The United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Human Development Report (HDR) has always been a handy stick with which to beat the government on its miserable record in social welfare. India may be snapping at China’s heels in racing to notch up the highest rate of gross domestic product (GDP) growth, but when it comes to human development, the HDRs invariably show that our record has been terrible. It was with considerable astonishment, therefore, that I noticed the HDR for 2010 ranks India No. 6 in improvement in the Human Development Index (HDI) between 1980 and 2010. Clearly, despite the poverty all around us, we seem to be on the right track.
Also See HDI Improvement Rank 1980-2010 (PDF)
Which countries have improved the most? China is ranked second, which is no surprise. But the country that has improved the most in the last three decades is puny Nepal, plagued by a Maoist rebellion for much of the time. Who would have thought so? Bangladesh comes in at No. 3, although it’s unclear why; despite all the improvement, so many want to leave that country as soon as they can. At No. 4 is Benin, a country about which I know absolutely nothing about, but a quick glance at Wikipedia tells me that it’s a nation in West Africa and cotton accounts for 40% of its gross domestic product and 80% of its export receipts.
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How do we explain Nepal being at the top of the table? Countries that have low starting points tend to do better than those that start at the top, simply because it’s easier to show improvements in life expectancy and health and education when you don’t have much of it in the first place. But the report also points to a remarkable lack of overlap between top performers in growth and those in health and education. For instance, in another table that looks at changes between 1970 and 2010, India ranks fourth in improvement in the income index, after Botswana, China and Hong Kong. But neither India nor China figure in the list of top 10 improving countries in the education or health indices.
That poses the interesting question: has India’s growth spurt after liberalization resulted in a corresponding improvement in its human development? If we look at the education index, we find the most improvement occurred in the last decade. Rather surprisingly, most of it occurred between 2000 and 2005, according to the HDR data, rather than in the latter half of the decade. The biggest improvement in the health index, though, was unambiguously in the seventies, with a steady albeit tepid improvement in the succeeding decades. Clearly, the next big push by the government should be on public health.
Interestingly, the education index in China remained at the same level from 1975 to 1990, though this was after the Cultural Revolution and the state had already started liberalization. In the nineties, education improved dramatically. In the health sector, however, the seventies were the period when the most improvement occurred in China.
The HDR also has some interesting numbers on Russia. The conventional wisdom is that the collapse of communism there led to severe disruption, from which the country has only recently started to recover. That story is true in many respects— the health index for Russia, for instance, is lower now than it was in 1970. But the income index for Russia shows growth slowing down during the eighties, especially in the latter half. That set the stage for the collapse of the regime. The health index too shows a fall during the seventies and the second half of the eighties, though of course the big fall happened in the nineties. But then, there has been considerable improvement in the noughties.
In India, too, most of the gains in the HDI have occurred in the past decade. The average annual HDI growth rate for India during 1990-2000 was 1.44%, while it was 1.66% between 2000 and 2010. The average between 1980 and 2010 was 1.61%, which again shows that overall improvement in the HDI has been better in the 2000s. But haven’t the fruits of development gone to the rich? That is no doubt correct, but India’s record is no worse than that of other countries. This year the UNDP has started a new parameter, the inequality-adjusted HDI, and India’s rank on this parameter is exactly the same as its rank on the normal HDI.
The numbers suggest that while there’s little doubt that we must do more to improve the country’s human development, it’s also true that there has been substantial improvement.
There is, however, one niggling doubt about the quality of the data. There’s a section of the HDR 2010 that claims to measure “overall life satisfaction” with 0 being “least satisfied” and 10 denoting “most satisfied”. India scores 5.5 on this metric, with 74% of respondents saying they were satisfied with their jobs and 91% saying they had a “purposeful life”, whatever that may be. That certainly looks very rosy, a view reinforced by the report putting “overall life satisfaction” in Iraq at 5.5, the same level as India. There is, however, no entry on the “purposeful life” parameter for Iraq. That’s presumably because, in order to have a purpose, you have to have a life first.
Manas Chakravarty looks at trends and issues in the financial markets. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org