The elections made one thing amply clear: It’s NOT the economy, stupid. Neither the lowest quarterly GDP growth in 20 quarters nor the highest unemployment rate in 45 years could put the brakes on Narendra Modi’s thunderous return to South Block. And now, with the election in the history books, it would be stupid not to do something about that economy.
Luckily, India has more than its fair share of clever economists with proposals for boosting growth and jobs. We are also lucky to have former CEA, Arvind Subramanian, released from captivity into the wilds of Cambridge, Massachusetts, who is free to tell us that India’s much-ballyhooed growth rate was a mirage. There is no dearth of economic advice and insight. So, I will put the economy to the side for a moment. I am intrigued by a question that is related but separate from macro phenomena, such as growth or jobs: How is the ordinary Indian doing in terms of “well-being”? What can Modi 2.0 do with its historic mandate to make a positive difference in the individual experience?
According to Gallup’s 2018 World Poll of 150 countries, India scored the lowest in the world in terms of perception of well-being: A shocking 3 per cent of Indians reported (in 2017) that they were “thriving.” In comparison, China’s response was 21 per cent. In fact, even in India, the response back in 2014 was 14 per cent. Now, you might find it odd, as I did, that, simultaneously, the majority of these respondents felt local economic conditions were getting better and even gave Modi an 80 per cent approval rating.
Election landslides retain their glow for only so long, a morose electorate cannot be a firm basis for governance. So, here is my recommendation to the Modi 2.0 team. Find out what is behind this shockingly low Gallup number and take steps to address the underlying issues. I would also suggest resisting the knee-jerk “all polls are nonsense” response. The infinitely forwarded euphoric messages on your WhatsApp feed and — as we are now discovering — the official GDP figures could be misleading as well. Besides, Gallup has been in this business for a while, so it is a little bit more credible than your crazy uncle, a fundamentalist friend or a political hack.
First, fixing the economy will, no doubt, help, but it is far from sufficient. It is essential to make a change in the non-economic factors that affect a citizen’s day-to-day experience. Gallup’s methodology may even offer a hint.
One of the key factors that contributed to the low “thriving” score was the response to the question: “If you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends you can count on to help you whenever you need them, or not?” Indians’ responses were among the lowest in the world. If you thought that family and friends is what makes Indian society special, you might be wrong. I would recommend conducting some further research into the underlying reasons. Arguably, the government has little leverage in creating social and familial cohesion; much of this has to come from the ground up. However, leaders, especially someone who has achieved iconic status, as Modi has, can help set the tone for a more civil, compassionate and generous society. The track record of Modi 1.0 has been far from exemplary. This is as good a time as any to make a change.
A second major factor that plays a major role in well-being is the state of health. Here, much work remains undone. The broad metrics are damning and it shows in each individual’s experience. India spends just 1.4 per cent of GDP on health, one of the lowest in the world, but it is not just spending alone. There are 0.8 doctors for every 1,000 Indians (even the world average is 1.1). Every year more than 60 million Indians are pushed into poverty because of medical expenses. The country also ranks 145th in terms of life expectancy according to the UN Population Prospects, with an average expected life span at only 67.7.
Moreover, addressing the state of healthcare in India cannot just focus on medical interventions. Myriad reasons for the growing healthcare challenges must be addressed. Here, too, much work remains. For example, only 49 per cent of rural households have access to safely managed water, according to UNICEF. According to the Environmental Performance Index, India ranks 180th out of 180 countries on environmental health, 178th on air quality and 145th on water and sanitation. India also tops the charts in terms of an urban sanitation crisis.
The Modi 1.0 record was far from satisfactory in its attention to healthcare. Several schemes were announced, but it took the government as late as the 2018 budget to announce its grand move, the Ayushman Bharat initiative. No doubt, there were other schemes earlier, such as the Swachh Bharat Mission, Ujjwala or Jan Aushadhi that would contribute to the state of public health. The basic issue is that there is plenty of daylight between splashy announcements and their actual execution. Modi 2.0 must deliver results.
My third proposal for the Modi 2.0 administration would be to adopt a “systems” perspective and recognise that the issues that affect an individual’s day-to-day life are inter-connected and solutions must respect this inter-connectivity.
Here is an idea. I know that the ultimate standard in systemic interventions — what might well be the last gasp of the global liberal democratic agenda, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, are very far from the ordinary Indian’s day-to-day life. From a policymaking perspective, however, the UN goals serve a very useful purpose, as a systemic framework to set targets and plans, assemble stakeholders, invest, measure progress, recognise the system-wide interactions and iterate. Systematically making progress over the next 5 years on all 17 goals would go a long way in bringing the ordinary Indian’s “thriving” number well above the 3 per cent rock-bottom. Here, too, Modi 1.0 has left us with plenty of headroom for improvement. The only goal where India made modest progress was in pursuit of goal 1, of poverty elimination; it is doing a poor job on every other goal. India ranked 112th out of 156 countries, according to an index of progress on the goals, produced by a team directed by Columbia’s Jeffrey Sachs.
It is time to make a radical switch from quick-fix measures, catchy slogans or dangerous grand gestures — yes, I was thinking demonetisation — and embrace the complex systemic nature of the problems to be addressed, which has economics tangled with many other factors. Whether you prefer to believe or dismiss Gallup, your WhatsApp feed or the government’s GDP figures, let us agree that the state of well-being of the ordinary Indian is far from ideal. I, for one, consider the 3 per cent number a genuine crisis.
The BJP won 175 out of 191 head-to-head contests against the Congress in the last election; a 92 per cent win rate is a coup. If there is any way to tackle a crisis, it is by organising a coup. Modi 2.0 ought not to let either a coup or a crisis go to waste. Now, that would be truly stupid.
This article first appeared in the print edition on June 20, 2019 under the title ‘A coup and a crisis’.