Forget elusive growth, focus on development

elections assembly 2019

If development, or the promise of it, won the BJP its imposing political dominance in 2014 and again in 2019, is it now destiny which will maintain the inertia of electoral endorsements?

Sustainable Development metrics

“Development” is best measured by the 17 Sustainable Development Goals under which there are 169 targets to be achieved by 2030. They range from changing human behaviour to delivering better and more public goods and services whilst also investing more in the global commons.

Conflicting priorities and trade-offs induced by fiscal or technological constraints cause uneven achievement across the goals even though the individual targets are nationally determined and therefore reflect both realism and relevance to national priorities. But league tables are notorious for sparking off competitive pressures – at least at the target setting stage!

High growth is a booster but not sufficient for development

Growth and good jobs (Goal 8) is just one of the seventeen goals. But this is what Modi 1.0 initially chose to adopt as a headline proxy for development. Growth is now considerably subdued and good jobs are scarce. A more representative proxy is needed.

The Narendra Modi government is smart. The rhetoric has already shifted away from the single metric of growth and good jobs to sanitation, clean water, affordable housing, clean cooking fuel, more renewable energy, health insurance and better education – all of which are metrics for sustainable “vikas”.

beggar woman

How well are we doing on the development metric? The 2018 progress report for the SDGs produced by the UNDP, in partnership with the NITI Aayog, rates progress ranging from a low 42 per cent in UP, with Bihar and Assam also being underachievers at below 50 per cent, to a high of 69 per cent in Himachal Pradesh and Kerala closely followed by Tamil Nadu at 66 per cent. The targets are expected to be achieved by 2030 which is still a decade away so the low scores by themselves are not troubling. But are we at least making a dent in inequality, poverty and hunger?

Reducing spatial and vertical inequality

Goal 10 is the metric for reducing inequality. Not surprisingly, states dominated by tribes like Meghalaya and Mizoram score a perfect 100 per cent as do smaller Union Territories of Dadar and Nagar Haveli, Daman and Diu and Lakshwadeep, closely followed by Puducherry at 94. These heavenly locations seem to have unlocked the magic box of equality.

But the surprise is that so has newly created Telengana! Dividing states seems to do wonders for reducing inequality. Consider that even generally lagging Bihar scores a very high 82 per cent. Its erstwhile tribes dominated part of Jharkhand, scores a respectable 72.

Unexpectedly, traditionally Communist Kerala — God’s Own Country — is not a star performer on equality. Could this be due to a skewed pattern of outward migration, which is a mainstay of the state’s economy?

UP remains a laggard on equality with the lowest score of 38 per cent closely followed, oddly, by Arunachal Pradesh. Goa at just 50 per cent is a surprise — an explosion of wealthy expatriates driving the economy does not seem a surefire recipe for higher equality.

The low score for equality in Haryana at 55 per cent and Punjab at 62 per cent possibly reflect that land endowments remain the key drivers of prosperity. And these endowments are unevenly distributed.

Reducing poverty

How do states fare in Goal 1 — poverty reduction? There are fewer surprises here. Jharkhand has the lowest score at 37 per cent. Bihar reverts to its stereotypical image and clocks just 45 per cent. UP unsurprisingly is a low 48 per cent.

But the surprise here is that Maharashtra and Gujarat, the industrial powerhouses do poorly at 47 and 48 per cent. Telangana, the star state for equality, also does poorly on poverty reduction at 52 per cent — so is it just better at redistributing poverty?

A big surprise is that industrialisation and poverty reduction do not correlate well across states. Possibly, heightened industrial and commercial activity pulls in the poorest from adjoining areas in search of manual, unskilled work. A pool of low-wage workers with no social security is the unsavoury underbelly of industrialisation in India.

Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala are the star performers in poverty reduction even though they did not fare well on equality. Mizoram, Tripura, Meghalaya and Uttarakhand join them as star performers.

The key lesson is that firing on all cylinders seems necessary to reduce poverty and inequality simultaneously — a complex development challenge, about which not enough is heard in the political rhetoric of parties.

Ending the scourge of hunger

Goal 2 tracks hunger, stunting of children and anaemic women giving birth. Oddly the index data does not correlate well between poverty and hunger. Star performers in poverty reduction like Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh slip lower in the hunger rankings. Telangana, a leader in equality, gets a lowly rank of 53 per cent in reducing hunger.

Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Sikkim —kindly, closely-knit communities all — are star performers in not letting people go hungry to bed. They also do well on equality.

Goa tops the league tables on reducing hunger, though it does not do well on equality or poverty reduction. Possibly, abundant high-protein fish and coconut in the diet might be the reason.

Punjab which did poorly on equality and not so good on poverty reduction is a star performer for reducing hunger. Possibly the Sikh community’s enviable tradition of open “langar” has done the trick. The high density of gurdwaras ensures that no one starves.

Leave growth to the pundits, measure development better


Measuring development outcomes is a statistical nightmare, as compared to measuring growth — though we seem to have argumented our way to even making growth measurement controversial. Why not leave growth to the small set of macro-economists who measure it for their own devious reasons?

The rest of us should focus on populating the key SDGs — reducing poverty, removing hunger and enhancing equality — better and more frequently — to get a fuller picture of how the Union and each state government is faring.

Prime Minister Modi has the right instincts. Meeting with and applauding the American Nobel laureate with an Indian heart — Abhijit Banerjee — is but one example of his sagacity. One hopes he will substitute growth with a fuller and more representative metric for development, drawn from what is accurately measurable in the Sustainable Development Goals bouquet.

Adapted from the author’s opinion piece in The Asian Age, October 23, 2019


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