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.

Food Security Bill in India: Debating welfare in a Neoliberal India

The Food Security Bill 2013 passed the lower rung of India’s parliament – the Lok Sabha recently and is on its way to becoming law, once it is authorized by the Upper House and the President. While the opposition sees this as yet another tactic by the ruling Congress party to garner popular support, reminiscent of Indira Gandhi’s “Garibi Hatao,” campaign, there is more to this debate than meets the eye. I will discuss the implications of the negative discourse surrounding this bill on India’s tradition of deliberative democracy. Also, I will briefly look at the notions of social welfare in India and what it means for its democratic norms.

Photo courtesy: NY Times website
Photo courtesy: NY Times website

            To be clear, India is a democracy that has struggled to provide even the basic minimum welfare to its more vulnerable citizens. There is almost no safety net (in practical terms, apart from a barebones Public distribution system) for the poorest of the poor in India and societal norms dictate that family and wider networks support those who are in desperate need of help. While the state has failed to provide any form of welfare for the poor, there are a few schemes that aspire to provide this. One of them is the Food Security Bill that the UPA government promised to pass in their election campaign of 2009. While it has taken a long time and much deliberation to pass, the struggles before the country to feed its most vulnerable sections remains.

            While debate and discussion are supposed to be enshrined in our democratic ethos, the bill seems to have brought out quite the opposite. The opposition parties boycotted the parliamentary session that sought to debate this bill and in effect tried to dismiss it. Murli Manhor Joshi, BJP’s senior leader called it a “Vote security bill,” referring it to the upcoming national elections, in 2014. Social media is awash with conspiracy theories, implicating corruption, nepotism and a thousand other ill (that surely exist) but not debating an issue and taking a dogmatic stance against a measure that will hurt the country as a whole is not very democratic, either.

            The Hindu reported Amartya Sen, India’s eminent Economist as saying: ““You can have a different view, but not having a debate goes against the tradition of democracy. Allow arguments, rather than kill arguments, and not allowing Parliament to meet is killing arguments.” The media should “take an intelligent interest” in what was happening. “The media should, for instance, put out the cost of the Bill not being discussed and passed.”

            As Jene Dreze points out in this insightful piece, there is nothing in the bill that is out of the ordinary. There are various benefits to the poor already in place and this bill merely takes it a step forward, to making access to food a “right.” Given the poverty levels in India and impact of inflation on food prices, this should not be a controversial move, as it is being made out to be. Dreze points out : “The bill is a modest initiative. It consolidates various food-related programs and entitlements that have made gradual headway during the last decade. Provisions of the bill dealing with food grain entitlements under the public distribution system have grabbed most of the attention. Children’s entitlements, however, are possibly more important. These include cooked midday meals for all school-going children and nutritious food (either a cooked meal or a take-home ration) for all children below the age of 6. These child nutrition programs are already in place; they are mandatory under Supreme Court orders. Permanent legal entitlements could strengthen and energize these initiatives.”

            Dreze goes on to point out that the measures in the current bill are much smaller than what were originally planned. Ironically, the opposition party BJP has adopted parts of these provisions in Chattisgarh, a state that it rules and the Chattisgarh Food Security Bill seems to be quite robust, he adds. This bill includes provisions such as mid-day meal scheme in schools, a measure that has demonstrated benefits to children, not only in terms of educational outcomes, but also health outcomes. In terms of provisions, Dreze adds: “Under the bill, 75 percent of the rural population and 50 percent of the urban population will be entitled five kilograms of grains (rice, wheat or millets) per person per month at a nominal price. This means that about half of the recipients’ grain requirements will be taken care of by the Public Distribution System. Further, the roadmap for system reforms that has emerged from recent experience is partly included in the bill.”

 What does the state owe its poor?

            Anecdotally, the most vehement opposition to the bill is coming from the Middle classes- the ones who aren’t recipients of this system, as much as the poor. It is good to be reminded that individual development is correlated with societal development, as Sen has pointed out in his seminal work, Development as Freedom. To paraphrase Sen’s argument: There is a deep complementarity between individual agency and social arrangements in society. We must recognize both the individual freedom and the social forces that prevent it. To counter the problems that we face, we have to see individual freedom as a social commitment. He further points out that: “This book concentrates particularly on the roles and interconnections between certain crucial instrumental freedoms, including economic opportunities, political freedoms, social facilities, transparency guarantees, and protective security.”

                While those who are opposed to the bill are opposed to it not for how it is implemented, but in its totality – as an idea of a “handout” to the poor. This seems to be against the very ethos of what a democracy is. While the idea of “freedom,” does not make any sense if a significant number of the citizens are starving, critics of social welfare policies point out that this leaves the country impoverished and is a burden on tax payers.

The Food Security Bill 2013 is a step in the right direction and makes up for some of the obligations that the state owes its poorest citizens. Attacking it purely on ideological or political grounds goes against democratic ethos and basic understanding of the social contract in a democracy. This debate, is also, in effect, about the role that the state will play in social welfare provision in a Neoliberal context. While the ghosts of India’s socialist past hang over this debate, and analysts conflate basic social welfare with ‘handouts’ to ‘appease’ the poor.