Lets Avoid Linear Path To Development

Updated: Jul 20 2003, 05:30am hrs
As you read this on a Sunday morning, a child is born in a remote village in Rajasthan. She a girl childis one among thousands of children born at the very moment she emerged from her mothers womb. If she survives, and she has a 90 per cent chance of survival, she will, by 2015, grow into a young girl, knocking on the door of puberty.

Where will she be in 2015 The chance that she will be poor is more than 20 per cent. If she is poor, she will be malnourished (22 per cent) and she may never have enrolled in a school (20 per cent). There is a good chance she may have access to safe drinking water (85 per cent) but there is less chance she will have access to adequate sanitation (60 per cent).

In the year 2000, at the largest ever conference of heads of states/ governments, the countries of the world adopted the UN Millennium Declaration. Concrete targets were set for the year 2015, and the leaders of the world promised to do all they could to eradicate poverty and promote human dignity.

There are eight goals. In simple words they are:

* Halve the proportion of people living in extreme hunger and poverty (measured as income that is less than $1 a day).

* Ensure that all children complete primary school.

* Eliminate gender inequality in all levels of education.

* Reduce child mortality by two-thirds.

* Reduce maternal mortality ratio by three-fourths.

* Halt the spread of HIV/AIDS and begin to reverse the spread.

* Ensure environmental sustainability provide access to safe drinking water and improve the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers.

* Develop a global partnership for development, including a commitment to good governance.

In the 12 years, India would have certainly made progress towards attaining the Millennium goals, but none of the goals will be actually achieved. It is not because there is a lack of resources, although paucity of resourses is indeed an important factor. Nor is it because the policy intentions are not sound. The real reason appears to be that India fails when it comes to governance and delivery. The Human Development Report 2003 places India at rank 127.

The index is a summary measure of three dimensions of human development living a long and healthy life, being educated and having a decent standard of living. At the top of the list are not the superpowers of yesteryears nor the sole superpower of today, the United States. The top five ranks are occupied by Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Australia and the Netherlands. These are countries with small populations, and except in the case of Australia, they are all small-size countries.

All five of them are parliamentary democracies, all of them have several political parties and it is common to have governments that have several coalition parties. In fact, the governments in Norway, Iceland and the Netherlands are notoriously revolving-door governments. Save Australia, none of the countries are rich in natural resources. So, what distinguishes them from the countries at the bottom of the list It is good governance. Each of these countries has nearly perfected a system of governance that delivers results and is not hostage to the vagaries of politics.

The Report points out that the goals require capable, effective states able to deliver on their development commitments. Undoubtedly, the foundation is good policies. The Report identifies several policy clusters for escaping poverty traps. There is nothing startlingly new about any of the policy clusters, but if you take each one of them and apply it to the Indian situation, why the Indian state fails would become very apparent.

For example, a policy cluster that is recommended involves raising the productivity of small and poor farmers. Among the steps identified are better seeds, crop rotation, oil management, irrigation systems, storage facilities and roads connecting villages to larger market centres. None of these is beyond the intellectual or financial capacity of the Indian state. Yet, year after year, we fail to deliver; agriculture in India has become more dependent on the monsoon than less; and our large food reserves have induced a complacency that shuts our eyes to the reality that most small and poor farmers are caughtseemingly forever in a poverty trap. The last time that the Indian state addressed the policy issues concerning agriculture in a determined manner was in 1975.

Another policy cluster that the Report identifies concerns human rights and empowering poor people through democratic governance. Thanks to the Constitutions 73rd and 74th amendments, we have a semblance of local self-government. But real power still lies with the state government and, even in state governments, increasingly with an autocratic and arbitrary chief minister. Political institutions have atrophied. Those who enter them regard them as opportunities for self-aggrandisement. The doors are usually barred to the very poor, the ethnic minorities and women.

True decentralisation has worked and the Report identifies Kerala, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal as three states where decentralisation has brought significant improvements.

The nineties have been generally good to India. The Human Development Index (HDI) has moved up from 0.519 to 0.590. In the same period, Chinas HDI moved up from 0.679 to 0.721. There are 22 countries in the world that have an HDI in excess of 0.900. In the percentile just above Indias that is 0.600 to 0.700 there are 19 countries. Among these are Vietnam, Indonesia, Honduras and Mongolia which have improved upon their HDI and which should challenge Indias competitive spirits. Among the 19 are also countries like South Africa, Namibia and Botswana which have registered a decline in their HDI thanks to their inability to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS. 42 million people are infected with HIV/AIDS. About 7 million are in China, India and Russia. The Report identifies these three countries as facing the biggest threats from HIV/AIDS by 2025. The estimates are chilling: China-70 million, India-110 million and Russia-13 million. In the case of India, life expectancy will reduce by 13 years. All the gains that will be made in respect of the other goals can be wiped out by the devastation that will be caused by HIV/AIDS.

The Report should serve, as a wake-up call to Indians and Indian leaders who think that progress along a linear path however slow is inevitable. Unless there is good governance and delivery against commitments, progress is not only not inevitable but likely to suffer shocking reversals.

(The author is a former Union finance minister)