In ‘An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions’ by Jean Dreze, Amartya Sen, two of India’s leading economists argue that despite strong economic development, there must be a greater understanding of inequalities in the country, especially in the lack of attention to the essential needs of the poor.
The article : India’s Dirty Fighter, in The Guardian, by Madeleine Buntin quotes Sen questioning where more than 600 million Indians go to defecate: “Half of all Indians have no toilet. In Delhi when you build a new condominium there are lots of planning requirements but none relating to the servants having toilets. It’s a combination of class, caste and gender discrimination. It’s absolutely shocking. Poor people have to use their ingenuity and for women that can mean only being able to relieve themselves after dark with all the safety issues that entails,” says Sen, adding that Bangladesh is much poorer than India and yet only 8% don’t have access to a toilet. “This is India’s defective development.”
“There are reasons for India to hang its head in shame. Alongside the success, there have been gigantic failures,” says Sen. He is making this critique loud and clear in the media on both sides of the Atlantic ahead of the book’s launch in India this week. “India will prick up its ears when comparisons with China are made, but the comparison is not just tactical. China invested in massive expansion of education and healthcare in the 70s so that by 1979, life expectancy was 68 while in India it was only 54.”
Sen and Drèze’s argument is that these huge social investments have proved critical to sustaining China’s impressive economic growth. Without comparable foundations, India’s much lauded economic growth is faltering. Furthermore, they argue that India’s overriding preoccupation with economic growth makes no sense without recognising that human development depends on how that wealth is used and distributed. What’s the purpose of a development model that produces luxury shopping malls rather than sanitation systems that ensure millions of healthy lives, ask Drèze and Sen, accusing India of “unaimed opulence”. India is caught in the absurd paradox of people having mobile phones but no toilets.
Even more stark is the comparison with Bangladesh. “Our hope is that India’s public policymakers will be embarrassed by the comparison with Bangladesh. On a range of development indicators such as life expectancy, child immunisation and child mortality, Bangladesh has pulled ahead of India despite being poorer.’
What makes this comparison so powerful is that Bangladesh has targeted the position of women not just through government policy but also through the work of non-governmental organisations such as BRACand the Grameen Bank. As a result, there have been astonishing successes, says Sen, such as a dramatic fall in fertility rate and girls now outnumbering boys in education. All this has been achieved despite having half the per capita income of India.
Other impoverished neighbours such as Nepal have made great strides, while even Sri Lanka has kept well ahead of India on key indicators despite a bitter civil war for much of the last 30 years. Drèze and Sen conclude in their book that India has “some of the worst human development indicators in the world” and features in the bottom 15 countries, along with Afghanistan, Yemen and Pakistan. Seven of the poorest Indian states account for the biggest concentration of deprivation on the globe.
After this blizzard of facts and figures – and the book is stuffed with them – one might fear reader despair, but the reverse is true. This is a book about what India could do – and should do. Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh are held up as good examples of how social investments from the 60s to the 80s have reaped dividends in economic growth. What holds India back is not lack of resources but lack of clear-sighted, long-term policies and the political will to implement them. Sen (still an Indian citizen) is optimistic, pointing to the political mobilisation following the rape of a young woman student on a bus in Delhi last December, which led to the rapid adoption of new measures to combat violence against women. The consciences of the Indian middle classes can be stirred, and, when they are, political action follows. Sen pressingly raises concern for our lopsided development and quotes “Patience is a minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.”