Social Development in India – What do We Know?

USIPII met Dr. Abusaleh Shariff about a year ago, through a common friend. We kept in touch and promised to connect the next time I was going to be in D.C. It turned out that I was able to meet him just yesterday and spent a good hour chatting about various initiatives at the US India Policy Institute, a think-tank that he heads, as the Executive Director. As someone who is leading expert on Indian development sector former Chief Economist at the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), Shariff is one of the most important thinkers on issues related to development in India. We spoke about his background, work on the Sachar Committee Report and work at the USIPI. His take on social development seems to be on of proactive rights, where civil society groups and individuals secure what is due to them from the state, by means of concerted action, using procedures and programs that are part of the government mandate. This is the new social contract that needs to be renewed, he seemed to suggest. While economic liberalization and a new discourse of privatization as the panacea for all ills seems to have become the norm, Dr.Shariff’s work suggests otherwise.

Speaking about the condition of minorities in India, in particular, the Muslims in India, Dr. Shariff says in an Op-Ed in The Hindu, “Empirical analysis of process indicators (literacy, higher level education, formal employment, access to banking and credit, political participation, etc.) according to religious communities excluding Hindus, confirm Muslim placement below the line of average. If the SCs/STs are singled out and compared with religious groups, one finds Muslims in most of the measures about the same or even lower. With adjustments for initial conditions, the conditions of Muslims relative to the SCs/STs have worsened over the years.”

So, is Affirmative Action (reservations) in India the only way out? It seems that this is the solution that follows from the arguments that he makes. Dr. Shariff argues that there is a systematic bias in the way that government programs benefit specific communities and leaves out others. He argues that the “The only way to eliminate such bias is to ensure equal opportunity and access to programs which generate benefits proportional to the size of the population. Naming programs specific to the deprived community even if has to be done by caste and religious identity must be the public choice. It is clear that there is no catch-22 situation as has often been made out to be and it is not even ‘unconstitutional.”

These ideas are not absolutely new, in the sense that there has been an appreciation of the idea of ‘human development’ indices, since Amartya Sen and other scholars popularized it. While the notion of development indices itself is not new, what is new is the formulation of these ideas in the context of upliftment of minority communities in India. Politically, this is a lightning rod, as those opposed to benefits reaching the minorities have historically called this ‘minority appeasement’, a pejorative word to describe bribing the minorities to vote for the ruling party. But as Dr. Shariff’s research and other pioneering scholars work demonstrates, there are huge disparities in income, wealth and health indicators that need to be fixed. It seems that the only way to do this is for the state to intervene. For all the talk of the private sector filling in the gap left behind by the state, it seems like the state withdrawal has actually left many poor and vulnerable even more vulnerable.

As the Social Development Report 2012, produced by the Council for Social Development argues, despite the acknowledgement by the government that socially, India is extremely ‘unequal’, in economic and social terms, recent policy changes don’t seem to get to the heart of addressing the challenges. As the report argues “According to the HDR, malnourishment in Indian children is twice higher than children in Sub-Saharan Africa.” It suggests further that the problem is not the lack of resources, but no perceptible change, despite more resources being allocated to the problems. So, the devil is actually in the details; in this case. The problem is not of allocating the needed resources, but making sure that they actually reach the intended beneficiaries. Economic liberalization and state withdrawal from provision of infrastructure and health facilities seems to have only deteriorated the reach and scope of services, according to the report. While the quality of services may have improved, in certain segments such as healthcare service delivery, the reach of these services for the poor and marginalized is minimal, as they cannot afford to pay for these services.

The challenges to including minorities in development seems to be an ongoing one. In a recently released District Development and Diversity Index, Dr. Shariff argues that “Given the vast geographic expanse and high population concentrations across India a meaningful development strategy that address acute poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, ill-health must occur at the level of the districts. Further, hitherto development policy decisions were made using a combination of district level per-capita averages and a small set of indictors such as average rainfall and agricultural productivity; little information on the quality of life and human development were available.” These are not ‘wicked’ problems, though policies at the district levels and access to the services provided by the government is the key to addressing them.

Amidst all this data and discourse of minority rights, one must not forget that the story of India’s minorities is also the story of India. How a country treats its weak and vulnerable is a reflection of the country’s moral and ethical compass.