it into the producers’ own hands. Presumably, you will take another thirty years to do the same thing with oilseeds and vegetable oil… and then 30 years for Cotton and Jute. But they will shoot you down like a dog long before you get the job done.”

Presumably, Mr. Kodygin was implying that one has to consider the practicality of evolution vs. revolution.

The role of the professional

Such questions, however, are not for the professional managers and administrators to decide: our job is to inform the processes of policy making – and then to take the policies given to us by policy makers and to get them implemented. For the bureaucracy, the policy makers are the elected political representatives of the people. For a professional manager, such as myself, the policy makers are the elected representatives of the farmer-members of our cooperatives. But in both cases, the principle is the same – we professionals are, so to speak, “policy neutral”.

Given a clear policy line, the role of the professional manager usually falls into three sets of tasks:

  1. We have to manage the processes of planning and organising in the organisation we work for, monitoring progress, making mid-course corrections when necessary and seeing that physical and financial audits are carried out with speed and propriety.
  2. We also have to see that the necessary technical functions (which I have mentioned earlier) are carried out within our organisation by properly qualified and well-motivated staff; in a dairy cooperative, for example, we must have highly trained technologists to manage our dairy processing and cattle-feed plants; we have to have a whole range of professionals who are trained in the animal production sciences, such as veterinary medicine, animal nutrition, fodder production, etc. – and we have to have other sets of professionals to handle such matters as quality control, marketing, etc.
  3. There is another task for the professional manager, I believe, in any organisation (but, perhaps, especially, in rural cooperatives). This take can best be described as “anticipating and dealing with conflict.” In many ways, a rural producers’ cooperative is a microcosm of our society. Within its structure are many potentials for conflict – between different groups of members, between different groups within elected Boards of Directors, between cooperative members and cooperative staff who deal with such matters as procurement and quality control – and between urban interest groups and the rural cooperatives themselves.

The dilemma

This is as good an example as any of the dilemma to which I refer in my title : how is the professional manager of a rural cooperative, for example, to mediate in a conflict between an urban interest group and the rural producer members of his cooperative?

I have spoken of an ideal world in which the professional manager is “policy neutral.” In that ideal world, policy is something which is handed down to the professional manager by the elected policy makers. The true professional then, regardless of his personal preferences, accepts the given policy and implements it with enthusiasm and professional dedication.

But is this practical in our present-day world? What we are to do if we cannot discern what is policy?

For example, we are told to encourage the growth of farmers’ organisations and to see that these organisations become competent and financially viable, so that producer-to-consumer margins are minimised, giving consumers good value for their food Rupees and paying producers incentive prices for their crops. In the case of oilseeds, of which the largest single component is groundnut, we envisaged a significant addition to the prices payable to the members of our oilseed growers’ cooperatives by having the cooperatives build up their export of handpicked selected peanuts. But when it came to the crunch, this export business was given to others, while we were left with the task of getting better returns back to the growers, leaving the advantage of the higher prices obtainable on export of handpicked selected peanuts in the hands of our cooperatives’ competitors.

In another type of case, a State Government appointed a politician (who needed to be accommodated) as the Chairman of a Cooperative Federation. Appointment of Cooperative office bearers is often necessary in the early days of a rural cooperative, because there are too few members to provide a sufficient base for the election of producer representatives to such positions. One of the first and most important tasks facing the Board of Directors of such a Federation is the selection and appointment of a Managing Director. In this case, what did the appointed Chairman whom I have in mind do, soon after his appointment by the State Government concerned? He promptly appointed himself as the Managing Director of his Federation!

In another such case, a State Government appointed a senior civil servant (who had to be side-tracked) as Chairman of a new rural cooperative federation. Now there is an argument with the State Government as to whether this officer is entitled to the customary five personal servants along with other perquisites (such as car, house, etc). The development agency responsible for funding the project says it will not pay for the officer’s five personal servants out of project funds – and the entire project is now at a stand still on this stupid issue.

There is another source of potential conflict which creates a dilemma for professional managers and administrators. If, for example, a rural producers’ organisation, such as a milk cooperative, takes on the job of organising the provision of production increasing inputs (artificial insemination, balanced cattle-feed concentrates etc.) then the administrators concerned start to ask, “What will happen to the Animal Husbandry Department?”. Apparently, it is perfectly OK for a company like Horlicks to do what it wishes in a rural milkshed, paying whatever prices it can get away with the producers and charging whatever prices it can manage to consumers.. All for the sake of the manufacture of “malted milk foods,” the most nutritious ingredient of which is the milk which the consumer adds to the beverage!

But when the producers in the milkshed start to organise the milk business for themselves, then the whole apparatus of the Department sees itself as being in conflict with an organisation which threatens its existence.

In other words, we are getting to the point of having a Government “for the officers, by the officers and of the officers.” Empire building has become the order of the day in Government. When we launched Operation Flood, we announced firmly that we do not wish to own any dairy plant. We would help people get plants designed and built – and then we would hand them over to the people who produce the milk which each dairy plant processes. We have done this. We do not own dairy plants. In Operation Flood, the milk producers own them. How else are we to achieve that ideal state in which the State will wither away?

Even on the issue of collectivism v/s capitalism, it would in many ways be easier for the professional manager if he were to receive a policy instruction which unequivocally directs him to go to one extreme or the other. Either a free enterprise “free for all”, or a collectivist monolithic share-out, would be easier to manage then something which is not quite one thing or the other!

It is not that the middle-of-the-road approach cannot be managed. It can be managed, provided that the professional manager responsible, in each case, knows the priorities to be observed and is sure of the backing of his policy makers.

Most of our problems in rural development today stem from the fact that we are not sure about these things.


Both professional administrators and professional managers have certain jobs to do if the country is to achieve rural development. I am personally of the view that the technical functions involved can best be undertaken by the rural producers’ own organisations, which are sensitive to producers’ needs and which draw their strength from their direct communication with the rural people they are formed to serve.

  • Only if the business of handling farm produce is handed over to the producers themselves, shall we be able to break the grip of vested interests which exploit producers and consumers alike.
  • Only if the task of providing the inputs which the rural producers need to increase their production and productivity is in the producers’ own hands, shall we get the degree of technical proficiency and managerial efficiency which is necessary to make the tools of modern agriculture production economically available to our millions of small producers.
  • Only if the people’s own organisations are entrusted with the task of seeing that the benefits of modernisation are brought to bear on the problems of our poorest people, shall we ensure that these benefits are not siphoned off by the power-holders in “the system” and the better-off people in our villages.

The task of the professional managers involved in rural development would then become that of planning, organising and getting the necessary technical functions performed, within the frame-work of policies laid down by their organisations’ elected policy makers. The task of the bureaucracy would be to inform the political policy making processes and to guide and monitor the progress of rural people’s own organisations within the framework of public policy. There would, so to speak, be an alliance between the professional public administrators and the professional managers of rural people’s organisations, in united support of the policy frame-work established by the elected Government. In exchange, the professionals involved would be freed of the burden of having to appear to be all things to all men… They would be freed of the burden of operating in a dual economy, wherein the professionals have only the white at their disposal, while their adversary power-holders have both the black and the white… They would be freed of the burden of constant harassment, whereby, doing one’s duty and acting with integrity is rewarded by constant transfers and the impossibility of getting one’s children properly educated, while “going along with” the dual economy is rewarded by relative peace and sufficient stability to get one’s children educated and established, set for a better life..

This is our dilemma. Professionalism is rapidly becoming impractical. The tasks which we face in the achievement of rural development throughout the land are so massive and are so complex that they cannot even be addressed, if professional public administrators and managers cannot act professionally.

Nevertheless one factor is changing this gloomy picture. Increasingly, rural people are seeing that their hopes for development are being frustrated by “the system.” They are no longer willing to accept that their future should be mortgaged to such issues as to whether a civil servant is entitled to five personal servants or not. The time is coming when they will no longer be willing to let their organisations be the plaything of politicians.

This increasing awareness of rural people will in itself, I believe, be the salvation of the professional managers and administrators who are involved in rural development. This is all the more reason for speeding up the involvement and participation of rural people in their own development. The faster this is achieved, the sooner they will learn to use their institutions effectively – and they will use these institutions not only for increasing their milk production and their agricultural productivity, but also as instruments of economic and social change; for fulfilling, in fact, their own economic and social aspirations.

I believe that Mohan Kumaramangalam was one who knew this – and that it is only filling that I should restate it on this occasion, when we remember and honour his name.

Thank you.