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16 January, 2012

Lessons in social progress

BRP Bhaskar

The seamy side of India’s development story is forcing itself into public view demanding a review of the nation’s priorities.

A report on hunger and malnutrition, based on a survey conducted in 112 districts across the country, which was released last week, said 40 per cent of the children in 100 focus districts were underweight and the growth of nearly 60 per cent was stunted. It termed the level of child malnutrition as “unacceptably high”.

Another study, undertaken in Andhra Pradesh as part of an international project, showed that while the economy was growing and poverty levels were falling, one-third of the children were stunted.

Since 1975, the Indian government has been implementing an integrated child development scheme (ICDS), which is said to be one of the largest of its kind in the world. Its primary objective is improvement of nutritional status of children in the 0-6 age group.

The budget allocation for the scheme, which is raised year after year, touched Rs 160.56 billion this financial year. This was 19 per cent higher than the previous year’s figure, but groups working among children found it grossly insufficient as 42 per cent of the world’s underweight children are in India.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who released the hunger and malnutrition report, said it was a shame that after several decades of operation of ICDS the rate of malnutrition was still high.

However, the facts the report brought out could not have been a surprise for him. The National Family Health Survey of 2005-06 had found that 58 per cent of the expectant mothers were anaemic and 47 per cent of the children were malnourished.

Low budgetary allocation is not the only reason for the poor impact of ICDS and other health sector programmes. A good part of the allotted money goes towards payment of remuneration to the personnel involved in delivery of services. Also, the government does not act with a sense of urgency.

In 2008, a high-powered body, styled as the Prime Minister’s National Council on Nutrition, was set up to advise the government on steps to address the malnutrition problem. It held its first and so far only meeting two years after its constitution. According to insiders, the decisions taken at that meeting are yet to be implemented although the prime minister wanted it done in three months.

Amartya Sen, the economist, recently drew attention to India’s poor record in social development. He said China had established a big lead in social indicators, and even the smaller neighbours were overtaking India. From being the second best performer in this area in South Asia India had become the second worst.

Part of the problem lies in the government’s pathetic faith in the market economy as the cure-all. Its basic approach was spelt out last week by the Chairman of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council, C. Rangarajan, who said the country could generate the surplus needed to launch social development programmes if it maintained the economic growth rate of the last decade.

The experience of the other South Asian countries to which Amartya Sen referred shows that the link between economic growth and social development is exaggerated. They are able to forge ahead of India because they are according higher priority to health and education, not because their economies are growing faster than its.

Actually, the government does not have to look beyond India’s borders to realise that the conventional wisdom that social advance follows economic advance is questionable. There is before it the example of the southern state of Kerala, which has registered social indicators comparable to those of China and the Western countries.

In 1969 a United Nations agency noted that Kerala, though a poor state, had achieved vast social progress. Thanks to remittances from expatriates and growth of the service sector, especially tourism, Kerala’s economy is now growing at a slightly higher rate than the national economy. However, it is facing severe challenges as the cash-strapped government is not able to sustain the high levels of investment in health and education which had pushed up its social indicators.

The lesson to learn from Kerala’s experience is that the critical factor in social development is not the rate of growth of the economy but the importance the government attaches to investment in areas such as health and education. The market has not played a significant part in the growth of these sectors anywhere. -- Gulf Today, January 16, 2012.

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