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The state of India – an advocacy masterclass from Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze

December 6, 2011
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amartya sen picJean Dreze (right) and Amartya Sen (left) are a longstanding partnership that produces brilliant analysis of India’s jean-dreze-artitect-of-rtidevelopment path. Their recent piece ‘Putting Growth in its Place’ draws you in with some great questions, and then uses league tables to taunt India’s decision-makers into action – So you think we’re an emerging world power? Think again. We’re at the bottom of the South Asian table on life expectancy, sanitation and underweight and unvaccinated children (and close to the bottom on most other things), and falling further behind with each passing year. It’s ten pages, and worth the read, but here are some highlights:

“Is India doing marvellously well, or is it failing terribly? Depending on whom you speak to, you could pick up either of those answers with some frequency. One story, very popular among a minority but a large enough group—of Indians who are doing very well (and among the media that cater largely to them)—runs something like this. “After decades of mediocrity and stagnation under ‘Nehruvian socialism’, the Indian economy achieved a spectacular take-off during the last two decades. This take-off, which led to unprecedented improvements in income per head, was driven largely by market initiatives. It involves a significant increase in inequality, but this is a common phenomenon in periods of rapid growth. With enough time, the benefits of fast economic growth will surely reach even the poorest people, and we are firmly on the way to that.” Despite the conceptual confusion involved in bestowing the term ‘socialism’ to a collectivity of grossly statist policies of ‘Licence raj’ and neglect of the state’s responsibilities for school education and healthcare, the story just told has much plausibility, within its confined domain.

building IndiaBut looking at contemporary India from another angle, one could equally tell the following—more critical and more censorious—story: “The progress of living standards for common people, as opposed to a favoured minority, has been dreadfully slow—so slow that India’s social indicators are still abysmal.” For instance, according to World Bank data, only five countries outside Africa (Afghanistan, Bhutan, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea and Yemen) have a lower “youth female literacy rate” than India (World Development Indicators 2011, online). To take some other examples, only four countries (Afghanistan, Cambodia, Haiti, Myanmar and Pakistan) do worse than India in child mortality rate; only three have lower levels of “access to improved sanitation” (Bolivia, Cambodia and Haiti); and none (anywhere—not even in Africa) have a higher proportion of underweight children. Almost any composite index of these and related indicators of health, education and nutrition would place India very close to the bottom in a ranking of all countries outside Africa.

So which of the two stories—unprecedented success or extraordinary failure—is correct? The answer is both, for they are both valid, and they are entirely compatible with each other. This may initially seem like a bit of a mystery, but that initial thought would only reflect a failure to understand the demands of development that go well beyond economic growth. Indeed, economic growth is not constitutively the same thing as development, in the sense of a general improvement in living standards and enhancement of people’s well-being and freedom. Growth, of course, can be very helpful in achieving development, but this requires active public policies to ensure that the fruits of economic growth are widely shared, and also requires—and this is very important—making good use of the public revenue generated by fast economic growth for social services, especially for public healthcare and public education.”

Dreze and Sen attack what they memorably brand the ‘unaimed opulence’ of India’s economic path, contrasting it with the much more pro-poor growth path of South Korea and (recently) Brazil. Then they get stuck into the South Asian league tables (see below) and wrap up with an unflattering comparison with China (guaranteed to wind up your typical Indian decision-maker).

India v South AsiaAll that, and a couple of intriguing asides:

First, some cash transfer scepticism:

“Cash transfers are increasingly seen as a potential cornerstone of social policy in India, often based on a distorted reading of the Latin American experience in this respect. There are, of course, strong arguments for cash transfers (conditional or unconditional) in some circumstances, just as there are good arguments for transfers in kind (such as midday meals for school children).

What is remarkably dangerous, however, is the illusion that cash transfers (more precisely, “conditional cash transfers”) can replace public services by inducing recipients to buy health and education services from private providers. This is not only hard to substantiate on the basis of realistic empirical reading; it is, in fact, entirely contrary to the historical experience of Europe, America, Japan and East Asia in their respective transformation of living standards. Also, it is not how conditional cash transfers work in Brazil or Mexico or other successful cases today.”

And second the news (to me, anyway) that Kerala is no longer alone. Tamil Nadu, and now Himachal Pradesh, are catching up with India’s flagship state on the universal provision of essential services.

[h/t Steve Price-Thomas]

3 comments

  1. What an excellent article by Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze. The debates arond ’emerging economies’ and ‘MIC”s etc really need to take note of these underlying serious deprivation factors before the world lauds only economic growth. Focus only on GDP growth presents a dangerously false picture to westen donors and advocates for change.

  2. Duncan – many thanks for flagging this up. It’s a fantastic piece – some profound messages and even bigger questions raised. And as you say the way they use simple clear data to make a powerful comparative argument is so impressive.

  3. spot on ! talking to the rickshaw pullers and security guards in gurgaon [the best example, perhaps, of India’s growth] tends to provide anecdotal support to the issues raised.

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