Cause For Cheer

24 Oct

Reforms-bashers habitually run down economic growth and liberalisation as spawning inequalityand income disparity in India. They should take a look at the India Human Development Report released last week by the Planning Commission. Studying material conditions pegged on consumption spending, education and health, it shows India’s Human Development Index increasing by 21% over 10 years, to 0.467 in 2007-08 from 0.387 in 1999-2000. Behind these bald statistics lies a heartening story: standards of living have headed north countrywide, and across the social board.

The report challenges received wisdom and stereotypical notions in several areas. Socio-economic indicators ranging from infant and maternal mortality rates to literacy levels have improved for scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and Muslims. Though the total fertility rate for STs has risen, the finding challenges alarmist views about dwindling tribal numbers. Meantime, the rate’s dipped for Muslims, contradicting saffron propaganda on community-linked demographic changes. Socio-economi-cally weaker sections are not only more aware, but relatively better off than before with greater access to health and education.

Inclusive growth also manifests regionally. Backward states like UP, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Assam and Orissa are making gains on several human development categories. Gujarat is often held up as the developmental model. It’ll therefore come as a surprise that less well-off places like UP and Bihar are not just better tackling the scourge of malnutrition but also routing more benefits to SC/STs. And if poverty continues to plague India, it’s not all gloom and doom as some – like the Congress’s Mani Shankar Aiyar – suggest. Poverty levels are declining, that too at relatively quicker rates among dalits and backward classes.

Huge challenges remain, nonetheless. India’s performance rides on an impressive 28.5% rise in the education index. But if there’s higher school enrolment and wider spread of services today, quality remains an issue. Lack of facilities, poor teaching, teacher absenteeism plague the system – which churns out legions of semi-literate people who flounder in the job market. Sanitation, nutrition and health are also areas of serious concern, as the report suggests. Higher public investment must urgently go to healthcare, where a pittance is currently spent in proportion to GDP. But operationalising schemes and allocating funds alone can’t guarantee success in welfare. What counts is efficient implementation through honest funds utilisation. Equally important is a change in policy mindset. Redistributive disbursal of state largesse helps the needy less than empowerment via education, health, amenities and job creation. Let’s move faster on reforms to push growth. The more resources we raise for building social and physical infrastructure, the more we can deliver on the promise of inclusive growth.

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