National Human Development

Apr 29th 2002, C. Rammanohar Reddy

There has not been a more comprehensive compilation of information about where we are in basic socio-economic development than the National Human Development Report (NHDR) 2001. The Planning Commission's report, the first official nationwide assessment of human development, does not contain new information, it only puts together socio-economic data from a variety of Government sources. Some of its statistics are even dated, extending no further than the early 1990s. But unlike the Government of India's annual Economic Survey or the many publications of the Reserve Bank, which mainly cover the remote world of fiscal deficits, foreign exchange reserves and money supply, what we have in the NHDR is a series of snapshots of changes over the past two decades in the bread and butter world of final outcomes: nutrition, shelter, availability of electricity, access to sanitation, schooling, life expectancy, disabilities, the position of children etc.

Even if we needed any reminding, the picture of progress at the State level, between men and women, between rural and urban India, and, of the Dalits and Adivasis, is not a very satisfying one. It is not, however, entirely a bleak world. We find in the NHDR, for instance, that in the 1990s there was a considerable rise in basic literacy rates, which rose from 44 per cent (1981) to 65 per cent (2001). The absolute number of illiterates declined for the first time between 1991 and 2001. And, the proportion of households with access to electricity increased from 26 per cent in 1981 to 42 per cent in 1991 and 60 in 1998-99. But gross failures in some of the most basic areas of human development overwhelm everything else. The NHDR reminds us that as food stocks began climbing to extraordinary levels in the late 1990s, over half of India's children under five were either moderately or severely malnourished, 30 per cent of new-borns were significantly underweight and 60 per cent of women were anaemic. And, in the early 1990s, only 10 per cent of Dalit households had the luxury of a toilet in their homes. These statistics are not perfect, but the naked eye tells much the same story.

Ultimately, this first, even if belated, Government report on human development is important for two reasons. First, an exercise by the Government to prepare a human development index (HDI) for the country is as close an official recognition as is possible of the human development approach to guide policy as well as measure outcomes. (Like the UNDP reports, the NHDR has also constructed the human poverty index - a measure of deprivation - and the gender equality index.) Second, the estimation of HDIs for the States provides a richer picture than the summary national index since there are such striking regional variations in almost every measure of socio-economic development.

The components of the Planning Commission's estimate of HDI in India are much the same as that of the UNDP's index - measures of economic attainment, health and education. The indicators chosen to construct the HDI are, however, slightly different, to take into account the specifics of the Indian situation and the availability of information. The most important difference is that where the UNDP's measure of economic attainment is the per capita gross domestic product, the NHDR chooses per capita consumption expenditure adjusted for inequality. The NHDR describes the rise between 1981 and 2001 of the human development status of India as a significant improvement. The national HDI did increase from 0.302 (1981) to 0.381 (1991) and then to 0.472 (2001). But while an improvement has taken place over 20 years, it is worth keeping in mind that in theory the HDI can rise to a perfect 1.0. (Norway with an HDI of 0.94 leads the UNDP's most recent ranking of countries.) So in spite of the increase in HDI since 1981, we are not even half way there.Likewise, while there has been a narrowing of the rural-urban divide and the gender inequities, the improvements have been small.

The NHDR is most informative in its discussion of State-level performance, though the lack of up to date information does leave some gaps. First, in the 32 States and Union Territories for which statistics are available for 1981 and 1991, the regions with the highest HDIs are either the Union Territories or small States in the Northeast. In 1991, the only two major States in the first 12 were Kerala and Punjab. What is open to interpretation is if this better performance of the smaller entities is because of large amounts of Central assistance to Chandigarh, Delhi, Mizoram, Manipur etc, which provides for better health and education services and also props up per capita consumption expenditure. Second, a longer term comparison (between 1981 and 2001) is possible only for 15 major States, though here as well the estimates of HDI should be seen as provisional. Kerala, with its past emphasis on education and health, naturally led in 1981 and 2001 as well. It should, however, also be noted that while per capita GDP in Kerala is less than average, the remittances from Keralites in West Asia keep per capita consumption at higher than average. So this too contributes to a high HDI for the State. Third, the changes in some States are revealing. The substantial improvement in the position of Tamil Nadu between 1981 and 1991, maintained in 2001, is not on account of a growth in consumption but perhaps because of the improvement in literacy rates.

Likewise, the less than satisfactory HDI rank of Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal - two States where for very different reasons a better performance should have been expected - is also perhaps the result of their mediocre results in health and education. Fourth, the NHDR observes that there is a broad correspondence between income and HDI levels among the better-off and poor States. This correspondence breaks down in the middle-income States, which is revealed in the varying achievements of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and even Karnataka. The lack-lustre achievement in human development of some of the Southern states in the 1990s is a question mark over the so-called superior performance of the South in the previous decade. Fifth and last, the most worrying observation in the NHDR is that while it sees economic growth having accelerated in the 1990s by a full percentage point this led to less human development in that decade. A tentative explanation is that the States at the bottom (Bihar and Assam) are achieving only limited progress while those at the top (Kerala and Punjab) are also finding it difficult to further improve their human development. This then is a reiteration of two familiar lessons about the links between economic growth and human development. A higher rate of economic growth does not necessarily mean more rapid improvements in human development, but at low levels of income you cannot improve human development without growth (Bihar) and beyond a point human development cannot be raised without faster growth (Kerala).


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