The Human Development Report 2011 of the UNDP affirms what critical scholars have been saying for years now: the high economic growth achieved by India has not translated into a better quality of life for the vast majority of its citizens. For all its ambitions to power ahead in the global economy, India suffers from basic policy and structural failures that prevent its people from enjoying the fruits of a higher national income. Among 187 countries ranked in the HDR, India comes in at a dismal 134 in the main composite index that looks at life expectancy at birth, mean years of schooling, expected years of schooling, Gross National Income per capita, and other metrics. Failure to invest in core areas, such as education and health care, has led to the incongruity of better per capita GNI but not a higher HDI. Again, in the gender inequality index, India fares poorly, trailing neighbours Bangladesh and Pakistan, although it is better placed in terms of GNI per capita. These are proof positive that a serious course correction is needed in government policy. The first order priority should be to massively scale up public investments in education and health care in the coming Plan period.
HDR 2011 makes the important point that environmental degradation and climate change will exacerbate inequalities, a trend already in evidence. India has been modifying the natural environment at a feverish pace and without adequate study and thought. In a recent essay published by Outlook magazine, economist Jean Dreze and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen highlight destructive aspects of India's growth, such as the razing of forests, indiscriminate mining, the drying of rivers, and the massacre of fauna. This thoughtless course has invited a strong public backlash in some places as vulnerable communities feel the effects. Moreover, as the UNDP points out, long-term environmental degradation in the form of soil erosion, water stress, desertification and deforestation is expected to continue. These factors are likely to intensify climate change, with impoverishing consequences. What the patterns underscore is the need for India to strengthen the social protection floor. Obviously, big investments are needed to reduce multidimensional poverty — in education, health care, and sanitation. But only political will and decisive action can raise capacity and incomes, and make communities more resilient. As things stand in the South Asian region, emerging India lags behind Sri Lanka and Bangladesh in basic indicators such as life expectancy at birth and mean years of schooling. The big question is: can it change the focus of its growth to meet the aspirations of all its people and move up the HDI ranking?