Thursday, April 28, 2011

Quality of life of the Chinese and Indians

The latest issue of the New York Review of Books carries an incisive essay by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen on India's political economy. Sen goes about it comparing the quality of life in China and India. Indians, of course, are so obsessed with catching up with China’s GDP growth that they overlook that the judicious yardstick ought to be how growth advances living standards and reduces poverty in the two countries. Sen gives a jolt to them.
China beats India hollow with regard to the range of development indices such as life expectancy at birth, infant mortality rate, mortality rate for children under five, nutrition and availability of immunization vaccines for children, mean years of schooling for children, maternal mortality rate, adult literacy rate, etc. India’s “growth mania” presupposes that high GDP growth should have precedence over allocation of resources for social sectors whereas, China is maintaining high growth rate even while paying attention to ‘social objectives’. High growth generates public resources that could be turned into greater allocation for social sectors but this is not happening in India. China spends about 2 percent of its GDP on health care whereas the figure is 1.1 percent for India. This has led to “shameful exploitation [and]...sheer unavailability of health care in many parts of India.”
India, no doubt, is leagues ahead of China in terms of its democratic system, free press, freedom of expression, etc. The common Indian hypothesis is that their country's democratic system acts as a “barrier to using the benefits of economic growth in order to enhance health, education and other social conditions.” Sen emphatically refutes this plea and puts his finger at where the problem lies: despite India's open democracy, the reality is that social conditions graduate as political issues only if they assume acute forms. Whereas, in China, the leadership doesn’t require any such ‘prompting’.
“The Chinese leaders, despite their skepticism about the values of multiparty democracy and personal and political liberty, are strongly committed to eliminating poverty, undernourishment, illiteracy, and lack of health care; and this has greatly helped in China’s advancement.”
The flip side is, of course, there: for example, China’s authoritarian leadership could ride over such a horrendous happening as the famine of 1959-1962 which killed 30 million people and, again, could overnight dump as part of the 1979 reforms the guaranteed health care which provided a great safety net for poor people. “In a functioning democracy an established right to social assistance could not have been so easily—and so swiftly—dropped. The change sharply reduced the progress of longevity in China. Its large lead over India in life expectancy dwindled during the following two decades—falling from a fourteen-year lead to one of just seven years.”
Interestingly, however, China's leadership can also be highly responsive. The leadership saw the folly of the reform and began a corrective course in 2004 “reintroducing the right to medical care.” The impact has been immediate. “China now has a considerably higher proportion of people with guaranteed health care than does India. The gap in life expectancy in China’s favor has been rising again, and it is now around nine years; and the degree of coverage is clearly central to the difference.”
On the contrary, “Whether India’s democratic political system can effectively remedy neglected public services such as health care is one of the most urgent questions facing the country… For a minority of the Indian population—but still very large in actual numbers—economic growth alone has been very advantageous, since they are already comparatively privileged and need no social assistance to benefit from economic growth… an exaggerated concentration on the lives of the relatively prosperous, exacerbated by the Indian media, gives an unrealistically rosy picture of the lives of Indians in general. Since the fortunate group includes not only business leaders and the professional classes but also many of the country’s intellectuals, the story of unusual national advancement is widely and persistently heard. More worryingly, relatively privileged Indians can easily fall for the temptation to focus just on economic growth as a grand social benefactor for all.”
Sen concludes on a highly critical note: “My primary concern, however, is that the illusions generated by those distorted perceptions of prosperity may prevent India from bringing social deprivations into political focus, which is essential for achieving what needs to be done for Indians at large through its democratic system. A fuller understanding of the real conditions of the mass of neglected Indians and what can be done to improve their lives through public policy should be a central issue in the politics of India.”


Srik said...

Amartya Sen has hit the nail on the head. GDP is not an all-emcompassing number and education at all levels is ignored as much as health care, if not more.

Thank you for a good article.

JD said...

Always a delight to read Sen (and you too MKB :-). His book Freedom as Development fundamentally changed my thinking on socio/economic issues.

Timothy said...

This is an excellent article. Well said. Kudos.

But here is something else to consider:

After Mao's initial policy of maximizing population growth turned into a disaster (check "Ma Yinchu" on wikipedia), the Chinese government moved to limit population growth to try and allow at least some increase in the standard of living. History is clear: without an open frontier, it is impossible to increase living standards when everyone has six kids starting at age 14 (at least, excepting the odd small trading island). Nobody beats supply and demand: 100 starving people competing for every job makes wages go down not up.

But in India we have had the opposite: the elites are pushing to maximize population growth to keep wages low! (Although they have classified their demographic data, I suspect to try and hide this). A billionaire Indian was recently on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and he burbled about how they now know that rapid population growth is good because "people are the ultimate resource" - yes, if you consider people as cattle and your fortune depends on an unlimited number of 25-cents-an hour serfs.

China is pushing for massive capital and technological investment to boost per-capita domestic production, India is largely ignoring investment and pushing to keep wages as low as possible to compete for labor contracts in the global economy based on low wage rates alone. In other words, India's only real product is poverty. It's an easy way to make a quick buck, but in the long run it will lead to social upheavals and collapse. It always has in the past, as the Chinese (good students of history that they are) are so well aware.

rahul_tushar said...

MKB you write with a certain admirable yet biased insightfulness. I have read your articles since the last few years,and although i am unabashedly more traditionally to the right of the indian political spectrum, however I enjoy your incisive and analytical representation of geopolitical facts from a more left-liberal leaning.

MKB my advise is , that you ought to see the other more hawkish/nationalist perspective from among the diplomatic corp at South Block with a more sympathatic prism, I find that you are very critical of any notions that potray India's projected rise to Great Power status in the 21st century world. Being a career diplomat and having served as India's representative around the world does it not put our nation in poor light that someone of your stature potrays the motherland in such light.

Rahul Singh Gautam
Perth, Australia

rahul_tushar said...

MBK is an exceptional writer analyst.

Rahul Singh Gautam
Perth Australia

Lib Rozario said...

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