Exile of the poor

In my last blog, I asked if we were doing enough to make the system work, particularly for the poor, in India. Economists Jean Dréze and Amratya Sen address a similar question in their recent book, An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions.

Dréze and Sen point out that while India’s economic growth rate has been high in recent years, the country is falling behind every other South Asian country (with the exception of Pakistan) in terms of many social indicators.

For instance, India has grown much richer than neighbouring Bangladesh in the last 20 years – India’s per capita income was about double that of Bangladesh by 2011. However, Bangladesh has overtaken India in terms of a wide range of basic social indicators, including life expectancy, child survival, enhanced immunization rates, reduced fertility rates, and even some schooling indicators.

Life expectancy was more or less the same in both countries in 1990, but was estimated to be four years higher in Bangladesh than in India by 2010. Child mortality was 20 per cent higher in Bangladesh in 1990 – in 2011, it is 25 per cent lower.

In Bangladesh, 56 per cent of households have access to sanitation facilities that meet global standards of “improved sanitation”, compared to 34 per cent in India. However, more than 90 per cent in Bangladesh have access to some sanitation facilities, so only 8.4 per cent have to resort to open defecation. In India, 50 per cent of households had to practice open defecation in 2011 – a higher proportion than in almost any other country for which data is available.

Even Nepal, with all its political problems, seems to catching up rapidly with India. Around 1990, Nepal was far behind India in almost every development indicator. Today, social indicators for the two countries are more similar in spite of India’s per capita income being about three times as high as in Nepal.

Lack of public sector accountability is to blame in no small measure, say Dréze and Sen. But the focus of the debate in India continues to be only on the need for a well-run public sector, rather than on exactly how public institutions should be run, and what will make decision makers and operators accountable and responsible.

The authors also draw attention to the failure of the Indian media to rise to the challenge of India’s problems, including the disparities and inequalities of Indian society. This failure, they say, arises mostly from the media’s own bias and selective focus, and its partiality in favour of the rich and powerful.

There is a remarkably obvious lack of interest in the lives of the Indian poor, which is rarely discussed and challenged. Rural issues, for instance, get only 2 per cent of the total news coverage in national dailies (which are also read widely in rural areas), while the interests of the Indian middle class – fashion, gastronomy, Bollywood and cricket – attract enormously more attention.

They blame the dependence of the media on corporate sponsorship, which creates a tendency to pander to corporate cultures and values, while reducing the space, time and resources available for public discussion on less dazzling matters of great importance to ordinary people, such as education, health, nutrition or sanitation.

Back in Delhi, I am inclined to agree. The daily life-and-death battles of Guruvammal and Ruksanna (who I met in West Bengal and will write about in my next blog), do not get broadcast to a background of dramatic music on national television. As social worker and writer Harsh Mander is quoted as saying in the book, the poor are exiled from our conscience, and from our consciousness.

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