That India was ranked 135 out of 187 countries on UNDP’s human development index is perhaps the greatest concern for a nation with global ambition.
In order to sustain our growth momentum and translate the gains of growth into wellbeing at a faster pace, India needs to rejig its strategy for accelerated human development. The performance in education and health in recent years has been better than in the past, but there is still a long way to go.
First, India needs to tackle undernutrition in zero- to three-year-old children more effectively. This alone can improve learning outcomes and reduce child and maternal mortality rates. Unfortunately, this age group is not getting the attention it deserves. Children between four and six years of age are best linked to schools with a nursery and preparatory class. It is time to take a hard look at the integrated child development services (ICDS). There is a case for daycare centres for six- to 36-month-old children to ensure age-appropriate complementary feeding, growth monitoring, care and early stimulation, and to inculcate cleanliness and ensure adequate quality food intake. The Jan Swasthya Sahyog experiment in Ganiyari, Bilaspur, shows the gains that are possible. Improvement in nutrition will automatically reduce child and maternal mortality significantly, besides ensuring improved participation and learning in schools.
Second, public health and hygiene needs to be prioritised. Lack of sanitation and clean water are the reasons why improvement in nutrition and health indicators is unsatisfactory. A concerted campaign to end open defecation, innovative systems of solid- and liquid-waste management, and segregation of waste and recycling require new technology, innovation and community action. India’s economic revival and improvement in wellbeing cannot happen without a significant improvement in sanitation. Urban and rural local bodies have to be re-energised as mere high-cost infrastructure does not translate into cleaner cities and villages. There is a need for a community-led public health movement.
Third, financing of critical sectors like education, health, nutrition, water and sanitation has to follow a long-term plan and must not be ad hoc. There must be well worked out outcomes and time frames for human development indicators, with appropriate backing of financial resources. India can do without a regime of subsidies, tax holidays and other concessions. But it cannot do without satisfactory levels of public spending on human development.
Fourth, human development outcomes are interrelated and dependent on factors outside a given department’s purview. Only a wider platform can actually facilitate the achievement of outcomes. As a nation, we should select 15 to 20 key indicators in education, health, nutrition, water, sanitation, women’s empowerment, social inclusion, livelihood, food security and housing, and monitor them from the habitation to the national level.
Fifth, gender/ social equality and improved human development indicators go together. We cannot afford hierarchies of access to basic services for human development. Equity and inclusion have to be mainstreamed in all programmes. Gender and social hierarchies will have to be demolished for a faster pace of human development. This requires investing in community processes that bring out the solidarity of women and the assertion of unprivileged social groups. Community organisations will have to be institutionalised in the framework of panchayati raj, at the hamlet or cluster-of-households level.
Sixth, new public management skills and professionals in public health, nutrition etc would be required at the block and district levels. Lateral entry of professionals will have to be facilitated even at the state and national levels so that human development programmes get the required technical inputs.
Seventh, systems of third-party assessment of progress and creating an institutional framework for building capacity at all levels will have to be special focus areas. Good teachers, nurses, paramedics and doctors are needed in large numbers, and institutions that ensure their quality will need to be the thrust. The use of technology in capacity building and in effective monitoring of outcomes will help in speeding up the process.
Eighth, there should be a renewed thrust on quality and accreditation. Partnerships with the NGO sector in service delivery, capacity development and monitoring need to be enlarged. Such partnerships must define the obligations of both sides very clearly and categorically.
Ninth, secondary education completion, especially by girls and deprived groups, and a thrust on skill development, will sustain the gains of human development and translate it into higher trajectories of economic growth.
Tenth, such a national effort at speeding up human development requires leadership at the topmost level. There is an urgent need to set up a prime minister’s human development council with all the chief ministers, concerned Central ministers and sector professionals as members. It should work like a sub-committee of the National Development Council and should meet every quarter to review progress against agreed benchmarks on the basis of independent evaluation and feedback. Similar human development councils under chief ministers at the state level and under the zila parishad, panchayat samiti, gram and nagar panchayats and urban local bodies, reviewing the same set of agreed on human development indicators will go a long way in making India’s human development rank two-digit from the current 135 by 2020. This will be the best way to craft a peaceful, skilled, happy, equal, healthy, educated and fair social order.
The writer is principal secretary, department of social welfare, government of Bihar.
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