independent

Friday 18 April 2014

How to make the 'juggernaut' work the way it should

A worker drinks water from a bowl outside a metal workshop in Thane, India

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 Dreze 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.

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 (43pc) of Indian children under five are underweight, compared with 4pc in China and 2pc in Brazil. India's central government spends four times more on petroleum and fertiliser subsidies than on health care. None of the world's top 200 universities is in India, while 90pc 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, 50pc of Indian households still practised "open defecation", compared with 1pc in China. 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 0.1pc. 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 Dreze 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.

But Dreze and Sen's thesis is built on sober statistical analysis. Their writing is brisk, witty in places, and shot through with real passion. They are angry about the things they believe are holding India back. They want change.

Dreze 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.

This book's rallying cry is a quotation from one of the great figures of the independence years, BR Ambedkar: "educate, agitate and organise". 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. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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