Is India getting serious on health? And if so, why?

The Indian government aims to increase investments in its health sector to 2-3 per cent of the total GDP, according to union Health and Family Welfare Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad. That compares with current spending of 1.1%, so if true, it represents a massive leap.

Success has many fathers, and doubtless loads of people and organizations will take the credit, but two jump out. First the Wada na Todo 9 is mine LogoAbhiyan or “Nine is Mine” campaign, which calls for increased spending on education and health  –  6  and 3 % GDP accordingly. Second is Amartya Sen, who had an astonishingly timely piece in the New York Review of books this week. Excerpts below:

“The steadily rising rate of economic growth in India has recently been around 8 percent per year (it is expected to be 9 percent this year), and there is much speculation about whether and when India may catch up with and surpass China’s over 10 percent growth rate. Despite the evident excitement that this subject seems to cause in India and amartya sen picabroad, it is surely rather silly to be obsessed about India’s overtaking China in the rate of growth of GNP, while not comparing India with China in other respects, like education, basic health, or life expectancy.

Some statistics about China and India, drawn mainly from the World Bank and the United Nations, are relevant here. Life expectancy at birth in China is 73.5 years; in India it is 64.4 years. The infant mortality rate is fifty per thousand in India, compared with just seventeen in China; the mortality rate for children under five is sixty-six per thousand for Indians and nineteen for the Chinese; and the maternal mortality rate is 230 per 100,000 live births in India and thirty-eight in China. The mean years of schooling in India were estimated to be 4.4 years, compared with 7.5 years in China. China’s adult literacy rate is 94 percent, compared with India’s 74 percent according to the preliminary tables of the 2011 census. Only 66 percent of Indian children are immunized with triple vaccine (diphtheria/pertussis/tetanus), as opposed to 97 percent in China. Comparing India with China according to such standards can be more useful for policy discussions in India than confining the comparison to GNP growth rates only.”

Even more damning in some ways is Sen’s comparison between India and Bangladesh:

“In income, India has a huge lead over Bangladesh, with a GNP per capita of $1,170, compared with $590 in Bangladesh. This difference has expanded rapidly because of India’s faster rate of recent economic growth, and that, of course, is a point in India’s favor. But we must ask how well India’s income advantage is reflected in other things that also matter. I fear the answer is: not well at all.

Mean years of schooling amount to 4.8 years in Bangladesh compared with India’s 4.4 years. While India is ahead of Bangladesh in the male literacy rate for the age group between fifteen and twenty-four, the female rate in Bangladesh is higher than in India. Interestingly, the female literacy rate among young Bangladeshis is actually higher than the male rate, whereas young women still have substantially lower rates than young males in India. There is much evidence to suggest that Bangladesh’s current progress has a great deal to do with the role that liberated Bangladeshi women are beginning to play in the country.

What about health? The mortality rate of children under five is sixty-six per thousand in India compared with fifty-9 is mine 2two in Bangladesh. In infant mortality, Bangladesh has a similar advantage: it is fifty per thousand in India and forty-one in Bangladesh. While 94 percent of Bangladeshi children are immunized with DPT vaccine, only 66 percent of Indian children are. In each of these respects, Bangladesh does better than India, despite having only half of India’s per capita income.”

But Sen acknowledges India’s lead over China in some non-GDP indicators, notably some forms of freedom:

“Most Indians are strongly appreciative of the democratic structure of the country, including its many political parties, systematic free elections, uncensored media, free speech, and the independent standing of the judiciary, among other characteristics of a lively democracy. Those Indians who are critical of serious flaws in these arrangements (and I am certainly one of them) can also take account of what India has already achieved in sustaining democracy, in contrast to many other countries, including China.”

Interestingly, he portrays the Indian system as messy and difficult in the short-term, compared to the more command and control approach taken by China, but sees the latter as ultimately more fragile – a fragility that “revealed itself in a catastrophic form in the Chinese famine of 1959–1962, which killed more than 30 million people, when there was no public pressure against the regime’s policies, as would have arisen in a functioning democracy.”

Sen also blames lack of democratic feedback for an important recent setback on healthcare in China (worth noting, given the recent exchange on this blog over health insurance in Ghana):

“The [Chinese] economic reforms of 1979 greatly improved the working and efficiency of Chinese agriculture and industry; but the Chinese government also eliminated, at the same time, the entitlement of all to public medical care (which was often administered through the communes). Most people were then required to buy their own health insurance, drastically reducing the proportion of the population with guaranteed health care.

In a functioning democracy an established right to social assistance could not have been so easily—and so swiftly—dropped. The change sharply reduced the progress of longevity in China. Its large lead over India in life expectancy dwindled during the following two decades—falling from a fourteen-year lead to one of just seven years.

The Chinese authorities, however, eventually realized what had been lost, and from 2004 they rapidly started reintroducing the right to medical care. China now has a considerably higher proportion of people with guaranteed health care than does India. The gap in life expectancy in China’s favor has been rising again, and it is now around nine years; and the degree of coverage is clearly central to the difference.”

Subscribe to our Newsletter

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please see our Privacy Policy.

We use MailChimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing. Learn more about MailChimp's privacy practices here.

Comments

3 Responses to “Is India getting serious on health? And if so, why?”
  1. Deepak Xavier

    I couldn’t stop myself from commenting on this. Apologies if I am sounding
    cynical!

    Although it may look like a huge step forward, a bit of history on the
    health spending and government promises in India could help us understand
    this rhetoric better. What the health minister has spoken on the seminar is
    nothing new. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government that he
    represents, has at the beginning of its first term (2004-09) in office,
    promised the nation to “raise public spending on health to at least 2-3% of
    GDP over the next five years with focus on primary health care” in the
    National Common Minimum Programme (May 2004) — outline of minimum
    objectives of the coalition government. Since the beginning of
    liberalisation in India (1990-91), the public spending on health as a
    proportion of GDP has been stagnant between 0.85 and 1%. In light of this,
    the NCMP commitment made by UPA was seen as truly remarkable and the civil
    society was more than happy to render its support on the basis of many such
    progressive commitments made by the coalition.

    In spite of repeated promises to raise public spending on health, it
    remains at just about 1% of GDP at present. Hence, its only appropriate to
    read Azad’s rhetoric with a pinch of salt. Also, he has been one of the
    worst health ministers that we have seen in a decade or so. Another
    critical point of caution is the willingness to promote PPP. He is a strong
    advocate of PPP. The experience of some of the existing PPP models in
    health are good enough to say how unhealthy it is for a country with 76% of
    the population living below $2 per day (based on PPP); and 72% of total
    health care expenditure is privately funded and 89.5% of which is paid
    out-of-pocket by patients.

    Nine-is-Mine campaign was launched in November 2006 as a response to
    government’s inaction on the health spending promise. This was the time
    when Indian civil society started realising that the UPA’s NCMP is turning
    out to be yet another political rhetoric. When we started the campaign in
    Nov 2006, the objective was not to demand 2-3% GDP in health but to hold
    the government accountable to its promise of increasing public spending on
    health to at least 2-3% of GDP. The commitment or promise to spend 2-3%
    existed before we launched the campaign and the level of public spending
    has remained stagnant throughout. Hence, I find it difficult to accept that
    the announcement made by the health minister is an outcome of the campaign.

  2. HCG

    Good thought by the Indian Government. Hope it gets implemented and comes into effect too. A healthy nation can progress better towards being a developed nation. And the healthy citizens only will make a healthy nation.

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.