THE DEVELOPMENT CHALLENGE
At the threshold of seventy years of independence, India is young – both as a nation and a people. She is also aspirational – seeking her place as a global economic power in the comity of nations. We should look back with legitimate pride at the substantial economic and social development that we have achieved. India is today one of the fastest growing economies of the world; the poverty ratio has fallen significantly and the number of absolute poor is also on the decline; India’s long-term growth prospects remain high; and with the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax, India as a common market is set to make substantial efficiency and productivity gains. Yet, chronic agrarian distress, widespread malnutrition, poor school education outcomes, and growing inequality are real indicators that the foundations of progress remain fragile. India remains a work in progress, her success limited, and her performance well below the capabilities of her people. The daunting task of ‘ending poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity’, that our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru articulated as central to India’s tryst with destiny, remains incomplete.
The UNDP Human Development Report 2016 ranks India 131 out of 188 countries surveyed. The 2015 India Health Report: Transform Nutrition and the 2016 Global Nutrition Report have shown that more than one in three children (under 5 years of age) are stunted (38.7%), while almost one of two women in the reproductive age is anemic (48.1%). The 2017 Global Food Policy Report ranks India at 97 of 118 with a score of 28.5 which is ‘serious’ on the Global Hunger Index Severity Scale. Three important facts that emerge deserve attention. First, that after 70 years of independence, poverty, hunger, and inequality are disturbingly persistent for certain populations and in certain geographies. There is therefore the urgent need to prioritise equity and inclusion as key governance objectives in India’s path of development. Second, we must recognise and understand the patterns of exclusion if our development strategy has to reach out to those being left
behind. Third, in a patriarchal hierarchy, poverty and gender inequality coalesce resulting in women bearing a disproportionate burden of its adverse impact – malnutrition, morbidity, illiteracy, discrimination and exploitation. Martha. C. Nussbaum sums this up poignantly, in her insightful study on gender and development in India, that women are ‘…treated as mere instruments of the ends of others – reproducers, caregivers, sexual outlets, agents of a family’s general prosperity…’ (Nussbaum, 2000). There is need to understand better the special problems women face because of gender and enable their full capabilities to manifest, without which our ability to confront poverty and underdevelopment will be seriously constrained.
The optimism about India’s growth prospects has often been prone to exaggeration. While India is expected to grow rapidly over the coming decade, a higher degree of empiricism would infuse much needed circumspection. A recent study ‘Asiaphoria Meets Regression to the Mean’ (Pritchett and Summers, 2014), points out that global history teaches that abnormally rapid growth is rarely persistent, regression to the mean is the empirically most salient feature of economic growth. In addressing the development challenge, the means are as important as the ends, but the problem of choice – of striking the right balance between the state and the market – remains confused and unresolved. While there are many spheres in which the government does well – law and order, defence, foreign policy, international trade, macro-economic policy – there are others in which it does not do at all well. Quite simply, for India, the quality of governance on an economy wide basis will be the key. The pace of reform has been slow and incremental; the state’s ability to deliver quality services has been constrained by poor capacity at the last mile; and the reluctance to empower the local governments at the third tier has been widespread. There is no more efficient path in a vast and diverse country and a plural society, than to enforce the principle of subsidiarity, to respond to the urgent need for a principled distribution of tasks between the constitutionally mandated three tiers of government. Besides the distance between the governed and the government, the complacency that often pervades public governance can result in what David Runciman, in his fascinating attempt to answer the question why democracies keep lurching from success to failure, describes as the ‘Confidence trap’ in a democracy (Runciman, 2014).
The vulnerability of individuals, households and communities is based on everyday issues like resource constraints or marginal status, compounded by inadequate access to institutions of the state or the market alike. Enhancing access, improving the quality and the adequacy of services, expanding community participation in governance, and ‘learning by doing’ are, in our view, important steps to build resilience to mitigate the effects of government or market failures. We believe that community agency, especially of the women, by which the poor and the disadvantaged are transformed from mere beneficiaries to become agents of change, is a necessary condition for sustainable, inclusive and equitable development. It is here that civil society plays an irreplaceable role in something that only the community can do – holding the state to account, preventing institutional decay, and building community capacity for participatory governance.
The Public Affairs Centre (PAC) as a think tank does this, not through adversarial engagement but by fostering evidence led, community based, context specific, and resource sensitive action. PAC partners with governments to help make interventions that enhance the efficiency and productivity of ‘praxis’. PAC remains engaged in ‘research to action’, giving voice to disadvantaged populations. It is our conviction that evidence based, innovative, and technology driven interventions for human development do make a difference and transform lives. Our effort moving forward will be to build and strengthen alliances and generate critical mass. This report captures in essence, our work this past year. We want you to tell us how we might do better next year – the common good must be the common cause that binds us.
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