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Review: An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions, Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen

At a time when ‘shining’ India seemingly stands poised to become a global economic powerhouse steered by new Prime Minister Narendra Modi, selected by an increasingly impatient and disgruntled electorate, Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen’s book, An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions, serves as a timely critical eye-opener for anyone interested in understanding the challenges facing this nation, the third largest economy in the world and the second largest in Asia.

India’s extraordinary heterogeneities have long attracted, dismayed and befuddled visitors and researchers alike but what is often obscured in discussions of the usual divides of religion, caste, gender, region and language is the burgeoning of income inequality. While India’s poor have been hard to ignore since the colonial era, the persistent deprivation of these masses of humanity seem all the starker in modern India when juxtaposed with the ever growing opulence of the rich.

Class and other inequalities combine to impose multiple vicious circles upon those scraping by at the most disadvantaged end of the social spectrum. Dreze and Sen identify this “resilient division” between the privileged and the rest in Indian society as India’s biggest challenge, yet one seldom highlighted in all the recent hype about Indian prosperity. Making a strong case for equality and social justice amid economic progress, An Uncertain Glory becomes an almost indispensable economic, social and political reader to understand India’s checkered development story.

The distinction between a narrow concept of economic growth, defined in terms of rising aggregate income levels, and a broad notion of economic development, defined as improvement in the average person’s standard of living. is often obscured in political and economic logics based on faith in the eventual trickle-down of growth from the top to propel a broader based development. Admittedly, many of India’s challenges such as poverty, economic and gender inequality or illiteracy are lasting vestiges of a colonial past which either aggravated them or left them unaddressed. Immediate post-independence policies also did little to address them adequately.

The role of poorly implemented ‘socialist’ economic plans in allowing illiteracy to persist and in neglecting agricultural and rural development is undeniable. However, the vaunted neoliberal economic policies implemented since 1991 to help transition the economy out of the shackles of undue restrictions (such as industrial licensing for private business) embodied in a large public sector and near autarkic postcolonial situation to a present-day one with a buoyant private sector enabling a greater role for foreign trade and investment, exemplify a classic example of misguided faith in trickle-down economics.

Rapid rates of growth enabled enticing employment options for those with the right skills and an unprecedented wealth accumulation for the corporate few. The Indian economy surged onto the global economic radar and improved the living conditions of the “’middle classes’ (which means the top 20 per cent or so). But a lack of political will to utilize growing resources for improving ‘education, healthcare, nutrition, social facilities, and other essentials of fuller and freer human life for all” suggests economic development is lop-sided at best and “excruciatingly slow” or nonexistent at worst for the vast majority of poor and/or unskilled Indians (“the rickshaw puller, domestic worker or brick-kiln laborer”) who continue to “lack the basic requirements of dignified living.” Ignoring the lives of this disempowered majority through a narrow development discourse not only casts doubts on the sustainability of growth, they argue, but also violates “the demands of social justice, which is integrally linked with the expansion of human freedoms”.

An Uncertain Glory provides a cautionary narrative for those contented with India’s economic trajectory. Dispelling the fallacy of “the increasingly used rhetoric which suggests that India is well on its way to becoming an economic ‘superpower” Dreze and Sen present a grimmer reality of India’s comparative developmental achievements which both in absolute and relative terms would jolt the uninformed India enthusiast. By unfurling a gamut of overlooked empirical data the authors demonstrate that “India is not doing well at all in many respects even in comparison with some of the poorest countries in the world” outside of sub- Saharan Africa and even in South Asia though ahead of neighbors in terms of per capita income, India’s developmental indicators stand ahead of only Pakistan, a country with a perpetually disturbed political situation.

Key questions regarding ‘human capital formation’ through public health and education achievements should enter any discussion of the growing income gaps, which are critically contingent on labor market skills. In light of an increasingly polarized development discourse leaning heavily towards unfettered capitalism, An Uncertain Glory is a scathing critique relevant not only for India but for all nations under the spell of a laissez faire creed for the efficient provision of services. The ongoing privatization of public services such as education, health and infrastructure, and the attendant curtailing of public investment, as a panacea for resource misallocation or inadequate provision of services by the public sector implies, for the authors, a “misreading of the conclusions of mainstream economics.”

Dreze and Sen draw on elementary economic principles to posit that markets are far from efficient resource allocators in the realms of education, healthcare and infrastructure services where inherent externality effects which makes these inevitable areas for public intervention. The text notes for example “in Sri Lanka, with its huge lead over India in social indicators and particularly schooling and literacy. . . private schools are virtually absent – and have in fact been prohibited since the 1960s.” However, as critical as the authors are of “market mania” they also caution against unbridled “market phobia” resulting in loopholes such as free healthcare for the rich in Canada, while reiterating the crucial role of the state in providing services to ensure a “solid foundation of human development.”

An account of India’s experience with public services is seriously incomplete without a discussion of corruption, lack of accountability, and a ‘malaise’ deep enough to disillusion the staunchest supporters of public services. While much has been written about these lacunae, An Uncertain Glory makes an important contribution by connecting these persistent problems with growing economic inequality which not only deprives the poor of essential services like electricity but further saps them by the diversionary demands of the “’middle class’ or ‘aam aadmi’ (the common man).” who are able to wangle enough services for themselves, and even at subsidized rates. Dreze and Sen rightly identify education, especially at higher levels, to be the dividing line between the middle classes and the unheard millions. While the Right to Education, recently upheld by the Indian Constitution as a Fundamental Right, is a step in the correct direction, reforming the delivery of public education remain critical in order to change “established rules of behavior,” such as bribery, and provide voice to the masses.

Dreze and Sen propose solutions by drawing on global as well as local lessons, thus making their book relevant for the process of development in any economy. The recurring themes are the commonsense yet oft-forgotten relevance of human welfare at all class and status levels for strengthening an economy and the importance of political will of the state in helping realize that goal. Economies that transitioned to high levels of human development in Europe, Latin America or East Asia – plus others even among India’s South Asian neighbors such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka – have all done so with prudent government intervention.

Some local Indian state governments such as Kerala, Tamil Nadu or Himachal Pradesh offer universal public provision of services such as education, efficient administration and have taken concrete steps to address historical inequalities such as caste. They have done a substantially better job of ensuring higher standards of living and human development compared to Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odhisa, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh where most of the “…the poorer half of India (who) are not much better, if at all, than in the poorer half of Africa” live.

An Uncertain Glory covers a gamut of other forms of inequality that determine “the progress of human freedom and capability to lead the kind of lives that people have reason to value”. Environmental degradation, caste-based oppression and unequal treatment of women are apt culprits on this list. For women the intersection of patriarchy with poverty reinforces a cycle of low education, poor skill, and high unemployment. Low nutritional levels and the lack of basic sanitation facilities for women relative to men are also discussed here. Dreze and Sen devote attention to patriarchal violence surreptitiously expressed in selective abortion of female fetuses, or brutally in gang rapes, which recently brought more attention to misogynist realities in India. They call for “enlightened agency” of women to be made possible not only through academic achievements (steadily rising since independence) but through a social environment which dispels the patriarchal framework. By enabling women to become more productive members of the growth process via employment, fertility reduction and child health gender equality seems a worthwhile and attainable goal to pursue.

The ability of the government to hasten poverty alleviation, secure gender justice and produce a corruption-free society can only be ensured by informed political selection. While much has been made, and rightfully so, of India’s democracy, evident in the size of the country, the variety of political parties, a largely free press as well as in the ability to sustain the democratic process amidst vast poverty, Dreze and Sen stress India’s need “to make much greater use of the democratic system.” It is in this optimism, which recognizes that India indeed possesses the means of achieving broad development for all, that An Uncertain Glory maintains a tone of hope amid grounds for despair.

The text is a call for participatory democracy in India possible through a vigilant middle class aware and mindful of the true challenges to all-embracing development and are served by an uncensored press geared to inform public reasoning. With its strong analytical arguments, range of pertinent issues and empirical corroboration of facts, Dreze and Sen’s latest book serves as a powerful and thought-provoking starting point for all interested in fathoming India’s present, which appears ridden with contradictions as well as possibilities.

 

Sucharita Mukherjee teaches economic at the College of Saint Benedict/ Saint Johns University.

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