Millennium Post

India and its discontents

In their preface to the stunningly engaging new book, Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen catch your unsuspecting attention with a mousetrap of a line. ‘The history of world development offers few other examples, if any, of an economy growing so fast for so long with such limited results in terms of reducing human deprivations.’ And it is with this remarkably reinforced, yet not exactly brand new, observation that the duo peg the crux of their latest postulation, which, in fact, is a continuation of what they have been tirelessly advocating for long – integrating growth with broad-based development and human capability building.Since Dreze and Sen are both noted economists – the latter perhaps the best mind that India has produced in recent decades, with a Nobel in economics in his kitty, and the former, a Belgium-born, LSE-teaching India dweller for over three decades, faculty at Allahabad University at present – their current treatise is perhaps a study of Indian economy, but, of course, it is so much more than just that. It is also a brilliant elucidation of the scope and limits of democracy as it functions in India, and both the authors seem to be ceaselessly cheering for the virtues of this form of civilian participation, only to advise that the democratic edifice needs to be bolstered and fortified even more heavily in favour of the teeming multitudes of India. 

This, they say, would be needed to spruce up the sagging public services, which is the major reason why, according to them, China has been able to make rapid strides in achieving more inclusive development, while India has lagged behind, chugging along a noisy democracy with pre- and post-liberalisation economics of growth and (relative) slump.An Uncertain Glory is undoubtedly a fascinating and seminal work aimed at understanding the bundle of myriad contradictions – economic, social, political and cultural – that is the India story, post-1991. While the authors express hope and admiration in no uncertain terms for the spectacular rise of ‘New India’, they also sound a much needed and nuanced caveat that despite the mind-blowing growth rate, at double-digits a few years back, now at 5-6 per cent on an average, India is incongruously behind most of the South Asian countries (with the unflattering exception of Pakistan) in terms of ‘social indicators’ of development and expansion of basic human capabilities and freedom. For example, Bangladesh, even Nepal and Bhutan, have overtaken India in areas such as providing health care facilities, life expectancy, immunisation of children, infant mortality, women’s health and education, malnutrition in women and children, among others, pointing towards the great disparity in availing the ‘fruits of development’ and the much-touted high growth rate.

Dreze and Sen also emphasise the deplorable fact that despite the substantial increase in GDP, real wages have remained stagnant for decades, even though the Planning Commission’s latest figures assert that substantial chunks of the poor have been lifted from poverty in the last decade. As the authors squarely put it in their public interviews since the book came out, the government figures seem awry because the steep rise in prices of food and other basic livelihood goods, economic inflation, has not been adequately factored in their new estimates of the number of poor and the definitions of poverty. This double blindness – one, involving an obsession with GDP as the sole pointer of development at the macro level, and two, not including the various life-style constraints, socio-economic, caste-based or political, faced by the poor while calculating the real levels and degrees of poverty at the micro level – leads to a skewed dependence on statistics and empirical foundations that, more often than not, tend to perpetuate the regimes of unequal growth, furthering marginalisation of the poor from the democratic machinery. 

Thus, Dreze and Sen, through their brilliantly titled chapters and sections therein, put the finger where it hurts most, but which many of India’s policymakers and media observers, would rather not talk about or address. In theauthors’ own words, ‘What is remarkable is not the media’s interest in growth rates, but its near-silence about the fact that the growth process is so biased, making the country look more and more like islands of California in a sea of SubSaharan Africa.’The telling sentence moves on to underline the goal of development, emphasising the ‘two-way relationship’ between economic growth and expansion of human capability, including the extension of their civil liberties and freedoms. 

Dreze and Sen castigate the appalling state of public services in India, including the ‘messed up’ health and education systems, the fulcrum of a viable and vibrant democracy. As the privileged seek refuge in private (expensive) arrangements, such as sending children abroad for education, job opportunities, medical treatments, the public services remain mired in corruption and lack of accountability, thus continuing the vicious cycle of unbalanced and lopsided growth, with one section accruing all the benefits of liberalisation and privatisation, while a huge majority languishing in socioeconomic penury, with slim solace from communal and caste politics that are used as baits to lure them away from demanding real and tangible progress.

In sum, what Dreze and Sen are vouching for, and what their brilliant diagnosis effectively conveys, is that India must consolidate a ‘socio-economic democracy’, and not just a political or electoral democracy, in order to attain equitable development for all, and eliminate, at least, bring down, continued disparity between the haves and the have-nots, as well as the ‘persistent ineptitude and unaccountability in the way the Indian economy and society are oraganised.’ In fact, they give the examples of the Asian model of development, practiced in Japan, China, South Korea and Singapore, wherein high growth rates have been married to human development index and capability building.Yet, they also caution that unlike the Chinese system, India must not consider its democracy as a hindrance to achieving that hallowed goal, but a veritable and surer means to reach the post, because albeit slower, the dialogic and policy-specific checks and balances prevalent in a vociferous democracy ensure that progressive laws are not too vulnerable to the shifts in power equations, and more or less tend to follow a wider track or teleology of economic growth matched with sociocultural development. 

Moreover, in the light of Sen’s latest intellectual collision with the arch-prophet of free (not exactly fair) trade, Jagdish Bhagwati, it is important to remember that had it not been for the welfare economists, the likes of Sen et al, India’s story would have been an even more dismal tale of having a few oases of unimaginable wealth in a farflung desert of moribund poverty and degradation.

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