‘The Concept Is Better Than The Index’

Updated: Jul 30 2002, 05:30am hrs
Democracy for development. This could well have been the theme of the recently launched ‘Human Development Report 2002’ instead of the long-winded ‘Deepening Democracy in a Fragmented World’. The report argues for democracy to be strengthened to enable people to influence decisions impacting their lives. Fixing political freedom and participation as a goal, the report stresses that democracy is an important way to advance social and economic progress.

A principal consultant to the report, Dr Ashutosh Varshney, has his own views on the linkages in the framework of the report and the indicators it’s pegged on, though. The leading US-based political scientist, who hit the headlines recently with his ‘Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India’, aired his views in detail in an email interview with Rajiv Tikoo. Excerpts:

How do you react to India’s low ranking (124 out of 173) on human development index (HDI)
Can we as Indians—whether in government or outside—feel a sense of embarrassment, if not shame, that for all our achievements—and we have many—our masses are so poorly educated and so unhealthy! The more the privileged feel a sense of shame, and the more we apply pressure on decision-makers, the quicker and better our response to our educational and health performance will be. We should not just go on waiting for pressure from below—from the lower castes, as in South India. We should simply be politically wiser—and ask ourselves whether a country with its masses as illiterate and unhealthy as India’s can ever be a power on the international stage, respected and revered by all. Don’t we want India to be viewed and recognised as a major power

How relevant are human development indicators for a big and heterogeneous country like ours.
It is sad that India does not have a better health and educational record on the whole. The averages matter even for a heterogeneous country like India, for they show that even if some states or regions are doing well, many more are doing extremely poorly.

How come even neighbouring countries like Sri Lanka and Maldives are doing better than India
For a whole variety of reasons—some having to do with pressures from below via movements, others relating to policy changes induced entirely from above—Sri Lanka and Maldives have paid more attention to education and health.

Even East Asia has left South Asia quite behind What are the lessons for South Asia
East Asian countries have certainly left South Asian countries behind—both on income and human development measures. With the exception of Kerala, Maldives and Sri Lanka, South Asian ruling elites have paid remarkably inadequate attention to education and health. Lessons: Pay more attention! How that can be done remains a terribly important question on which we need to think more creatively.

So, what is the prescription for India to climb fast on development indicators
Greater public allocations for primary and secondary education and health. These are not areas that will attract a huge amount of private investment; the government will have to play a bigger and more committed role. A fairly impressive economic growth rate should be used by the government to leave purely economic activities to the private sector, so it can concentrate on the social sector.

What about democracy, which is the theme of the report this year. How central is democracy to human development
(1) If by human development we only mean increases in education, health and income, democracy is not central to human development in any straightforward sense. Some non-democratic regimes have achieved awesome increases on all three dimensions.

The problem, however, is this: authoritarian regimes may have produced phenomenal human development results, but they have also recorded the most disastrous ones. There are China and South Korea on the one hand, and Sierra Leone and Guatemala on the other. The former have fabulous human development records, the latter abysmal. Democracies in the developing world have a middling consistency about them. They are neither the worst, nor the best, on human development. Democracies don’t go for broke, as it were.

(2) If by human development we not only mean performance on education, health and income but also freedom, the analytic issues change. It has been repeatedly argued that the concept of human development includes freedom but the human development index does not—or that the concept is better than the index. If the index were to include freedom as well, China would certainly get lower rankings, and democracy would be called central to human development—by definition.

In the end, the question is what we include in the measurement.

In any case democracy—irrespective of its definition—cannot be a guarantee for human development. So, why look at human development in its context
Democracy has to be valued in and of itself. It allows people to express their preferences better than any other system mankind has known. As some political theorists argue, democracy is worse than an imaginary and utopian system, but better than any actually existing system.

Democracy is not without faults and can indeed, at times, produce a sense of helplessness. But it also has self-correcting mechanisms. Power and wealth differentials certainly matter, but they can’t entirely—and always—overwhelm the democratic logic. Consider how the Enrons, the Worldcoms have fallen of late, in the US. Consider also how the princes and the very rich have fallen in Indian politics. The lower castes have risen in so many states in Indian politics, though not in all. No one is guaranteed to win in a democracy, however powerful or rich. That is why powerlessness is either temporary, or in some spheres of life—not always, and in every sphere of life.