Let’s debate more on the road to growth

Pursuing human development — defined as an enhancement of capabilities, an expansion of freedoms, an enlargement of choices and an assurance of human rights — is a laudable goal for any country. Most development practitioners agree that progress ought to be assessed in terms of how public policies have contributed to enriching the lives of people. Such an assessment requires that we look beyond economic growth and evaluate how growth has translated into tangible benefits for different groups in society. The India Human Development Report 2011 (prepared by the Institute of Applied Manpower Research, which is affiliated to the Planning Commission) presents a useful “report card” — a balance sheet of human development — that takes stock of people’s lives. Such analytical exercises conducted by the government are much needed as they constitute the first step in finding better ways of protecting and promoting human development.
The findings of the report are extremely valuable, but they are neither new nor surprising. One, the report argues that the current “phenomenon of extraordinary growth” has, to a very large extent, excluded and bypassed millions of poor people in this country. Two, India is the “worst performer” in terms of low birth weight, underweight, wasting among children, infant and child mortality among the Bric (Brazil, Russia, India, China) and Saarc countries. Three, about half of Indian households still lack access to sanitation facilities. Four, the female deficit (reflected in an adverse female-to-male ratio) prevails despite an improvement over time. Five, little has been done to address the plight of vulnerable groups — especially working children, the differently-abled and the elderly. Six, progress in health has been poor — largely the outcome of neglect and under-investment by the State. And seven, by analysing disaggregated data, the report very clearly establishes that socially marginalised groups (Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Muslims) are in a disadvantageous position and their situation is worse in states where their concentration is high.
For instance, we find that between 1993-94 and 2004-05, the unemployment rate increased for SCs in both rural and urban areas. One-third of Muslim households and around two-thirds of SC and ST households lack toilets. The bulk of asset ownership is concentrated within upper caste households. Only one-third of Muslim and Scheduled Caste women and an even smaller proportion of ST women give birth in institutions (like hospitals) — much lower than the national average. All these failings are in spite of the several flagship schemes and programmes launched by the national and state governments. The stark evidence and analyses contained in the report definitely seem to give credence to the aphorism that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
Two observations. One, the India Human Development Report 2011 is, in many ways, only a partial human development report. It addresses some, and not all or many, vital dimensions of human development. Notably missing are discussions relating to environment and climate change, democracy, politics and participation, governance, transparency and accountability, peace and security — all interconnected and essential to the advancement of human development. Two, the report’s analytical framework is not entirely consistent with the idea of human development.
The framework focuses on economic growth, human capital formation and income poverty reduction. “To achieve faster economic growth, there is need to enhance human capabilities” — is a giveaway. Achieving faster growth is never treated as an end in the human development framework. Again, according to the human development perspective, the focus is always on human poverty (which is multi-dimensional), and not only on income poverty. The framework similarly fails to fully acknowledge the connections as well as contrasts between the accumulation of “human capital” and the expansion of “human capabilities”. The former concentrates narrowly on the agency of human beings in augmenting production. The latter focuses broadly on the ability of human beings to “do what they want to do and be what they want to be”. Failure to understand these distinctions often give rise to confused debates on rights and entitlements.
The report provides a useful benchmark to assess India’s progress in the coming decades. Will India be able to deliver on its commitments to people when time and again it has failed to do so in the past? What should be done differently? That the report does not offer any prescriptions or solutions is itself quite revealing. It could be an admission of the many flaws in existing policies and priorities, the many defects in the way schemes are implemented, the many deficiencies in the processes of public decision-making, the many failings to ensure accountability and effective participation, and the many gaps in knowledge. Generating extensive public discussion and debate on the shortcomings highlighted in the report would be a valuable public contribution.
The global Human Development Report released recently by UNDP ranks India 134th out of 187 countries for which the Human Development Index has been computed. In other words, there are only 50-odd countries that have a lower HDI score than India. The message is clear. We need to accelerate human development. This is the time for more open dialogue and debate on the direction and road to development that India is adopting.
There are many valuable suggestions on what to do. Joseph Stiglitz suggests that successful and sustained growth requires creating a learning society, that an open and democratic society is more conducive to creating a learning society, and that successful and sustained democratic growth must be inclusive. How do we achieve these ends? There is need for leadership that no longer pushes aside the priorities of the poor. There is need for leadership that reconnects with ground realities and hardships in the daily lives of people. There is need for leadership that practices more informed making of public policy — “government by discussion” — where policymakers listen and eliminate the growing discontent among so many deprived groups about not being heard.

The writer is a member of the National Advisory Council and an adviser to Unicef

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