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All things being unequal...

The book busts myths about India’s growth story by providing unflattering statistics about social development indicators compared to the two neighbours.
Last Updated 24 February 2024, 22:50 IST

With superpower aspirations propelled by a buoyant economy, the present Indian ruling dispensation confidently asserts that the nation is on the verge of becoming a $5 trillion economy. A recent Niti Aayog paper claims that about 24.8 crore Indians may have moved out of Multi-Dimensional Poverty (MDP) in the past nine years. However, scepticism about the government’s growth narrative is growing. Meanwhile, our poorer neighbours, Bangladesh and Nepal, have raced ahead of us in human development.

Unequal: Why India Lags Behind Its Neighbours explores this paradox of development of how quality of life can be improved without accelerated economic growth. With extensive field surveys across India, mainly in Bihar, Bangladesh and Nepal, lasting five years, academic and activist Swati Narayan comes out with startling data on how these nations are faring better than India on social indicators such as health, nutrition, education, sanitation and status of women. Puzzled by India’s below-par performance, the author digs deeper. 

The book busts myths about India’s growth story by providing unflattering statistics about social development indicators compared to the two neighbours. Ground-level research, interviews and travel enable the author to get insights into the stunning advancement of these nations despite their low income. The analysis of why Bangladesh and Nepal have stolen a march over us is an eye-opener and a wake-up call.

Narayan attributes the extreme deprivation witnessed in Bihar villages to multiple layers of inequality with those at the bottom of the social ladder suffering the most. Bihar, says the author, exemplifies India’s skewed economic growth that has bypassed millions of citizens. She finds caste deeply entrenched in the state as a form of ‘hidden apartheid’ impeding social development. Women are at the receiving end of a rigid patriarchal system. The linkage between social inequality and human development is too obvious. Despite years of socialist movements and Naxalite activities, caste hierarchy remains intact. Against the criminal neglect of healthcare in Bihar, across the border in Nepal, villagers have good access to essential services and community clinics.

In 50 years, Bangladesh has doubled the average life expectancy of women. Primary school education is compulsory and access to healthcare in rural areas has witnessed vast improvement. Less known is that Bangladesh, like Nepal, has witnessed a sanitation revolution. While open defecation disappeared in Bangladesh way back in 2011, India is grappling with the problem even today, nearly 10 years after the launch of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Poor Bangla families are keen to construct hygienic toilets at home. Of the Bihar villages Narayan visited, only one in seven households had toilets.

The book draws readers’ attention to the havoc wrought by the pandemic and how the stifling lockdowns deepened economic inequalities. While over 20 crore Indians fell below the poverty line, businessman Gautam Adani’s fortunes skyrocketed from $9 billion in 2020 to $120 billion in 2022. While India has 169 billionaires, Bangladesh has none and Nepal has just one. However, these two countries have less income inequalities compared to India. For instance, India has shown a decline in the number of women in the workforce from 30 per cent in the 1990s to 19 per cent in 2021. On the other hand, the book cites the amazing achievements of Nepal and Bangladesh in reducing gender inequality. 

Unequal offers a wealth of data but avoids jargon. The book comes alive with human stories laced with anecdotes on everyday lives making it an enjoyable read. In the age of misinformation, getting reliable data is not easy. This volume is the outcome of a researcher’s quest for the truth behind the optics of development propaganda. Our policymakers may find the stark reality uncomfortable and the compelling analysis unpalatable but for the average reader, this is an enlightening read.

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(Published 24 February 2024, 22:50 IST)

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