Lop-sided growth

Lop-sided growth

Need for policy change

If food, primary education and primary healthcare are the issues which go unanswered, what ‘growth’ are we talking about?

For the past several years Indian economy has been growing at about 8.5 per cent. Even the current projected rate of growth for 2012, despite global recessionary trends, has been put at over 7 per cent. Businessmen and elite have flourished. More businesses have blossomed and more opportunities have opened up for the elite. Frankly, even for several of the working ‘middle’ class population, the last decade and a half -- post-liberalisation -- has been economically beneficial. For all those of us who are on this gravy train, it has been good enough to put us in a slumber and therefore not see the ominous signs. Has it been good for those of our citizens who are at the lower end of the economic spectrum? Has the so-called growth touched the poor? The answer is a clear ‘no’.

More than a quarter of the entire world’s hungry people are in India. We have 230 million hungry people. 2011 Global Hunger Index (GHI) Report places India at a high 15th rank in ‘hunger’. It is also significant to note that between years 1996 and 2011, the hunger index actually went up for only India, Burundi and Democratic Republic of Congo. So, the ‘hunger’ has increased over the last 15 years – years which have seen rapid economic ‘growth’. The World Bank estimates that the percentage of underweight children in sub-Saharan Africa is 24 per cent, while India has almost twice the amount at 47 per cent. About 72 per cent of our infants are anaemic. While this news should really be alarming, we seem to be gloating over our economic marvel.

We also pride ourselves about the quality of our primary and secondary education. Whereas, the actual situation is worrisome. Recently, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) put India at 72nd position among 73 countries participating in the assessment. Our 15-year old students did very poorly in science, in English reading and in Mathematics – a subject where we always thought we were way ahead. An Indian eighth standard student was at the level of a third standard South Korean student. Similarly, a report by Economist says that 60 per cent of our 10-year old school students could not do simple division.

Whatever may be the limitations of the assessments by the international agencies, they throw light on the glaring deficiencies in our primary and secondary education system. We come up with good names like Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and Akshaya Patra leaning back on our capable ancestors who lived thousands of years ago. We have been in self-delusion and it is better we get out of it soon.

Vast improvements

Health is another issue that needs vast improvements. The one recent good news is that 2011 has been free of any case of polio.  However, in our country 1.7 million children die each year before turning one. India has emerged as a country with one of the largest number of people living with HIV/AIDS virus in the world. One of the effects of this is the spread of tuberculosis (TB) in our country. A very frightening aspect of TB is the multidrug-resistant variety of it which is growing. Resurgence of earlier eradicated Malaria should be another big concern. Dengue, pneumonia, hepatitis, diarrheal diseases and other air-borne and water-borne diseases due to pollution and poor sanitation continue on a large scale. While corporate hospitals are thriving in India’s metros, the healthcare delivery for rural poor is left way behind.

Food, basic education and health are the three fundamental issues on which India has shown terrible lapses. Whenever natural calamities like cyclones and floods hit our rural parts, the government has shown an abject lack of sensitivity. People die of lack of food, while our ministries at the Centre debate whether food grain sitting – some of it even rotting - in our godowns can be released free for the calamity-affected. It is only recently that Sonia Gandhi has suggested for Food for All as a matter of national policy. Such a possibility is being hotly contested by the food minister himself.

If food, primary education and primary healthcare are the issues which go unanswered, what ‘growth’ are we talking about? Growth for whom? A large majority has been kept out of it. In fact, they are suffering the ill effects of it. Inflation affects them much more than the middle class. We have growth of the type where the land on which tribal people subsist is snatched away and given to mining and other industries. Growth that is not people-centric is a cancerous growth.

Talk of ‘inclusive growth’ has been going on in India for the past two decades now, since the economy was liberalised. But, nothing concrete has ever materialised for the huge section of our citizens who are poor. They are getting increasingly marginalised. One wonders whether the present form of economy and polity is ever going to come up with tangible efforts. The government seems loaded with agenda that can only further the interests of the elite and the supposed ‘middle’ class. Why, even the candle-light marches and the supposedly Gandhian protests that we witness are generally about issues that affect the middle class. The poor have no strength to protest and have to suffer in silence.

The task is to marry the essential but seemingly contradictory principles of ‘positive government’ with ‘liberalisation of the economy’. The current paralysis of the government is partly a result of a lack of proper understanding of these forces pulling in opposite directions. The present style of economic growth is top-heavy and unstable. A rethink on our economic and political governance is, therefore, absolutely necessary.

(The writer is a former professor at IIM, Bangalore)