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Business News/ Opinion / Online Views/  How far is India behind in social indicators?

How far is India behind in social indicators?

The message that the data throw up is that it’s simply not true that India cannot afford to do far more for its people at current levels of income

What is the use of growth if it does not satisfy the most basic of needs of the people. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint (Indranil Bhoumik/Mint)Premium
What is the use of growth if it does not satisfy the most basic of needs of the people. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
(Indranil Bhoumik/Mint)

India’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita, computed so as to adjust for purchasing power parity (PPP), in constant 2005 dollars, was $3,341 in 2012, according to World Bank data. Adjusting for purchasing power parity means that a dollar has the same purchasing power in that country as it has in the US. By that yardstick, how far behind is India, when compared with other Asian countries?

The World Bank indicators show that China reached India’s 2012 level of per capita income in 2003, Indonesia and the Philippines around 2007, while Vietnam’s per capita GDP was lower than India’s in 2012. Thailand reached that level of per capita income as far back as 1988. In South Asia, Sri Lanka’s per capita income matched India’s 2012 level in 2004. Putting it another way, India is nine years behind China in terms of per capita income, five years behind Indonesia and the Philippines and eight years behind Sri Lanka.

It could be argued that in terms of social indicators too India should be just as far behind these countries as in GDP per capita. Unfortunately, though, the World Bank indicators paint a very different picture.

Let’s consider the most basic indicator—life expectancy at birth. In 2011, average life expectancy in India was 65 years. China achieved that level as far back as 1980, when its life expectancy was 67 years. Thailand’s life expectancy was at 65 in 1980. The Philippines, no paragon of economic growth, had a life expectancy of 65 years in 1987. Vietnam had achieved that level by 1989, while Indonesia reached it by 1997. And in South Asia, life expectancy in Sri Lanka was 68 years long ago, in 1980. In terms of the average life span of their people, these countries did much better than India, even when they were much poorer than what India is today.

Let’s look at another very basic factor, the under-five mortality rate per 1,000 live births. In India, this was 61 in 2011. Again, China achieved that level as long back as 1980. Its GDP per capita in PPP terms in constant 2005 dollars at that time was a mere $524. By 2011, its under-five mortality rate had dropped to 15 per thousand. Vietnam’s under-five mortality rate was 61 in 1983.

China and Vietnam have a Communist past, which may account for the emphasis on social development. But what about the Philippines, which achieved that 61 per thousand level in 1989? And what about neighbouring Sri Lanka, where the under-five mortality rate was at 46 in 1980? Indonesia had an under-five mortality rate of 59 in 1997. Even dirt-poor Bangladesh achieved the 61 per thousand level in 2006, five years before India.

The story is very similar if we take the infant mortality rate. India’s score on this metric was 47 per 1,000 in 2011. Vietnam achieved that level in 1980, China and Thailand in 1981, the Philippines in 1985, Indonesia in 1994. Among South Asian countries, Sri Lanka’s infant mortality rate was 37 in 1980. The message from these numbers is unpleasant but clear—governments in these countries seem to care much more for their children than our policymakers.

Economists have pointed out the importance of sanitation in combating disease and child mortality. It is no surprise, therefore, that India does very badly in terms of improved sanitation facilities. In 2010, only 34% of the Indian population had access to improved sanitation facilities, which, according to the World Bank, range from simple but protected pit latrines to flush toilets with a sewerage connection. In 1990, the earliest year for which data for sanitation is available in the World Bank indicators, 37% of Vietnam’s population, 39% of Bangladesh’s, 57% for the Philippines, 70% for Sri Lanka and 84% of Thailand’s people had access to improved sanitation. Indonesia achieved the 34% level in 1992 and China in 1995.

What about educating the population? India’s Planning Commission data put the literacy rate at 74% in 2011 and there has undoubtedly been much improvement in recent years. But Sri Lanka had an 87% literacy rate in 1981, China had 78% in 1990, Indonesia had 82% in 1990, Vietnam 88% in 1989 and the Philippines 94% by 1990.

There has been a lot of controversy about India’s very high malnutrition numbers, with some people arguing that they are not comparable with countries in East Asia. According to one of the World Bank indicators, malnutrition for children under five years is defined as those whose weight for their age is more than two standard deviations below for the international reference population. By this yardstick, 43.5% of children below five in India were malnourished in 2006, the latest year for which data for India is available in the World Bank database. The comparable figure for Bangladesh in 2006 is 39.8%, while it was 38.8% for Nepal in that year. The figure for Sri Lanka was 21.1% in 2007. Indeed, as long back as 1993, 33.8% of children under five were malnourished by this measure in Sri Lanka. There is no particular reason why malnutrition in India cannot be compared with other nations in South Asia.

Of course, there are mitigating factors why India hasn’t done as well as some of the other countries. It could be argued that some of these countries have had levels of per capita income higher than India’s for a long time, allowing them to improve their welfare indicators. But the message that the data throw up is that it’s simply not true that India cannot afford to do far more for its people at current levels of income. If reforms to open up the economy are put in place simultaneously, social spending need not be an impediment to growth. And finally, what is the use of growth if it does not satisfy the most basic of needs of the people.

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Updated: 01 Aug 2013, 11:34 PM IST
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