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Human Development: India's Poor Record



India’s Poor Record

t the end of a week during which more news has come in of India “zipping” along the growth path, it is worth looking more closely at what the 2006 edition of the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Human Development Report (HDR) reveals about the quality of life in the country.

The latest edition of the HDR has surprisingly received little attention in India or outside. This is at the same time not surprising, for much like in the case of its less worthy and

Economic and Political Weekly December 2, 2006

older competitor, the World Bank’s World Development Report, the novelty has worn off. And like all reports produced by international bodies, the quality of analysis in the HDR suffers because in the end it is a “consensual” report and therefore must eventually mean all things to all people. There remains much value though in the estimates of the human development index (HDI), which has been the unique contribution of the HDR.

In the 2006 HDR, India’s HDI (which actually relates to 2004) is computed at 0.611, a fair movement up from the HDI for 2003, 0.577. These numbers by themselves mean nothing; what is important is what they say about the underlying parameters of “human development” and where India stands in relation to the rest of the world.

Take the second first. Going by its latest HDI, India is classified as belonging to the group of “medium human development” countries. It is ranked 126th among 177 countries. In other words, in spite of all the growth acceleration that has taken place since 1991 (or 1980 or 1975, depending on one’s perspective), when it comes to human development India continues to belong to the bottom one-third of the countries of the world. This is a sobering thought in the midst of the global and (metropolitan) domestic frenzy over the Indian success story. Since comparisons are also important, it is worth noting that while China’s 2003 HDI (0.768) places it as well in the medium human development category, its rank (81st) puts it in the top half of the countries of the world.

The UNDP’s idea of human development and its measurement through the HDI do, of course, remain problematic even 16 years after they were first unveiled in 1990. Some would say the idea is not conceptually rigorous and the measure not complete. The attractiveness of the idea of human development, however, lies in bringing it to our attention that while economic growth and higher per capita incomes are crucial for improving the quality of life, it is equally important that state and society pay attention to what use they put these higher incomes to. In the end, what matters is the quality of life as expressed in the kind of choices people can exercise – or the level of human development as it has come to be known. This is why the HDI with its combined measure of per capita income, life expectancy (a measure of health) and school enrolment and adult literacy (measures of education) has become so much part of official and independent discourse.

To return to India’s progress in human development over the years, yes, there has been progress as captured in the HDI. But progress has also been uneven and, more important, unequal as suggested by the HDI for India. Over the past decade and more, per capita incomes have grown, but improvements in health, education and in the gender dimensions of health and education have been very halting and regionally very uneven. This is very clearly brought out in the difference between India’s position in the global rankings of per capita GDP (on a purchasing power parity basis) and HDI.

In 2004, in terms of per capita GDP, India ranked appreciably higher (117th) than according to HDI (126th). In other words, the country is doing relatively much less with its income to improve human development. In comparison, Vietnam ranked far higher in the HDI league (109th) than in per capita GDP (121st), that is, the south-east Asian country did much more than India with its limited income to improve the quality of life of its citizens. To put it baldly, when it comes to the quality of life, Indians are not sharing the benefits of growth equitably.

What is worse, this gap between per capita GDP and the HDI has widened. For example, in 1994, India’s rank in HDI was five rungs higher than in GDP, i e, it was doing relatively more with its (limited) income to improve health and education. But in the four most recent years for which the HDI has been estimated (2001 to 2004), the position has reversed. India has consistently ranked lower on the HDI scale than in GDP (between 9 and 12 positions). The simple message is that all those sizzling growth figures seem to mean very little when it comes to improving the quality of life for

the majority of Indians.

Economic and Political Weekly December 2, 2006

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