The confident, out-of-the-box Independence Day speech delivered by prime minister Narendra Modi betrayed a rare kind of optimism not only because he made the most righteous noises but he looked earnest.
Speaking in a language that is earthy and devoid of frills, he exhorted parents to rein in sons to check incidents of rape, called for an end to the discrimination against the girl child, and announced a cleanliness drive across the country as a birthday present to the Mahatma.
What was unique in PM’s speech was his invocation to the common past of the Saarc region relating to India’s freedom movement: “Our common forefathers fought for freedom together. If without weapons or resources we could defeat a powerful sultanate (British rule), can’t we defeat poverty together?”
That brings us to a closer scrutiny about how India – ahead of other countries in the progress of its real income – has been overtaken in terms of social indicators by many of these countries, even within the region of South Asia itself. It was also a reminder of the imperative to chart out a critical path to accomplish the 2015 Millennium Development Goal of cutting poverty by half – a goal signed up to by all the world’s governments.
The 12th Plan observed that even if the figure of people below the consumption poverty line were to fall to zero, removing poverty in India will remain a challenge till every Indian has access to safe drinking water, sanitation, housing, nutrition, health and education. India spends less than 4 per cent of its GDP on important areas of education and health. Almost 12 per cent of our children (between 5 and 15 years) are identified as child labour, and we have about 2.4 million people living with HIV/Aids.
Despite the high baggage of optimism that one associates with the nascent government of Modi, let’s find out how India fares in poverty indicators with a few neighbouring countries. India is home to over 340 million destitute people and is the second poorest country in South Asia after strife-torn Afghanistan, says a poverty estimation study by Oxford University.
Forty per cent of all poor in 49 countries live in India, mostly in rural areas, according to the Multi-Dimensional Poverty Index (MPI) 2014, a tool used by Oxford researchers to measure poverty – which identified a person as ‘multi-dimensionally poor’ if he or she is deprived in one-third or more of 10 indicators, such as severe malnutrition, losing two children, and defecating in the open.
Despite Modi’s emphasis that regional prosperity is a must for an individual country within the region to grow, the battle against poverty is a lonely path. In South Asia, strife-torn Afghanistan had the highest level of destitution at 38 per cent, followed by a democratic India at a ‘troubling’ 28.5 per cent.
Interestingly, India’s immediate neighbours – despite facing the twin monsters of terrorism and religious fundamentalism – Bangladesh and Pakistan – had much lower levels of destitution. The study placed Afghanistan as the poorest country in South Asia, followed by India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal.
Time to reflect
Modi’s drawing upon Saarc countries in removing poverty must therefore call for an introspection as to why India with the second-best social indicators among the six South Asian countries (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan) some 20 years ago, slithered to the second worst (ahead only of problem-ridden Pakistan) position today. When India compares to Bangladesh, a country having less than half of India’s per-capita GDP, it needs to reflect that in Bangladesh infant and child mortality rates are now lower than in India.
According to two comparable surveys conducted in Bangladesh and India around 2006, in Bangladesh, 82 per cent of children are fully immunised, 88 per cent get vitamin A supplements and 89 per cent are breastfed within an hour of birth. The corresponding figures for Indian children are below 50 per cent in each case, and as low as 25 per cent for vitamin A supplementation.
Similarly, about half of the population in India is constrained to practice open defecation, a major health hazard, compared with less than 10 per cent in Bangladesh. Bangladesh has overtaken India in terms of a wide range of basic social indicators, including life expectancy, child survival, enhanced immunisation rates, reduced fertility rates, and even some schooling indicators.
Conversely, India has been climbing up the ladder of per capita income despite being a laggard in social indicators – its dismal neglect of public health being the most glaring. The warning of the World Bank's chief economist Kaushik Basu that the bulk of India's aggregate growth is occurring through a disproportionate rise in the incomes at the upper end of the income ladder had earlier found ample resonance in Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze, now hated as two prophets of doom, who had similarly warned us about the pitfalls of an absurdly uneven and jobless economic growth wondering how we are revelling over a few ‘islands of California in a sea of sub-Saharan Africa.’
Modi is surely seized of his challenge to lay out a roadmap and to stage a turn-around. Fortunately for Modi, he has no claims to the uncharitable statistics bequeathed to him but five years down the line when he rises again to deliver his I-Day speech, his remit would be judged not too uncritically.