An MP and UK’s Secretary of State for International Development,Douglas Alexander,was recently on his maiden visit to India. In an interview with ANUBHUTI VISHNOI,he talked about the various aspects of the evolving UK-India development partnership as India’s prosperity becomes globally significant. Excerpts:
What is the overall assessment of India’s development process?
India as a country has made huge strides in development in recent years,so I feel positive that we can continue that trend. The challenge in coming years is for the British Government to work with the Government in India to ensure that benefits of sustainable growth are inclusive in character and the foundation of the growth sees sustained progress in poverty reduction.
What is your assessment of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan programme? Has the Department for International Development (through which UK’s aid programme is executed in India) identified areas that need to be worked upon?
The challenges of poverty in India are huge. Despite the unprecedented economic growth in recent years,there continues to be chronic levels of poverty and we are working in partnership with the Government of India to help address these problems. The figures suggest that there are around 828 million people living on less than two dollars a day at the moment and that is more poor people than the whole of Africa. So,we think it is right to be working to support the Government of India as they take things in stride to tackle the poverty problems.
Our focus area has been in education where progress has been made in recent years in getting children into school. But there are new emerging challenges in relation to the quality of the education and retention of kids to complete five years of elementary education (one-third drop out before finishing school). So,we are supporting the programme like the SSA and are heavily involved into dialogue and discussions with them to address these problems.
I visited a school in rural Bihar. I was struck by the level of ambition across young girls I spoke to. One of them said she wanted to be a doctor and a second told me that she wanted to become a pilot in the Indian Air Force. So there is no lack of ambition. Our challenge is to make sure that the opportunities match the ambitions.
Where is the discussion on the SSA phase II funding headed?
The SSA has been the framework through which we have supported elementary education in India. We are funding the second phase of the SSA and are in continuous dialogue with the Government of India to ensure that this phase builds on the achievements of the first phase. There is a clear understanding within the Government of India that there are challenges borne out of the successes of recent years and we are seeking to share the expertise we have developed elsewhere to address those kind of issues like quality of teaching and retention of children in school,especially girls.
During my discussions with the Chief Minister of Bihar,we spoke not only about getting kids into schools but also how to make sure we give them maximum benefit while they attend school (after four years in school,2 out of 5 kids cannot even read a short paragraph). I think that his commitment to tackle the quality issue is strong. And this is echoed at the national level,where we see the Government of India place a premium on better quality.
Can you elaborate on your co-operation with the Clinton Foundation?
On 17 November 2008 (Monday),I announced a new partnership with the Clinton Foundation to work with the Indian pharmaceutical sector to reduce the price of HIV/AIDS and malaria drugs. There are significant opportunities to collaborate with Indian companies to bring down the prices of generic medicines. This will increase the ability of people in India and globally to receive these life-saving drugs. By increasing the number of people who can access these drugs,the Indian pharmaceutical companies can directly contribute to the achievement of MDG targets on communicable diseases and access to medicines.
While on primary education cooperation,India has generally fared well,the picture is depressing on the health front. Infant mortality and maternal mortality — both areas where DFID is helping India — results have been disappointing. What are your views?
If you look at the statistics on maternal mortality and infant mortality,India is off track on those MDGs. So in that sense there are new challenges in India,where there has been little progress. I was looking at the figures just before you arrived. The MMR rate is reducing but we clearly see the scope for more progress. There has been a promising increase in the number of facilities for emergency obstetric care from 726 back in 2005 to 1,652 working facilities this year. And DFID’s support to government health programmes in maternal health interventions have resulted in the training of 133,055 health workers. So our experience in working with a range of countries teaches us that if you are going to see significant progress in maternal mortality then it is fundamental to raise the standard of obstetric care and also provide quality training to health workers who are able to provide that support to patients.
Would recession affect any of DFID’s programmes/plans/projects in India and at the global level and how?
When the Prime Minister was here in January 2008 he made a commitment to support the Government of India to reduce poverty with a contribution of £825 million over the next three years and I reaffirmed those commitments in my meeting. So we are continuing with the pledge we made in January and we are encouraging other international donors to continue the promises and commitments they made to alleviate poverty globally.