High growth can't hide India's failures
India's record of economic growth has been quite impressive, and GDP has grown at an average rate of 6.8% per annum in the last 18 years. High growth notwithstanding, India seems to have failed on two fronts. First, social indicators on health, nutrition, and quality of education are either stagnant or moving very slowly. Secondly, a large number of marginalised and disadvantaged people have either not gained from development, or in many cases have actually been harmed from the process.
Almost half of our children suffer from under-nourishment. Immunisation rates remain stagnant. The first UPA government's assurance of increasing health expenditure to 2 to 3% of GDP has remained unfulfilled as this figure is still around 1%. India's maternal mortality ratio of 256 deaths per 100,000 live births is unacceptably high (China's is 43).
Gender inequality also remains a pervasive problem and some of the structural changes taking place have an adverse effect on women. More than a third (36%) of Indian women have a Body Mass Index of less than 18.5 kg/m2, indicating a high level of nutritional deficiency. This leads to a serious inter-generational transfer of malnutrition to babies.
While the literacy rate has increased from 18.3% in 1951 to 64.8% in 2001, the number of illiterate persons still exceeds 300 million, making India the country with the highest number of illiterate persons in the world. There are also several millions of children who can barely read and write even after spending 5-8 years in school. Gender disparity in literacy is still high, particularly in states like Bihar, J&K, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh. The teacher-pupil ratio is far short of the norm and there has been lack of proper training for teachers, inadequate infrastructure including building and other basic facilities all of which affect quality of education.
The second major weakness is that the benefits of high growth have not reached many groups, especially Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, urban poor, single women (widowed, divorced or abandoned), and minorities. Their economic deprivation derives from lack of productive assets such as land and water, and access to credit. These chronically poor tend to remain in poverty for much of their lives, passing on the tragic legacy of deprivation and exclusion to their children.
The brutal expulsion of those who most need it, from support and succour, from care and rights — often by their own families, by local communities, but most importantly by the state — is one of the most profound public crimes of our times.
The lack of inclusiveness is borne out by data on several dimensions of performance. For instance,only 49.1% of the poorest in the country have a BPL/AAY (Below Poverty Line/Antodaya Annapurna Yojana) card, while 23% did not have any ration card. These must be the voiceless people living in remote and isolated hamlets, where roads do not exist, and for various reasons the government has ignored them. Their exclusion goes beyond stark numbers and there is evidence to show that it is intrinsically linked to caste, gender and social inequity, and ownership of assets such as land. They face insurmountable social barriers to food and livelihood security.
What needs to be done?
One feature, which is common to public policy relating to each of these dispossessed groups, is the fact that for almost all, there is very little authentic official data about their numbers and names. This is not a chance or coincidence. It is the outcome of what we describe as 'invisibilisation' of these powerless people by the state.
Identifying the poor: There should be an effort, at least once every two years, to not just estimate these groups, but to conduct a full listing. It is remarkable that although persons deemed by the state to be 'below poverty line' in rural areas have been surveyed and listed, no such survey has been undertaken for urban areas since Independence, although around a third of the country's poor live in cities. They must be identified and listed, using objective and verifiable criteria of vulnerability and denial of rights. Single adult women, who live with or without dependents, as well as old people, who live with relatives by blood or marriage under the same roof, should be treated for purpose of all food schemes as separate families and be given separate ration cards.
Social security pensions and stipends: Every aged person must have access as a legal right to a pension that is sufficient for a dignified, active and healthy life. All designated BPL people above the age of 65 years have recently been made entitled to a pension of 200 rupees from the central government; with the state governments encouraged to at least match this amount. This is welcome. But it needs to be expanded to ensure that all workers who are not part of the organised sector are covered by pension benefits. Social security pensions should be revised at regular intervals.
Special feeding arrangement: All old people from the neighbourhood should be permitted to share in the school mid-day meal of hot cooked meal in schools or ICDS centres without any conditions, as practiced in Tamil Nadu. This serves as a last defence against starvation of the aged destitute, without requiring any additional administrative costs.
Making NREGA more inclusive: Ensure that single women, aged and disabled people enjoy at least equal legal claim to employment in NREGA works as households 'led' by able-bodied men, and that their work guarantee should be extended to 150 days. NREGA guidelines and handbooks in each state should carefully identify specific tasks in public works which can be undertaken by disabled adults and aged people; and they should be encouraged to undertake such tasks when people of these categories apply for work.
Housing for the urban poor: Inhuman living conditions in urban settlements in fast growing cities, evictions of occupants and demolitions of their homes resulting in untold miseries to them, and proliferation of shanty dwellings in such cities, need a more pragmatic and humane approach on the part of government. Policy-makers have to realise the fact that given the rapidly growing population of the urban poor, conventional planning in favour of the privileged sections of city population has to change. There must be recognition that slum population are bonafide citizens like any other sections of the city population, and their needs need priority.
There should be careful earmarking of sites for urban poor migrants close to potential work-sites, and land allotted to homeless migrants by a process free from bureaucratic tangles.
All of these measures will have a meaningful impact when these are successfully executed, free of corruption and bureaucratic inertia. The strategy for inclusive growth should not be just a conventional strategy for growth to which some elements aimed at inclusion have been added. It should be a strategy which aims at achieving a particular type of growth process that will meet the objectives of inclusiveness and sustainability.
(NC Saxena is a former member-secretary of the Planning Commission and is currently member of the National Advisory Council)