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Saturday, July 02, 2022

The Need for Impatience

Whether growth,welfare or both — get a move on

Written by Ashutosh Varshney |
July 27, 2013 1:34:16 am

Book: An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions

Author: Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen

Publisher: Allen Lane

Price: Rs 699

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Pages: 448

Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen are well-known for their distinctive viewpoint on development that departs substantially from mainstream economic wisdom,but also incorporates much that is of value in it. They have collaborated several times,but their newest offering is far and away their best work on India yet. An Uncertain Glory is a remarkable combination of philosophical depth,economic reasoning,empirical thoroughness and policy relevance. They render complex ideas in lucid prose,aiming to reach audiences well beyond the technical circle of economists and development specialists. They underline “the need for impatience”,for they believe that the balance sheet of India’s achievements and failures will tilt more towards the latter if their ideas are ignored. Writing as public intellectuals,they seek to agitate minds,provoke deliberation and inspire action,while not compromising the seriousness of their arguments.

Economically,say the authors,the first three decades since Indian independence were lost decades,when the economic growth rate was too sluggish and “there was virtually no reduction of poverty”. Since 1990,India’s economy has grown at a rate second only to China’s,a phenomenon they clearly attribute to the economic reforms inaugurated in 1991. However,despite spectacular economic growth,India continues to rank near the bottom of the world tables on literacy and public health. In 2010,43 per cent of children below the age of five years were underweight,48 per cent were stunted and,what has become the new negative statistical icon of India’s social performance,half of India’s households had to resort to “open defecation” in 2011.

Indeed,on social indicators,a comparison with Bangladesh is more revealing than one with Brazil,Russia and China,part of the so-called BRICs,with whom India’s economy is often compared. Since 1990,India has grown much faster than Bangladesh. By 2011,India’s per capita income was twice as high. But life expectancy at birth,roughly similar in 1990,was higher in Bangladesh in 2011; Bangladesh’s infant mortality rate,substantially worse than India’s in 1990,was considerably better in 2011; only 44 per cent of 1-2 year old children were immunised in India,as against 82 per cent in Bangladesh (2005-7); and only 8 per cent of Bangladesh households practised open defecation,as opposed to half of India’s population. Indeed,India is “falling behind every other South Asian country (with the exception of Pakistan) in terms of many social indicators”.

Dreze and Sen argue that while high economic growth can indeed be a virtue,“unaimed opulence” simply cannot be celebrated. Until very recently,India has overemphasised economic growth,assuming it will take care of literacy and health. But that is a mistake. “The centrality of education” is common to all countries that have sustained high growth rates for long periods — Japan,South Korea,Taiwan,Singapore and,most recently,China. These countries did not wait to reach a particular level of income before educating their citizens; rather,they invested in mass literacy without which “widespread participation in a global economy would have been hard to accomplish”. A similar argument,they say,can be made about health. Markets cannot use the unskilled and the unhealthy beyond a point. Expecting markets to lift everybody up might simply take too long,or might not happen at all. For the underprivileged to use markets well or quickly,their capabilities need to be enhanced.

Of all the arguments made in the book,the one that connects capabilities,markets and growth deserves the greatest attention. Are Dreze and Sen right?

If you don’t believe their reading of the Asian growth miracles,consider a micro story from India. Ubuntu At Work (Ubuntu for short) is a non-profit organisation that helps poor women escape poverty by linking them to markets. Today,Ubuntu women are producing thousands of cloth and paper bags for the duty-free shops of Bangalore airport. The women did not automatically tap into the demand generated by the ban on plastic bags in Bangalore. They neither understood the market potential of such a ban,nor how to connect to the markets so created. Ubuntu taught them skills to produce standardised bags,provided contacts,and arranged orders. Now,the bags produced by the women of Kodagali,just outside Mysore,who had never stepped beyond their village,are being used by thousands of international passengers flying into and out of Bangalore. Ubuntu women are making money,but only after skills have been imparted,confidence given,contacts provided.

This is an example of how markets and public action can be combined,each working in tandem,neither sufficient in and of itself. To my mind,Dreze and Sen have a compelling argument about how an enhancement of the capabilities of the poor,through education,skills and health,can be joined together with markets to generate a more sustainable economic future for communities and nations.

An inevitable next question follows: How should we achieve this goal? Should the project of capability enhancement be led by governments,by non-governmental organisations funded by governments,foundations and/or businesses,by private market-based organisations,or by a combination of these? The book heavily favours government intervention,but that leads to questions about whether beyond Kerala,Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh,state governments have the capacity to deliver education and health,or whether such capacities can be created. Dreze and Sen have offered their reasoning for why government intervention is both necessary and desirable. But further debate is necessary. Which organisations and methods will most effectively provide education,health and skills to the toiling masses?

One thing,however,is clear. Markets,while necessary,will not do this on their own,or will only do it very slowly,while many precious lives will be stunted or lost. If there is one thing that all of us can learn from this impressive book,it is this: the project of capability enhancement is not simply an ethical imperative,but also a necessity for long-term growth. Indeed,using the history of citizenship,one can add a third argument. Without viewing citizens as rights-bearing fellow human beings,it is virtually impossible to build cohesive societies. Modern societies are not only built by markets,but also by citizenship.

Ashutosh Varshney is Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and Social Sciences at Brown University,US

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