Sen and Dreze’s argument is that these huge social investments have proved critical to sustaining China’s impressive economic growth. Without comparable foundations, India’s much lauded economic growth is faltering. Furthermore, they argue that India’s overriding preoccupation with economic growth makes no sense without recognizing that human development depends on how that wealth is used and distributed.
“What is the purpose of a development model that produces luxury shopping malls rather than sanitation systems that ensure millions of healthy lives?” Dreze and Sen ask.
They say India have “unaimed opulence.” India is caught in the absurd paradox of people having mobile phones, but no toilets.
Even more stark is the comparison with Bangladesh.
“Our hope is that India’s public policymakers will be embarrassed by the comparison with Bangladesh. On a range of development indicators such as life expectancy, child immunization and child mortality, Bangladesh has pulled ahead of India, despite being poorer,” Sen said.
What makes this comparison so powerful is that Bangladesh has targeted the position of women not just through government policy, but also through the work of non-governmental organizations such as BRAC and the Grameen Bank. As a result, there have been astonishing changes, such as a dramatic fall in the birthrate and girls now outnumbering boys in education. All this has been achieved despite having half the per capita income of India.
Other impoverished neighbors, such as Nepal, have made great strides while even Sri Lanka has kept well ahead of India on key indicators despite a bitter civil war for much of the past 30 years. Dreze and Sen conclude in their book that India has “some of the worst human development indicators in the world” and features in the bottom 15 countries, along with Afghanistan, Yemen and Pakistan. Seven of the poorest Indian states account for the biggest concentration of deprivation on the globe.
After this blizzard of facts and figures — and the book is stuffed with them — one might fear reader despair, but the reverse is true. This is a book about what India could and should do. Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh states are held up as good examples of how social investments from the 1960s to the 1980s have reaped dividends in economic growth. What holds India back is not lack of resources, but lack of clear-sighted, long-term policies and the political will to implement them.
Still an Indian citizen, Sen is optimistic pointing to the political mobilization following the rape of a young student on a bus in New Delhi in December last year which led to the rapid adoption of new measures to combat violence against women. The consciences of the Indian middle classes can be stirred and political action follows.
However, he admits “intellectual wonder” at how it is that more people cannot see that economic growth without investment in human development is unsustainable and unethical. What underpins the book is a deep faith in human reason, the roots of which he traces to India’s long argumentative tradition. If enough evidence and careful analysis is brought to bear on this subject then one can win the argument. It is this faith that has sustained him through more than five decades of writing on human development. It was his work which led to the development of the much cited UN Human Development Index.