Wanted: A Real People’s Party

By Anjum Altaf

It would be hard to find citizens in Pakistan or India who believe their governments really care for the people.

The Nobel laureate, Amartya Sen, has repeatedly termed India a disaster zone in which pockets of California exist amidst a sea of sub-Saharan Africa; where millions of lives are crushed by lack of food, health, education and justice. Sen wants India to “hang its head in shame” contrasting its performance with China where massive investments in health and education in the 1970s laid the foundation for sustained economic growth.

Sen points out that even within South Asia, barring Pakistan, India is at the bottom in terms of social indicators. Bangladesh is doing better with half the per capita income of India.

This juxtaposition of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and China allows some myths to be laid to rest in explaining this outrageous neglect of people.

First, Pakistan’s social problems are not due to the bogey of over-population. Bangladesh has a similar sized population and China’s is over five times larger.

Second, Pakistan’s problems are not due to its interrupted democracy. India, with uninterrupted democracy since 1947, is socially speaking an embarrassment of colossal proportions with some of the worst human development indicators in the world.

Third, China’s success is not just due to its authoritarianism. Decades of authoritarianism in Pakistan made things worse not better.

Fourth, Pakistan’s problems do not stem from a lack of money. Bangladesh has forged ahead with fewer resources.

What then is the answer and where is the source of optimism for a better future?

Sen believes India suffers from the absence of vision and the political will to implement it. He puts his faith in the middle class and wants to shame it into shedding its indifference to the wretchedness of its fellow citizens. Pointing to the response to the recent rape in Delhi, he believes the middle class can be moved and once it is positive political action would follow.

Many in Pakistan subscribe to the same perspective but this begs a number of questions.

First, how does one explain the lack of vision? Why does China, or Bangladesh for that matter, have a better vision than India and Pakistan? Sen himself expresses befuddlement as to how governments and the middle classes can’t see the economic and ethical costs of not investing in people.

Second, what is the basis for reposing faith in the middle class? Sure, there will always be members of the middle class who would align themselves with the people in the struggle for rights. But would the middle class really be a part of the political vanguard?

The evidence is not convincing by any means. Arundhati Roy seems more on the mark when she observes that the upper and middle classes are seceding from the rest of the country. Her characterization of this secession as vertical and not lateral is particularly evocative – “They’re fighting for the right to merge with the world’s elite somewhere up there in the stratosphere.”

This trenchant observation ties in quite seamlessly with Sen’s characterization of India as pockets of California amid a sea of sub-Saharan Africa. The middle class wants more pockets of California – without load-shedding and low pressure gas supply, with clean water and secure perimeters – and it doesn’t really mind if that comes at the expense of the people. If the latter’s habitats need to be razed for development, so be it.

History seems to validate Arundhati Roy and not Amartya Sen on this count. People have never been given their rights by a benevolent and visionary upper or middle class. On the contrary, people have extracted their rights through protracted struggle with the assistance of committed members of the upper and middle class.

Whether one looks at the French Revolution, where extended dissemination of ideas about human equality, liberty and fraternity paved the way to an end to the rule of privilege, or Brazil today, where citizens are in the streets demanding better services, the lesson is the same – people have to mobilize for effective political action.

It is that kind of a mass movement which changes the orientation of society, realigning it from a vertical patron-client axis to a horizontal one, in which all citizens are politically equal. In fact, it is that kind of movement that transforms a subject into a citizen which could well be considered amongst the most profound transformations in human history.

Only on that foundation of political equality can be built the edifice of representative governance in which representatives are accountable to citizens. Without that equality, governments would revert, in one way or another, into caricatures of the monarchies that they never outgrew.

The transformation from subject to citizen has yet to occur in India and Pakistan where the old privileged elites remain in dynastic control. To some degree, and with all its peculiarities, it has transpired in China with the People’s Revolution and in other countries in East Asia that were forced to undertake extensive land reforms to forestall the threats of popular insurrection.

Sen concedes this reality. In his latest book, An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions, the last chapter is poignantly titled ‘The Need for Impatience.’ And there is a telling quote in the book: “Patience is a minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.”

It is said that the only photograph in Sen’s study in Cambridge is that of Rabindranath Tagore who named him Amartya. But now, towards the end of his incredible intellectual journey marked by an exemplary gentility, he expresses a grudging admiration for Kazi Nazrul Islam.

Tagore was too patient, he says; Nazrul Islam urged action.

The author is indebted for anecdotes and quotes to Madeleine Bunting’s review of An Uncertain Glory in the Guardian.

Sen and Dreze have held these positions for a considerable length of time. See the reference here to California and sub-Saharan Africa in Ramachandra Guha’s 2007 book.

Sen and Dreze provide a comparative table of human indicators for South Asia and China here. This article is archived in The Best from Elsewhere section of the blog (#80).

For two comments on Sen’s earlier book, The Idea of Justice, see here and here.

Anjum Altaf is Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. This op-ed appeared in Dawn on July 30, 2013 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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  • Asad Shah
    Posted at 03:27h, 31 July Reply

    Anjum, my compliments on an excellent article. I agree with the thrust of the article and the conclusions. The issue that needs to be probed deeper is how the lower income groups could come together, with assistance from other enlightened people, and make their presence felt, short of violence and revolutions. While you have cited some examples, could you enlighten us a bit more on what you think may be examples of the best practices in South Asia, and also on what can be done to accelerate the process of change/ development of real peoples parties?

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 15:19h, 03 August

      Asad: This is a difficult question. There is a new review of Sen’s book (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10211435/An-Uncertain-Glory-India-and-itsContradictions-by-Jean-Dreze-and-Amartya-Sen-review.html) which has the following paragraph:

      “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.”

      This is consonant what I have repeated many times – the issue is one of priority, not money.

      Another paragraph is the following:

      “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.

      This is also a message I emphasize – the key is democratic politics based on organized public pressure. The time for violence and revolutions is gone and we should not tempt anarchy by ignoring the basic needs of people.

  • CT Maloney
    Posted at 05:29h, 31 July Reply

    Yes, the urban elite are seceding from the rest of India. But you didn’t mention the mechanism. It is LANGUAGE. Why is it that people writing about modernization in English always tend to leave this out? It is the MAIN SYMBOL and a LARGE MEANS of this secession. How did South Korea modernize and eliminate most poverty in 2 generations? Because ALL EDUCATION has been in the people’s language. Alo see China, Japan, all Eastern European countries. India has 7 languages with more native speaker than French, so why isn’t all education through basic college in those languages? And where is original science publication– even agricultural science- in Bangla, Telugu, etc, not to speak of Hindi? Get with it, Anjum

  • Dr. Bettina Robotka
    Posted at 05:49h, 31 July Reply

    Reading the excellent article the following ideas come to my mind spontaneously:

    – with regard to overpopulation: I think its not the absolute number of people but their relation to the available habitable territory and resources like agricultural land. 3% population growth eats up 3% growth in the agricultural sector. When did we have 3% growth in agriculture last and how many doctors, schools and teachers do we need to provid for so many new children?

    – authoritarianism: Iam not against authoritarianism if it is of the right kind. Communist countries including my own (former) were authoritarian and gave a kind of stability to economic policies, politics and principles that helps. Look what development Soviet Union achieved in only 70 years! literally from tribal societies to industrialized nations, fully educated with complete health care and the change from subject to citizen- even if there was a lot of pressure and not much liberalism was in a way made though differently from the West today thinks is right. China!

    – Democracy even in countries where it works is slow and expensive. In Berlin right after the fall of the wall they decided to build a new airport in the early nineties – it isn’t ready until now and ‘democracy’ and its peculiar political process has a lot to do with it.

    – Capitalism as an economic system has produced ‘progress’ only partially; it has produced poverty everywhere even in the ‘developed’ countries and according to my understanding it is unable to eradicate poverty. Why? This is connected to the ethics of capitalism that are based on competition rather than on cooperation and on material gain rather than on spiritual.
    Even education -as you must have noticed- is sought only for making money and not for self-accomplishment of a person, to make him/her a better human being. So I think for fighting poverty we need not only material gains but the right ethical values.

    – Communism – the word already tells you that it is centered around the community, things you do together, you own together- though economically less productive than capitalism has been able to better utilize its material gains because of the communist values that give a little bit to everybody – redistribution of produced wealth to all members of society by the state. Don’t misunderstand, Iam not proposing communism as a solution, it is history now but that is what we can learn from history. Look China though a state-capitalist economy today the real progress comes from their values to redistribute wealth – or at least a bit of it- to everybody. That is a value-driven attitude. Same in BD: there was no feudalism after 1947 and no capitalism but a strong communist leaning in Maulana Bhashani and others it makes compassion and redistribution of wealth easier.

    – middle class: I regard middle class as a part of capitalism with its specific ethics and I agree with Arundati Roy. Its the Mahboob ul Haq-idea of ‘growth at any cost’ that resulted in 66% of wealth concentrated in the hands of 22 families only in Pakistan.

    – subject to citizen transformation doesn’t happen in abject poverty and illiteracy, and education should not only provide literacy but values!

    – what I want to say is we need an ideology that promotes community instead of individualism, sharing instead of amassing wealth, cooperation and compassion instead of competition by all means, an idea of ‘progress’ that does not center around macro-economic indicators but is based on living conditions of people. Communism is out. Should I suggest another value system? You will want to hit me when I say: What about Islam….for Pakistan at least; otherwise all religions have a community-centered and cooperative approach that promotes re-distribution of wealth.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 10:17h, 03 August

      Bettina: Thanks for taking the time to write such a detailed comment. My responses are as follows:

      You are quite right on overpopulation. The finer distinctions are carefully drawn in an earlier article on the blog (which also happens to be the most read post on the blog). At the same time overpopulation is not the cause of lack of development: http://thesouthasianidea.wordpress.com/2008/08/21/is-overpopulation-the-cause-of-poverty/

      The problem with authoritarianism is that when it is brutal there is no escape. It is like monarchy – one can be stuck with a bad monarch – which is why it has been done away with.

      Democracy is not necessarily slow and expensive and soemtimes slow might be better. A little less speed might have saved 40 million lives in the Great Leap Forward. The challenge is to make democarcy work faster for the people – one can’t go back to authoritarianism.

      Similarly, one has to make capitalism work better for the people. The capitalisms of Scandinavia can be examples.

      Communitarianism is a good aspiration though Bangaldesh is quite as capitalistic as India. I guess what you are saying is that if the playing field is levelled (as it was through land reforms in East Asia) a subsequent capitalist economy would work better. A less feudal starting point is preferred – I am in agreement with that.

      I don’t think the middle class is a function of capitalism. It is just the cohort of people in the middle of the income spectrum. The values of the middle class in a capitalist system might differ from those in a socialist system.

      I agree on the transition. There is a claim that successful transition to representative government can occur only when the per capita income is of the order of $2,000. I don’t believe education should attempt to impart values – the immediate problem would be which values and whose values? Education would become a tool for indoctrination as it has/had in many countries. Rather, education should aim to inculcate critical thinking and ope-mindedness.

      I don’t believe we need an ideology, any ideology. We do need empathy and a feeling of a shared destiny and common interests. Islam will be nothing new for Pakistan; it has always been there. I hope you won’t suggest a search for ‘real’ Islam because a real anything should serve just as well. All religions in theory are for the common good but the history of strife even within religions raises a very large cautionary flag. One should not let one’s ideological preferences ignore such overwhelming evidence.

  • Umaira Sajjad
    Posted at 13:36h, 31 July Reply

    Reblogged this on Talking Crap Blog.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 16:19h, 31 July Reply

    “Arundhati Roy seems more on the mark when she observes that the upper and middle classes are seceding from the rest of the country. Her characterization of this secession as vertical and not lateral is particularly evocative – “They’re fighting for the right to merge with the world’s elite somewhere up there in the stratosphere.” ”

    SA, the secession of elites in the developing world to become part of a globalized elite is a worldwide phenomenon. It is as true of Chinese elites as it is of Indian, Nigerian and Bangladeshi elites. Witness the huge numbers in which the Chinese send their children abroad for undergraduate study, consumption of luxury goods from the West, and some even shopping mainly there.

    Democracy gives someone like Arundhati Roy the space to talk back to power, whereas in Bangladesh Taslima Nasreen is hounded out and China imprisons and harasses almost all its activists and subversive authors. India’s own record in these matters is also deteriorating day by day of course.

    This does not discount the apathy of the elite and middle classes, or the need for mass movements. But its a fact that the human development achievements of the Chinese and Russian experiments, came on the back of extreme violence, and were driven more by the exigency of maintaining power than a response to mass movements. Bangladesh is much more ethnically homogenous than India, with only about 5 % population being tribal and Dalit, as compared to 24 % for India.

    What would be your response to the latest findings of the NSSO, showing a significant reduction in extreme poverty in India ? (http://tinyurl.com/m98uo65)

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 14:53h, 02 August

      Vikram: One just has to travel to East Asia to observe the difference in poverty levels compared to South Asia. One can also observe that the extent of disconnect of the elite from the masses is not uniform. I feel CT Maloney in his comment has the right explanation – in countries where the medium of instruction for all is the national language, the disconnect is much less. Incidentally, I don’t think the number of children sent abroad for education is a good measure of the disconnect.

      Also, democracy ought not to be used as an excuse for poverty. If it is, then it is the poor who ought to be asked whether they accept the tradeoff. There was an attempt to explore this in an oblique way on this blog: http://thesouthasianidea.wordpress.com/2011/02/20/would-you-wish-to-be-chinese-in-china/

      As for violence, even the development in France could be argued to rest on extreme violence (the French Revolution). The elite benefiting from the perks of democaracy is generally quite oblivious to the slow violence that is inflicted on the poor generation after geneartion. Without condoning violence, I am not sure how that is any more acceptable as an outcome. And aren’t all governments motivated by the desire to maintain power?

    • Vikram
      Posted at 22:58h, 03 August

      In the period from 1962 to 1972 China’s life expectancy increased by 44 %. During the same 10 years India’s life expectancy rose by 13 %. Then from 1972 to 2012 China’s life expectancy rose by 12 % and India’s by 30 %. So, should one conclude that China’s elite cared about its masses for 10 years and then stopped caring about them ?

      There are an enormous number of factors here, tropical diseases, ethnic diversity etc and reducing things down to a bombastic quote by Arundhati Roy does not give us much insight. The language connection to elites argument, even if accepted, does not explain why Tamil Nadu and Kerala elites (who are much more likely to speak English) would care more about their masses than Bihari elites.

      Regarding France, why are we ignoring the fact that continental Europe was one good military decision away from being a Nazi horror-land for at least a couple of decades ? Did the extreme violence associated with the European and Russian revolutions not set the stage for the World Wars ? What would have become of the place had Hitler and Stalin struck a deal in the 1940s ? Europe being as prosperous and stable as it is, at the *current* time was by no means a foregone conclusion.

      By the way, do you know what was it that increased life expectancy in China so dramatically in the space of ten years ?

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 04:22h, 04 August

      Vikram: Life expectancy has an upper bound. It cannot increase linearly to infinity no matter how much anyone cares. And increasing it from 99 to 100 will take many time more resources than increasing it from 49 to 50. All that your information, if correct, tells us is that China started its efforts earlier. In 2010, life expectancy at birth in India and China was 64 and 73 years, respectively.

      Life expectancy by itself is an incomplete measure – it is the quality of life that should be assessed. In 2007, the proportion of underweight children in India and China was 43.5% and 4.5%, respectively. That is a huge difference.

      Comparative statistics are in this table from Dreze and Sen: http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?278843

      If you don’t subscribe to Sen’s argument or to Arundhati’s argument, you have to provide an alternate explanation. Tropical diseases, ethnic diversity are not enough. There are a lot of diseases in Bangladesh and sub-Saharan Africa as well. How would one explain the fact that 50% of Indian households still practice open defecation while only 8.4% do so in Bangladesh. Constructing latrines is not inhibited by the presence of tropical diseases or ethnic diversity. As the author of this review states: “This is not just a question of money, but of priorities.” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10211435/An-Uncertain-Glory-India-and-itsContradictions-by-Jean-Dreze-and-Amartya-Sen-review.html

      Of course, there are bound to be regional variations in a country as large as India. Dreze and Sen also mention these: “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.”

      But this only shows that improvements are possible (despite ethnic diversity and tropical diseases) which have not been achieved in the rest of India. The question remains: Why not?

      I only mentioned France because of your comment that the improvements in China and Russia were built on violence. If the inference is that India has not improved because it is not violent, it is a mistaken one. One would then go back to the comparisons with Bangladesh that Dreze and Sen make. I don’t feel this is relevant to the argument but to be factual, average living standards in Europe compared to present-day India almost 200 years ago, well before the World Wars. And there is nothing to say that prosperous countries won’t fight wars or be violent. The US is fighting two wars at this time. What should one conclude from that with reference to standards of living?

      There is no secret to the improvements in China – investment in the people as a national priority. There were barefoot doctors in the time of Mao. In 1986, nine years of education was made mandatory free of cost.

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 21:15h, 31 July Reply

    Readers will find of interest these exchanges and opinions on the contrasting views of Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati on the Indian economy. The intellectual arguments are relevant to all the economies of South Asia:


  • R.Suresh
    Posted at 17:03h, 01 August Reply


    This is in response to your article in today’s paper.

    You have raised a number of relevant questions in the article.

    In India today there is a raging debate between two schools of thoughts: one by Amartya Sen whom you have quoted and the other by Jagdish Bhagwati.

    Both are noted economists, Amartya a professor in Harvard and Bhagwati in Columbia University.

    They hold diametrically opposite views on the role of govt, growth and economy.

    Sen is a left sympathizer in the classical mould, while Bhagwati is the traditional right wing economist.

    Yesterday, finance minister P.Chidambaram spoke on the debate and concluded: “For a country like India the right path would be a synthesis of both these approaches.

    This means:
    a) Allow, encourage and support the classes who have already come up to use their talent to create wealth.

    b) A part of this wealth accrues to the govt which uses this to bring the large number of underprivileged people to the mainstream. This is done by providing basic healthcare and education specially for children.

    In both cases, only the govt can play the positive role: 1) create conditions where the business class can invest and create wealth and 2) to create the infrastructure and laws to enable the underprivileged to come up.

    China has done this better than other countries. Till recently, China was as backward as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. On the one hand it allowed private enterprise to flourish and create wealth. On the other it ensured that basic health and education of a high quality were made available to all.

    Besides economic reforms, China has practiced governance reforms. Merely having the private sector creating wealth is not enough. Without governance reforms, you’ll continue to have corruption, inefficiency and waste.

    India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have done neither of the above mentioned reforms.



    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 14:23h, 02 August

      Suresh: Thanks for this very valuable comment likning the post to the big debate in India. In general, I feel the finance minister is right that this is not an either/or proposition. Wealth has to be created and redistributed. Of course, there are additional questions involved. What kind of wealth should be created and is redistribution the right approach to poverty reduction when the majority of the population is poor? I have tried to address this in an earlier post: http://thesouthasianidea.wordpress.com/2011/11/14/on-the-real-poverty-in-south-asia/

      The debate itself is not new. In our times it has been going on since 1974 when Hollis Chenery published his Redistribution With Growth which was supposed to lend a conscious hand to the ‘trickle down’ process. Trickle down, left to itself, turned into guzzle up – that’s what Occupy Wall Street is claiming on the basis of solid data – and redistribution with growth proved beyond the capacity of many countries.

      You have mentioned China but the fact is that in China, as in other East Asian countries, investments in education and health preceded the period of rapid economic growth. In fact, many including Sen claim that the subsequent growth rests on the foundation provided by these prior investments in human capital. I am not sure governance reforms have that great a contribution because corruption, inefficiency and waste are by no means insignificant in China today.

      Aakar Patel has also mentioned this debate in India although I feel he has confused one aspect of it. He conflates redistribution (which is a State function) with philanthropy (which is an individual attribute). He also has some cultural explanators for regional variations in growth which readers should comment on. http://tribune.com.pk/story/582769/redistribution-and-growth/

    • R.Suresh
      Posted at 01:07h, 03 August


      You are right that the great debate going on in India right now is an old one and has been going on since ages.

      Most people(including nobel laureates) approach this issue in an ideological manner. They take a stance because they genuinely believe in that approach. It is like religion and cannot be changed.

      “Creation of wealth” and “distribution of wealth” remain contentious issues.

      China is the only country which made a giant U-turn and aggressively promoted wealth creation. Deng Xiaoping and Li Xiannian realized in the late 70s that their economy was going nowhere and hence needed a course correction. The rest is history.

      All socialist countries have traditionally adopted universal education and healthcare as their primary goal. They have “by and large” succeeded in this objective.

      For example Cuba has created an enviable healthcare and education system for all citizens, though it’s economy is nothing to boast about.

      China was the only socialist country which quickly realized that wealth creation is equally important and only the capitalist can do that task.

      I may not agree with Mr Sen’s assertion that “healthcare and education” progress should precede economic reforms. China happened to be in that situation. For the rest of us, we need to move on parallel tracks. We cannot afford the luxury of first reforming our “human capital” creation infrastructure and only then turn towards wealth creation.

      Even if our govt gets funds from economic reforms, will it be able to ensure delivery of efficient services in the current system that we have ? I don’t think so. We’ll continue to have govt schools where teachers don’t teach and public hospitals where doctors are busy with private practice.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 09:36h, 03 August

      Suresh: I agree with you that the luxury of sequencing does not exist any more. Both growth and redistribution have to proceed in parallel. The only lesson one can infer from the socialist experience is that the resources needed to develop human capital cannot be overwhelming if they could do it before their economies entered the growth phase. Therefore the excuse of a lack of resources cannot be taken seriously.

      Your final question is the critical one – What will it take the state to deliver services efficiently?

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 05:04h, 05 August

      “Your final question is the critical one – What will it take the state to deliver services efficiently?”

      I have an answer to this. Ask the second guy in bureaucratic setup to take control of the department and send Secretary to villages until the delivery apparatus is streamlined. These guys are enormously powerful but they have never been challenged.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 04:59h, 09 August

      Anil: I think this might just work. Worth a try. Will certainly shake things up. Need not be as cruel as under Mao during the cultural revolution but would need to be administered fairly. Else there would be a big danger it would degenerate into settling scores and witch hunting.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 17:40h, 08 August Reply

    I dont think allocating more money to any measure, passing a food security bill or any other such measure are going to address the root of India’s development problems. They are mere bandages at the best case, and costly and ineffective expenditures in the worst case. There are three major reasons for India’s poor development indicators:

    1) Subordinate status of women in Indian, and especially Hindu society.

    The Sacchar committee report established that Muslims face socio-economic disadvantages in India and are more neglected by the state when it comes to health and education. Despite this, Muslim women are healthier than Hindu women throughout their lives and one consequence of this is that Muslims have had consistently lower infant mortality rates than Hindus in India.

    Infant mortality rate:
    Year Hindu Muslim
    1992 90 77
    1998 77 59
    (Source: http://www.jsk.gov.in/articles/district_level_fertility_s_irudaya_rajan.pdf
    Pg 440)

    The undernourishment of Hindu women and the consequent low birth weight of their children is entrenched in society. The remedy for this is awareness and a sustained campaign against patriarchy, spending more money on subsidizing food and building toilets is not going to solve these issues.

    More here:

    2) As a genuinely and extremely diverse nation state, national unity and stability in India is predicated on the Centre’s ability to negotiate with marginalized groups, and the performance of the Indian Union on this account has been extremely uneven.

    Mizoram and Manipur are two remote northeastern states of India, Mizoram being arguably more remote than Manipur. Yet, Mizoram’s indicators are superior to Manipur’s, and its per capita income is 1.5 times that of Manipur, despite Manipur possessing a very fertile and productive central valley.

    Where did these differences arise from ? The answers lie in the colonial experiences of these two states and the post-colonial framework their elites were able to negotiate with the Indian Union.


    India’s most marginalized groups, the adivasis are located in the remote forests of Central India. Representative groups of this areas and the Centre have not been able to make peace. Distance from the centre leads to authoritarian responses which leads to more violence and the cycle goes on. The situation is further complicated by the machinations of the corporate sector in these resource rich areas.

    The failure here is not of expenditure or the Mumbai-Delhi-Bangalore elite caring more about global fashions, it is of a fundamental ability to negotiate and reach a settlement.

    3) A breakdown of democracy in India’s populous heartland.

    In the BIMARU states, the conflict between the feudal elites and the marginalized has taken the form of a low-level electoral battle, where the prime purpose of obtaining state power is power. The state is more like a resource to gain an upper hand in a conflict than a vehicle for solving social problems.

    This is a massive failure of Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru. They failed to make caste illegitimate. Problems are compounded by the growing population and the absence of major cities where a cosmopolitan elite could create wealth and promote new ideas.

    Regarding the comparisons with Bangladesh, certainly they have done extremely well and should be proud of their achievements, especially after their traumatic separation from Pakistan. But the situation in India is very different, and these blanket comparisons are not warranted, despite the two countries being neighbours.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 22:12h, 09 August

      Vikram: I don’t understand your opening claim. Most problems need money to be addressed. The money has to be wisely allocated and well spent. I doubt there is any country that has improved health and education without spending money.

      The information on the infant mortality rates by religion is very interesting, if true. I would not have expected that. Two thoughts come to mind. Religion by itself cannot be a sufficient explanation because even in 2010 the rate in Pakistan, an overwhemingly Muslim country, was 70 – well above the rate for Muslims in India in 1998 and about the same as the rate for Hindus. Second, “the undernourishment of Hindu women and the consequent low birth weight of their children is entrenched in society” would not hold across the income spectrum – it is clearly linked with class.

      On diversity, one might agree for the sake of discussion. But then the indicators should be much higher for regions that are not marginalised. Are they?

      On the breakdown of democracy, again one might agree for the sake of dicussion. Again, the indicators should be much higher for other regions. Are they? They are ceratinly not in the same league as Sri Lanka or China.

      On the reference to Bangladesh, the comparison was not blanket. A very concrete indicator – numbers of toilets constructed – was under discussion. This does not seem affected by any factors that are unique to India or Bangladesh and is therefore a valid comparison.

      The broader point is that, but for a quirk of history, BD could very well have been a part of greater Bengal and India. If that had been the case, one would have included it in all the regional comparisons that are routinely employed in cross-India discussions – what would have changed to warrant that inclusion in comparatitive data? And if nothing can really be compared because something or the other is different then what is the validity of comparing Mizoram and Manipur or the BIMARU states with the others or referring to Kerala and Rajasthan as examples of what can be achieved in other states. Why should not one assert with equal validity that the individual situations are very different and no blanket comparisons are warranted?

  • Vikram
    Posted at 05:06h, 11 August Reply

    India’s human development will be best in states with low conflict levels, a two-party system and an improving status of women. Places like Kerala, Goa and Himachal Pradesh represent a successful confluence of all three factors, and their human development is as good as that of Sri Lanka.

    States like Punjab, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Haryana, have effective two party systems, and low levels of conflict, but the status of women is still not as good as that in Kerala, so they have better HDIs than the other states, but not as good as the states above.

    In the coming years, I would expect to see a dramatic upturn in the HDIs of states like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, owing to their stable politics and improving status of women. http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2013-05-07/jaipur/39089594_1_mmr-maternal-deaths-survey-report-states

    The states at the bottom, Jharkhand, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Assam, face high conflict levels and in the case of Bihar and a relatively low status of women (especially Bihar).

    And its better to get people to build their own toilets. And its even better to get women to demand them. http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/bride-who-demanded-toilet-after-marriage-rewarded/article3013568.ece

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 06:16h, 13 August

      Vikram: Is the status of women an independent variable? What explains the great variation in the status of women across states in India? Do investments in health and education impact the status of women to any degree?

      Also, if people don’t have enough to eat how does one expect them to build their own toilets?

  • Vikram
    Posted at 17:34h, 14 August Reply

    SA, regarding your last question. A substantial majority of Indians own cell phones. I have heard of a number of families where women go without a meal for a few days so that they can buy a cell phone or minutes for talk time. How many Indians save absurd amounts of money for dowries ? There was a paper by Anirudh Krishna that talked about how people would go hungry so that they could celebrate festivals with ‘dhoom-dham’. The person in the news article who built a toilet for his wife was a daily wage laborer.

    Clearly this is a matter of priorities. Not of the state’s. But of individuals and their families.

    As for variations of women’s status across states, I think it really is a complex matter. Clearly, the status of women in Punjab and UP has been worse than that of Bengal and Assam for quite a while. Perhaps the different patterns of landholding, nature of agricultural practice and frequent warfare played a part ? I also read in a paper by Shireen Jeejeebhoy that Muslim women fared better in making household decisions in UP because they would be married in the same village, whereas Hindu women would always be married in another village.

    Regarding investments in health and education and their impact on women, I think education and urbanization makes a much bigger impact than health investments. In fact, I feel the health issues are more a matter of family priorities than state interventions.

    Does Table 5 in this paper tell us anything useful ? Notice that the proportion of women whose marriage decision was made solely by parents was 84 % and 76 % in Bihar and UP, while the corresponding numbers for Tamil Nadu and Kerala are 40.5 % and 36 %. (http://www.academia.edu/2426601/Exploring_the_Myth_of_Mixed_Marriages_in_India)

  • Mariam Chughtai
    Posted at 21:59h, 18 August Reply

    Sir, a great article indeed. Prof. Amartya Sen is my advisor here and i have learned a lot of balanced perspective making from him. I appreciated your juxtaposing his views with Roy’s. — Mariam Chughtai

  • Vikram
    Posted at 23:47h, 28 June Reply

    SA, a new article on the BBC website talks about UP’s toilet access problems. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-28039513

    “In Kurmaali it is interesting to note how the families spend their limited incomes. The streets are dotted with motorbikes and the occasional car, luxury items mostly acquired as part of a dowry.

    Kailash’s dowry did not include a motorbike, but her husband has purchased a television set and a satellite dish – even though the electricity comes on for four hours every day at most.

    He could probably have afforded a toilet, with the help of a government grant available for this purpose. But while Kailash’s husband treats his wife well, doesn’t drink alcohol or abuse her physically, a toilet was not his priority.

    “Toilets are not so important for men,” Kailash says.”

    Clearly the government’s priority is not the problem here.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 15:23h, 02 July

      Vikram: Perhaps the issue should not be seen as one of the government’s priority but of its responsibility and strategy to achieve an outcome that improves public welfare.

      The decision to build or not to build a toilet turns on choice and there are two issues to be considered:

      First, If toilets are a priority for women but the money is in the control of men, one can be certain that in the majority of the cases the women’s preference would be ignored.

      Second, where externalities are involved (i.e., one person’s choice has an impact on others) free choice has to be restricted. There are many examples of such restrictions in the US – e.g., there are big fines for littering and dumping solid or liquid wastes.

      In the specific case of toilets, in the US a building will not get an approval certificate without including a toilet. Even if one constructs in the most remote rural area, a toilet is mandated and so is a septic tank if the area does not have a public sewerage system.

      So the government cannot wash its hands off the problem. It has to find more effective ways of solving it.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 19:59h, 02 July

      SA, the strategy chosen here seems to be to provide assistance for toilet construction, and launch a sustained effort to make women demand toilets. This would genuinely change the power equation in the household somewhat.

      Making construction mandatory is tricky because of cost concerns and the fact that if such a law was challenged in court, proving such an externality would not be easy.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 18:39h, 05 July

      Vikram: I have reservations on both these points.

      Women already demand toilets but the control of money is in the hands of men who are not responsive to the needs or demands of women. Providing assistance to those who don’t consider it a priority is not a sensible strategy.

      Making construction mandatory would take the choice out of the hands of men. The assistance earmarked for toilet construction can then be channeled into its inclusion in the house thus creating a demand for the assistance. The proof of the negative externality is now so overwhelming that nobody even thinks it needs more evidence. There is not a single country in the developed world that allows a building to be constructed without a toilet because of the negative externality. And all these countries subsidize public sewers despite their huge costs. Those constructing outside the jurisdiction of the public sewer have to put in septic tanks at their own cost.

      The magnitude of the externality is staggering. Here is the finding of a 2014 study:

      “To put the results in context, we find that moving from a locality where everybody defecates in the open to a locality where nobody defecates in the open is associated with a larger difference in child mortality than moving from the bottom quintile of asset wealth to the top quintile of asset wealth.”

      Ignore the mortality since a price cannot be assigned to life. Simply compute the net savings in health care costs due to reduced morbidity.


      Another 2014 study: http://elibrary.worldbank.org/doi/pdf/10.1596/1813-9450-6737

    • Vikram
      Posted at 23:39h, 05 July

      Many thanks for sharing this analysis and the link South Asian. It proves that you are correct. We now need to make a decisive push for universal sanitation in India based on all this evidence.

      Here is a discussion on this paper in a forum, response from Sowmya is worth reading. The use of these findings in the public domain has to be very careful and calculated.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 06:15h, 06 July

      Vikram: You forgot to add the link to the discussion but I located it on the Internet and read Sowmya’s comment. The article is not the only source of evidence and that is why I added another which has nothing do with religious or cultural practices. So there is no real need to use the findings in the public domain. It is also quite possible that the particular findings of the paper might be disproved by further research – i.e., the cause of the difference in mortality might be something else altogether. But, as Sowmya points out, the difference in morbidity between locations with complete and zero sanitation, controlling for all other variables, remains huge.

      It is a fact that the presence of natural experiments is irresistible for social scientists and also very useful. Of course, they can be misused easily and we need an aware civil society to see through such attempts.

      Another natural experiment I can think of is offered by the fact that Muslims allow marriage between first-cousins and Hindus don’t. I am sure someone must have used that to study the incidence of genetic disorder in succeeding generations. My guess is the findings would reflect negatively on the Muslim practice. At the level of science, one must remain objective about such evidence-based research.

      And here is a pessimistic add-on: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/06/upshot/when-beliefs-and-facts-collide.html

      “factual and scientific evidence is often ineffective at reducing misperceptions and can even backfire on issues like weapons of mass destruction, health care reform and vaccines. With science as with politics, identity often trumps the facts.”

      “Unfortunately, knowing what scientists think is ultimately no substitute for actually believing it.”

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 02:43h, 14 July

      Vikram: Here is some evidence that is even more wide-ranging. The findings suggest that children who are malnourished are suffering “less a lack of food than poor sanitation… India now spends about $26 billion annually on food and jobs programs, and less than $400 million on improving sanitation — a ratio of more than 60 to 1. “We need to reverse that ratio entirely…”


  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 03:41h, 18 December Reply

    An excellent interview with economist Jean Dreze on the economic situation in India. A must read for all students of economics, development, and public policy: http://www.newswing.com/node/7566

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