India’s rank of 131 among 188 countries on the UNDP’s Human Development Index for 2015 and its ‘medium’ performance pose the uncomfortable question: would not the score have been significantly better if the higher economic growth trajectory of two and a half decades of liberalisation had been accompanied by a parallel investment in people? Few will argue that the rise in incomes that came with a more open economy has not translated into a higher quality of life for many Indians and raised overall life expectancy at birth by more than 10 years from the 1990 level, to reach 68.3 years. Progress has also been made in raising awareness about issues affecting women’s empowerment, such as public safety, acid attacks, discrimination in inheritance rights and lack of equal employment opportunity. Policy reforms have been instituted in some of these areas as a result. But as the HDI data show, significant inequalities persist, particularly between States and regions, which act as major barriers to improvement. The percentage of women in the workforce is the lowest in India among the BRICS countries, and the national record on the population that lives in severe multidimensional poverty is also the worst in the bloc. These are clear pointers to the lost decades for India, when universalisation of education and health care could have pulled deprived sections out of the poverty trap.
A central focus on social indicators is necessary for India to break free from its position as an underachiever. The fiscal space now available has been strengthened by steady economic growth, and more should be done to eliminate subsidies for the richest quintile — estimated by the UNDP to be $16 billion in 2014 in six consumption areas including gold and aviation fuel. The rise in revenues from all sources should go towards making public education of high standards accessible to all and delivering on the promised higher budgetary outlay for health care. Bolstered by a conscious effort to help traditionally backward regions, such policies will help eliminate the losses produced by inequalities that lower national human development indices. One crucial metric that gets insufficient attention in the measurement of development is the state of democracy, reflected among other things in access to justice. It is relevant to point out that India has not ratified UN conventions on torture, rights of migrant workers and their families, and protection against enforced disappearance. This is a serious lacuna for a country that otherwise has a commitment to democracy and the rule of law. With the growing realisation that development is a multidimensional achievement, the gains of economic reforms must help build capabilities and improve the health of all sections. Sustaining and improving the quality of life will depend on policies crafted to handle major emerging challenges such as urbanisation, the housing deficit, access to power, water, education and health care.