An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions, by Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen, review
Despite its much-vaunted economic success, India is still held back by poverty, argues Alex von Tunzelmann.
Photo: Kumar Mangwani/Alamy
How apt that the English word “juggernaut” is borrowed from Sanskrit. The India that emerges from this illuminating and powerfully argued book by the economists Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen has the look of one. India’s shining cupola is perched on a dilapidated chassis, crushing those who fall under its wheels. From one angle, it appears to be conquering the world. From another, it is rolling steadily towards the edge of a cliff.
The travel writing cliché about India being a “land of contrasts” persists because it is true. Its shockingly unequal patterns of development, say Drèze and Sen, are “making the country look more and more like islands of California in a sea of sub-Saharan Africa”. Despite a massive number of Indians prospering – well over 100 million of them, “a larger group than the population of most countries in the world” – so many of India’s 1.27 billion people remain disadvantaged that overall social indicators have hardly improved. In some cases, they seem to be in reverse: “The history of world development offers few other examples, if any, of an economy growing so fast for so long with such limited results in terms of reducing human deprivations.”
Nearly half (43 per cent) of Indian children under five are underweight, compared with four per cent in China and two per cent in Brazil. India’s central government spends four times more on petroleum and fertiliser subsidies than on health care. When investigators visited schools in 1996 and 2006, half of them had no teaching activity at all. None of the world’s top 200 universities is in India. Ninety per cent of the country’s labour force works in the “informal sector” – under the official radar.
And then there are the lavatories. Or, rather, there aren’t. In 2011, 50 per cent of Indian households still practised “open defecation”, compared with one per cent in China. Even in neighbouring Bangladesh, which has slower economic growth than India, only 8.4 per cent of households endure this hardship. The government there, the authors reveal, has been “quietly building toilets” for years. This is not just a question of money, but of priorities.
To be fair, India started from a low base. There is no quarter in this book for those armchair imperialists who think everything worked better under the British. In the last half-century of British rule, per-capita income growth was 0.1 per cent. It was prevented from dipping into the negative only by “the high mortality rates that characterised British India”. If enough people without jobs die, the average income will rise — though this is hardly the way any competent government would hope to achieve it. But the stagnation of some of India’s social indicators versus its South Asian neighbours in recent years cannot be blamed on the British, and Drèze and Sen never let Indian governance off the hook. The word “dismal” is used a lot.
The book has already caused a stir in India. Jagdish Bhagwati, a rival economist based at Columbia University in New York, issued a strikingly personal rebuttal, accusing Sen of causing “huge damage” with his policy prescriptions, and attacking his image as the Mother Teresa of economics: “Let us not insult Mother Teresa.” Bhagwati advocates the “Gujarat template”, which means further liberalisation focusing on private sector growth. Meanwhile, Sen admitted he did not support the champion of this template, the Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, for prime minister, saying he would prefer “a more secular person”. One MP called for Sen to be stripped of his Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award, for expressing this entirely unsurprising view.
If the Indian hard Right means to rebut this book, it will need more than snarky retorts and hysteria. Drèze and Sen’s thesis is built on sober statistical analysis. Their writing is straightforward, brisk, witty in places, and shot through with real passion. They are angry about the things they believe are holding India back. They want those things to change.
What, then, might change look like? Drèze and Sen are opposed to blanket privatisation. At the same time, they acknowledge that “the operational record of public enterprises in India is rarely good and often disastrous”. They propose a mix, with public sector involvement in areas such as education, healthcare and nutrition — but emphasise that success depends on the public sector becoming properly transparent and accountable. Trying to end inefficiency and corruption might sound like trying to stop an avalanche. None the less, Drèze and Sen are decidedly optimistic about the potential for change.
This book’s rallying cry is a quotation from one of the great figures of the independence years, BR Ambedkar: “educate, agitate and organise”. The authors refer often to the Indian states Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh, all of which were very poor in the Fifties and Sixties. These occupy the top three spots in the list of major Indian states ranked by their score on the Human Development Index for 2005-6. The reasons, say Drèze and Sen, have been “ambitious social programmes” – investment in health, education, roads, transport and utilities. “This was not just a reflection of kindheartedness on the part of the ruling elite,” they note, “but an outcome of democratic politics, including organised public pressure.”
Development, they say, is not just about a rise in GDP or greater industrialisation. It is “the progress of human freedom and capability to lead the kind of lives that people have reason to value”. This thoughtful, necessary book makes a strong case for why and how India should work towards that goal. All it needs are the kind of leaders who are willing and able to make great changes; leaders who can control a juggernaut.
Alex von Tunzelmann is the author of Indian Summer: the Secret History of the End of Empire (Pocket) and Red Heat: Conspiracy, Murder and Cold War in the Caribbean (Simon & Schuster)
An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions, by Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen
448pp, Allen Lane, Telegraph offer: £18 (plus £1.35 p&p) 0844 871 1515 (rrp £20).