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.

Of Fundamentalism(s) and Mangoes – Review of Andrew Sullivan’s The Conservative Soul


I finally read The Conservative Soul. I had borrowed this book more than three months ago from the library and it was sitting on my book shelf, before I decided to dig into it, to write a white paper on political theory. Given that most of my professors are Marxists, ex-Marxists or Liberals of some stripe, I rarely read any conservative writers. And given my own political leanings, which are somewhat liberal and thanks to Sullivan, I realize now, partly ‘conservative’, I have not been too attracted with screeds from conservatives. I must confess to having read my fair share of libertarians including Hayek, Mises and others of the Austrian School of Economics. This book is a good introduction to conservative thought.

What is the core argument here? Sullivan seems to be arguing that in our tech savvy, ever changing world, where uncertainty, destruction and change are the only norm, conservatism is a call for some stability. As a political philosophy, it roots people in something that is unchanging, traditional and for the lack of a better term ‘real.’ He does a pretty good job of tracing the history of the conservative movement in the U.K. (where he is from, originally) and the U.S. Given his personal background (A gay Catholic) and someone who has lived in the Western world all his life, there are a few good insights that inform his work. His take on how we are all away from home, displaced, anxious and in alien environments seems spot-on.

At the same time, he makes some fundamental errors when speaking of Islamic fundamentalism. He seems to be painting the Shii Fundamentalism of Iran in the same brush as the fundamentalism of Wahhabis. For someone who studied Political theory at Harvard, this is too great an error to conflate the two – but he does exactly this. His analysis of fundamentalism and linking it to extremism is also somewhat not fully developed. Though he does point out that there is little room for accommodation in any fundamentalist creed, is a somewhat flawed and superficial reading of the situation.

This analogy of painting all Islamic fundamentalisms in the same brush, while at the same time completely ignoring Orthodox Jewish fundamentalism – I don’t think there is a single line in the book that talks about it- smacks of either selective analysis or at worst bias. Not good in any case. Nevertheless, his analogy of different fundamentalisms is similar to an American’s concept of a mango. When Americans speak of mangoes, they usually speak of one or at best two varieties of mangoes, that are terrible, tasteless and bland (with due apologies to my Latin American friends). If one has lived in India or visited the country during the Mango season, one will realize that there are literally thousands of varieties of mangoes, each unique in its flavor, fragrance and color. Mango is considered the king of fruits in India – and with good reason. So, the concept of Mango for an American and an Indian is totally different. The same is the case with Sullivan – for whom anything with ‘Islamic’ seems uni-dimensional and reductionist. He does show some nuance with Christianity (not my specialty) so I will give him credit where it is due.

Looking at some of his other arguments, one sees that he does a good job of tracking how America became a ‘churched’ nation, as he quotes Roger Finke and Rodney Stark’s The Churching of America 1776-1990, a study that points out that prerevolutionary America had just 17 percent of the population was ‘churched’, while it grew to 30 percent in mid-nineteenth century and in 1980 was around 62 percent. This trend seems to be shifting, though slowly. As of 20013, Evangelism is on the decline, with the rise of Catholicism and other religions such as Islam, according to this insightful article in The American Scholar.

He sounds more like a pragmatist than a conservative when he says “And so contemporary conservatives accept this changed world and adapt themselves to it. May be they will try and restrain some of its worst impulses, or seize some new opportunities for growth and development. But they will start from where they are. Because there is no other place for a conservative to start.” While he supports basic healthcare for the poor and public education, he is all about small government. While Sullivan opposes progressive taxation, he offers no solution for how the government – small as it might be- should finance these very ventures that are it’s responsibility.

He also explicitly shies away from making any policy recommendations and offers a quasi-philosophical framework for analysis. His foreign policy analysis seems naïve at best, with all the cheering for Iraq war and espousing of a neoconservative line of thinking. While his support for minimal social welfare is laudable, and this is where I think he is a pragmatist, I don’t think his analysis of the securitization discourse is accurate at all. He seems to have bought into it, in total; with no doubt. When he says that international terrorism (and we know what he is referring to) is the greatest threat before us, this seems to ally with much of the discourse that came out of GW Bush’s administration. More fear mongering, so one can keep the security apparatus at an all-time alert – all to secure our borders from the ‘enemy’. Apparently, the international order, laws and conventions mean nothing to Sullivan – who lives in a world of his own making – a very dark one, indeed.

Overall, not a bad read. This book definitely provides insights into the challenges that many ‘progressive’ minded conservatives think. An easy read, but with a few gaps and undeveloped ideas. I would still recommend this book.



Sullivan, A. (2006).The Conservative Soul. Harper Collins. New York.

“The boundary of political discourse unfortunately is around 4.6% taxes “

“The  boundary of political discourse today unfortunately is around  4.6% taxes “

– Jeffrey Sachs, Special Advisor to UN Secretary General  and Professor of Economics at Columbia Uni.

In a talk which offered a crash-course in  economic history of the modern US, and gave a glimpse into the  implications of the current administration’s policies in not addressing the key issues before us, Jeffrey Sachs sought to offer a  “differential diagnosis” of the problems and also offered solutions, which he thought would address the systemic problems that plague the country, and threaten its leadership position in the world. These insights are presented in his newly released book “ The price of Civilization”. The talk was held at The World Bank last week.

“ 39 yrs ago when I got started in this business, I thought that the US would not need our help, and my country would not need any sort of urgent attention, and one could devote one’s life to problems overseas; where problems were more acute”, he said.

He added  : “Economically, the US today is  a mess and our political system is a mess too. Since the political institution is one block East of here, and the work that this institution works involves dealing with this mess, we really do need to dis-entangle what is happening in the US and what can be done about it. It is my own way to find my way through this puzzle. Not to find the specific problems associated with the problems of Lehmann brothers , or the specifics of debate about the last quarter.  I do write a lot about that. But the bigger challenge is what I seek to address through my book”.

He further noted that as he criss-crossed summits across the world in over 22 countries, he was amazed to see the total lack of American leadership voices.

“A very strange feeling that what we see inside is also visible on the outside. Our presence is felt in war-zones and in war-torn areas, but not in problem solving areas. I am not sure I have gotten to the core of it, but writing this book and analyzing the issues  feels like peeling an Onion. And I had to take a societal view, a holistic perspective of problems as they are all inter-connected”, he pointed out.

Taking a jab at the political parties, he pointed out “The Republican offer is simple “ Cut spending and cut taxes”, and taxes are the only thing in their model which can solve problems. In the Democratic model, they are all about “Stimulate”, and I don’t think it is an effective model to get us on track”.

America has become a two-tier society:

Sachs also sought to highlight the growing income disparities and pointed out that they were the key issue which subsequent administrations have ignored. Though president Obama came in with the promise of change, his policies have not done much to significantly address this complex issue.

“If Brazil has figured out a way to close the income disparities, we seem to have shunned this problem and ignored it altogether. Currently, the income share of the top 1% is 20-25 % of all household income and this is analogous to modern history. Up to 1980, the share was 10% and since then, we have had a steep incline in the gap. 12,000 households take home about 6% of household income. That’s a lot. That is more than the poorest 20 mn households”, he added.

Sachs also added that the current scenario is dismal, and one of the markers of this is that the peak of male household earning was in 1973, for 38 yrs there has been no increase in median earnings for male full-time workers. “Something clearly changed in American economy, something deeper than a financial bubble”, he pointed out.

Corporate America and the Political establishment :

The rise of  President Ronald Reagan clearly marked an era of the decline in American spending on “Non-security discretionary budgets” . This, Sachs remarked is one of the key reasons for the decline of the  American competitiveness and is a result of the “less government” movement in the country, which has had very negative effects on the economy as a whole.

“We got Wall-street to bail out Wall-street firms recently and this is a symptom of what ails our country” he added.

He concluded with the following note :” A differential diagnosis is what I have offered here. Once we have a better diagnosis, the way out is easier to find. I think that both political parties are not offering any serious approach to America’s problems”.  His solution to the problems facing the US included cutting defense spending by a few percentage points, by increasing the Non-security discretionary budget spending as well as looking at the problems holistically and taxing the rich, which seems to be the holy-grail of American political discourse.

Perhaps time will tell whether the political establishment heeds his advice. For now, President Obama seems to be busy trying to rally support for his jobs bill. Short-term gains seem to be the order of the day, when long-term strategic thinking is what is really needed. It is a time for visionaries, and perhaps, one for true leadership – which goes beyond rhetoric and realpolitik.