Understanding Indian growth and its uncertainties with Amartya Sen

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By Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi

In the last two decades, India had been concerned with understanding how growth happens – and how it happened in nations like Brazil, Mexico, Africa and China, said Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, the iconic economist and philosopher in the national capital on July 22.

There is a story of growth everywhere in Europe and around the world. But there is an Asian story as well. “Public education, public healthcare, welfare – there is no difference between the quality of people and the models of growth applicable to them,” Sen said, pointing to certain imbalance in growth statistics across India.

Growth is the primary premise of Sen’s new volume, “An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions (Penguin-India)”, a non-fictional account of India’s uncertainties in its progress report card that he has “co-authored” with leading French economist Jean Dreze, who lives and works in India.

The book contends that the country’s main problems lie in the lack of attention paid to the essential needs of the people. They point out that an increase in the per capita income cannot transform living conditions in the country in 10 inter-related chapters that deal with integrated development and growth, accountability, corruption, importance of education, healthcare crisis, social support, poverty, inequalities and the urgent need to agitate and change.

Describing the history of growth, Sen and Dreze say “despite the grim beginning, a newly independent India rapidly went on to have cluster of very significant political and economic successes”. In the initial years, the growth of the Indian economy was quite slow – about 3-5 per cent annually, but for several decades after Independence, the paltry growth rate was considered an achievement compared to the near-zero growth of the colonial days”.

The great uncertainty looming over the country’s early growth narrative was the doubt over India’s capacity to operate as a functioning democracy. The second challenge was to avoid the danger of conflict and avoid a breakup of the country. But the overshadowing factor was the magnitude of poverty in India. The scenario, however, changed in the decades that followed with a momentum in the rate of growth as democracy struck deeper roots, the economists say.

Growth in India has been fickle compared to other Asian countries. “There was a whole lot of things that we missed out which the Japanese didn’t. They were successful. South Korea did many of the things and they followed Japan. Koreans believed in hard work,” Sen said.

Throwing insights into the story of growth in Korea, Sen said, “Korea became a high education nation from a low education country.” First it raised the coverage and then raised the quality,” the economist expounded.

Sen clarified that “he had never recommended more subsidies for the poor but what the poor needs most are more public services.” The country needs to build up its public services, the economist observed.

“There are things to look at – like there has been a diagnostic failure which people fail to understand. Reforms are a dual promise. On the one hand, while it means removing unnecessary government control and allowing the market to flourish at the same time, the state has to do its functions, Sen pointed out.

One of the failures that Sen and Dreze point to is the inability of the social support system – the role of the state — in tackling poverty. Well-functioning public services can make a big difference to people’s lives. The economists cite an example of a tribal village in the Surguja district in Chhattisgarh.

The year was 2001. A tribal woman in Jhapat, a remote outpost in the heartland state, lamented that “no one was going to listen to the marginalized poor because they did not wield the stick”. She railed at the non-functional public distribution system in the area. The local ration shop was three hours away on foot.

Years later in 2011, Jhapat had a PDS shop in the middle of the village, but a just few km away across the border between Chhattisgarh and Uttar Pradesh, the situation was still the same as it was a decade ago.

A malfunctioning social support system prompts imbalances on the development map. “The delivery system has not happened. China has spent much more on public services and healthcare. The question to raise here is whether we can learn from them. We would like to have more democratic systems,” Sen punched holes in the Indian social support delivery apparatus with exceptions of sporadic success models like Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh. The reason for the brisk growth in these states, Sen says, is their serious capacity to do it.

The economists dwell at length on a comparative advantage between India and the bigger Asian countries and the sub-Saharan Africa that have a low human development index.

South Asia and the sub-Saharan Africa may be sharing high incidences of poverty, but they are not similarly placed in every aspect. Statistical studies bring out a disturbing fact, the economists say. What is alarming, given the past, is not India’s comparatively low position in terms of income per head like many other countries in the world outside sub-Saharan Africa — but how badly India does in terms of non-income features of living even within these groups of countries.

The growth chart is flawed, the economists assert in the book. Even in the South Asian region, where India was supposed to be leading the regional solidarity bloc, the country has fallen behind most of its SAARC (South Asian) neighbours in the social indicators (barring Pakistan).

A comparison between India and Bangladesh shows that in the last 20 years, India has grown much richer then Bangladesh, but during the same period, Bangladesh has raced past India in areas like life expectancy, child survival, reduced fertility rates and enhanced immunization campaigns.

Nepal with all its problems has edged past in many social and health indicators despite India’s greater per capita income. Pakistan shows in better tally in the healthcare mandate.

Sen and Dreze point out that the “comparative perspectives in South Asia tend to be commonly overlooked in development studies – yet there is a lot to learn from looking around within South Asia”.  In is interesting to note that in Sri Lanka, which has an edge over India in schooling and literacy – private schools are absent. They were prohibited since 1960s.

“Few people in Sri Lanka live barely 1.4 km away from the nearest health centre”. Notwithstanding the large geography and the faster pace of growth in general compared to its South Asian neighbours. The economists suggest that India may have a lot to learn from them.

Sen says “India presents a diverse picture of growth”. While the performance in the business sector (with soft industry as the way to a sustainable future), the country has had a bad record in public policy- especially in areas like nutrition, education and healthcare.

“Ten years ago, corruption was not a big issue, but today people were involved in it,” Sen said, urging greater accountability. The saga of development and growth in India is like “hundreds of islands of California”, scattered along the urban nodes in pockets – where it was easy to get lost in the glitter of bustling culture, good food and theatre. But just outside the city limits was a disconnect – the real picture of a poorer India on Ground Zero.

Book- “Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions”; Publisher- Penguin India

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One thought on “Understanding Indian growth and its uncertainties with Amartya Sen

  1. Pingback: Understanding Indian growth and its uncertainties with Amartya Sen | My Blog

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