The Need for Impatience

Book

Book: An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions

Author: Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen

Publisher: Allen Lane

Price: Rs 699

Pages: 448

Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen are well-known for their distinctive viewpoint on development that departs substantially from mainstream economic wisdom, but also incorporates much that is of value in it. They have collaborated several times, but their newest offering is far and away their best work on India yet. An Uncertain Glory is a remarkable combination of philosophical depth, economic reasoning, empirical thoroughness and policy relevance. They render complex ideas in lucid prose, aiming to reach audiences well beyond the technical circle of economists and development specialists. They underline "the need for impatience", for they believe that the balance sheet of India's achievements and failures will tilt more towards the latter if their ideas are ignored. Writing as public intellectuals, they seek to agitate minds, provoke deliberation and inspire action, while not compromising the seriousness of their arguments.

Economically, say the authors, the first three decades since Indian independence were lost decades, when the economic growth rate was too sluggish and "there was virtually no reduction of poverty". Since 1990, India's economy has grown at a rate second only to China's, a phenomenon they clearly attribute to the economic reforms inaugurated in 1991. However, despite spectacular economic growth, India continues to rank near the bottom of the world tables on literacy and public health. In 2010, 43 per cent of children below the age of five years were underweight, 48 per cent were stunted and, what has become the new negative statistical icon of India's social performance, half of India's households had to resort to "open defecation" in 2011.

Indeed, on social indicators, a comparison with Bangladesh is more revealing than one with Brazil, Russia and China, part of the so-called BRICs, with whom India's economy is often compared. Since 1990, India has grown much faster than Bangladesh. By 2011, India's per capita income was twice as high. But life expectancy at birth, roughly similar in 1990, was higher in Bangladesh in 2011; Bangladesh's infant mortality rate, substantially worse than India's in 1990, was considerably better in 2011; only 44 per cent of 1-2 year old children were immunised in India, as against 82 per cent in Bangladesh (2005-7); and only 8 per cent of Bangladesh households practised open defecation, as opposed to half of India's population. Indeed, India is "falling behind every other South Asian country (with the exception of Pakistan) in terms of many social indicators".

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