Friday, 31 January 2014

Population and Development: India at the Crossroads (An agenda for action)

There is sense of restlessness in the country. Every Indian knows what’s wrong. What every Indian wants to know is how it’s going to be right. After 65 years, political rhetoric will not do.[1]

Devendra Kothari PhD
Population and Development Analyst
Forum for Population Action

This post is an effort to encourage discussion and debate about what should be India’s priorities to achieve inclusive growth. The debate between two of the finest Indian economists — Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati — reflects the deeper question facing India’s political leaders and policy makers.[2] The debate between Bhagwati and Panagariya on the one side, and Sen and Dreze on the other has sharpened after the two sets of researchers released their new books on India.[3]  While Sen believes that India should invest more in its welfare and social schemes to reduce inequality, otherwise, inequality will widen and the growth process itself will falter. Bhagwati, on the other hand, holds up growth as the panacea for all of India’s ills. He believes that growth may raise inequality initially but sustained growth will eventually raise enough resources for the State to redistribute and mitigate the effects of the initial inequality.

The ongoing debate has generated more heat than light. This is presented as distribution versus growth argument.  However, I strongly believe that India needs a balanced ‘development’ strategy. Mere focus on boosting growth through large investment and opening up the economy without emphasizing on human development is not a panacea for India’s long-term socio-economic challenges. On the other hand, an excessive focus on subsidy and dole-driven welfare policies could slam the brakes on the economy and drag people below the poverty line, rather than push up per capita income and welfare. Culture of freebies will not help in the long term. The Food Security Bill, for example, is a bad policy measure and does no service to the poor.[4] It fails the country on the two critical counts: on economic implications and winning the war against malnutrition. Real prosperity, especially inclusive growth can only be brought about by focusing on basic structural changes aiming to improve human resources, as has been done initially by many developing countries including China, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Brazil and Mexico. "Re-imagining India", published recently by McKinsey, has scores of suggestions on "unlocking the potential of Asia`s next superpower". It is argued that human development however  is vital if we are to re-boot India.[5] If the rest of the developing world and especially Asian countries have forged ahead, it is because after 1950 they took extra care of education and health including reproductive health as well as living environment.

India has not given due recognition to the concept of equality in sharing the resources in its population and development planning. Even today, after more than twenty years of economic reforms, the visitor to India - whether from developed or developing world - is struck by the gross inequalities.  That is why during the last few years India has been increasingly witnessing mass risings like the Anna’s anti-corruption movement in 2011, and the Delhi gang rape uprising of new generation in 2012. In other words, there is a sense of restlessness in the country.  There is an urgent need to have a focussed agenda to achieve the “inclusive growth”.[6] The post aims in this direction.

No doubt indicators of human development such as health including maternal and infant mortality, education, living conditions, gender equality, etc. show steady improvement, but they also suggest that the progress is slow and India continues to lag behind several other developing  countries. Other indicators of deprivation suggest that the proportion of the population deprived of a minimum level of living is much higher. For example, National Family Health Survey-3 (NFHS-3) shows that almost 46% of the children in the 0 to 3 years’ age group suffered from malnutrition in 2005–06, and what is even more disturbing is that the estimate shows almost no decline from the level of 47% reported in 1998 by NFHS-2.

In fact, things are going from bad to worse. India’s rank in the latest UN’s Human Development Report has fallen from 128 in 2003 to 136 out of 187 countries and territories in 2013. Further, India still has quite some way to go in bridging the gender gap in the areas of health, education and economics, if not politics. It has been ranked 101 among 136 countries in the The Global Gender Gap Report 2013 released by the World Economic Forum. Also, the country has fallen from 96th rank in 2006 to 101 in the last 8 years, revealing a stark and deep rooted gender gap in India. In addition, recent studies paint a grim picture of education, posing the risk of eroding the long-term competitiveness of World’s fourth largest economy. The secondary students from the States of Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh, showpieces for education development in India, who were put on a global stage stood very low on their reading, math and science abilities. India ranked second last among the 73 countries that participated in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), conducted by the OECD Secretariat to evaluate education systems worldwide. China, which participated in PISA for the first time along with India, scored the highest in reading. It also topped the charts in mathematics and science. And finally, India’s own Pratham`s Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), 2012, assessing schools in rural India, found declining attendance, over-reliance on private tuitions and declining reading and mathematical abilities of children in the 6 to 14 years age category. In just three years between 2010 and 2012, percentage of fifth graders in rural public schools who can read second grade-level text has declined from 51% to 42%. Further, achievement levels in arithmetic have fallen drastically. Percentage of fifth graders who could do a simple two-digit subtraction has fallen from 71% to 53% in three years. Today, more children are going to school but what they are learning is not clear.  This is alarming and pathetic. Furthermore, a recent report of OECD reported that India’s income inequality doubled in the two decades to 2011.


All this is a rather   shameful reflection of the prevailing conditions in a country that is said to be on a growth song, and indicate that India is heading towards an unstable situation of extreme danger or difficulty that could lead to despair, social instability, political strife, policymaking paralysis and capital flight as well as a rapid collapse in growth rates. 


How forge ahead? It appears that efforts made over the years to improve the quality of human resources have partially been neutralized by neglecting some basic areas. The threshold for dire poverty in developing countries is set by the World Bank at $1.25 a day of consumption (rather than income). This is an international yardstick by which poverty level in developing countries is measured. Accordingly, around one-third of India's population (about 400 million people) is living below International Poverty Line.[7] It is observed that more and more people in India could fall into extreme poverty due to soaring food and energy prices in coming years.[8]  As such, one has  to empower Indians, especially pooer ones  to participate in the economy, both as producers and consumers, as argued by Prof. Sunil Khilani of King’s India Institute, London.[9] For this, more than food security act and NREGA, India needs universal public health, education better living conditions, etc., as discussed below:


One has to recognize that population is an important factor in development, especially when it is growing seemingly out of control since it leads to a significant diversion of national investable resources to consumption which could otherwise be used for increasing investment and productivity and for improving the quality of public services. India’s population has grown from 361 million in 1951 to 1210 million in 2011,  and is still growing by around 17 to 18 million every year. India’s population is projected to peak at 1700 million in 2060. The population growth is mainly fuelled by unwanted fertility. More than four in ten pregnancies are unintended/unplanned or simply unwanted by the women who experience them and half or more of these pregnancies result in births that spur continued population growth.  Around 26.5 million children are born in India every year and out of this about 6 million births have been classified as unwanted. It is estimated that around 450 million people out of 1200 million in 2011 in India who were product of unwanted pregnancies, and most of them are from the lower economic strata.[10] The consequences of unintended pregnancy are serious, slowing down the process of socio-economic development as well as process of change, and  is being  reflected in widespread hunger, poverty, under educated labour force, unemployment, , regressing governance as well as increasing scarcity of basic resources like food, water and space despite concerted developmental efforts since 1991.

India’s large unwanted fertility, a threat to sustainable development and achieving inclusiveness, demands immediate attention. On the other hand, most of the developing countries, during their initial stage of development, gave importance or urgency to the issues like population stabilization including maternal and child health as well as literacy. There may be several reasons behind unwanted childbearing, but most important one is related to the imperfect control over the reproductive process.  So letting women have the means to manage their childbearing will help to make India a more stable and equal place. Key to this new approach should be to provide quality reproductive health services with contraceptive choices. When women have access to contraception appropriate to their needs, desires, and budgets, the potential benefits are many, including reduced maternal and child mortality as well as lesser number of abortions and unwanted pregnancies. In addition to its health benefits, family planning allows families and communities to invest more in education and health care and helps reduce poverty, as argued by the President of Population Council, Peter J. Donaldson. Children by choice not by chance are the only way poor can aspire a better life. 

Another issue which needs equal attention is quality of education. Many Indians including policy makers believe that India has an inevitable advantage in its young “human capital”. Can India take advantage of this demographic window in the next couple of decades and garner its benefits? Today, more children are going to school but what they are learning is not clear. Can they get any job in the market if they continue such education?  Unless education is rescued from quagmire of mediocrity, all talk about realizing India’s demographic dividend will be without substance; and the country would be inching closer to socio-economic disaster. Right to Education with quality must be available to all, since deep frustration begins with half or low quality education. The enjoyment of the education could be enhanced if there is an acknowledgement of the problems that beset India’s educational system and if there is a willingness to solve such problems. There is an urgent need to   explore issues which need urgent attention.[11]

Physical living conditions are equally important in producing an enabling environment for quality of life and inclusive growth. Findings of the Census of India 2011 – Tables on Houses, Household Amenities and Assets indicate that   sub-human living conditions still haunt people.  Only 47% of households have a source of water within the premises while 53% of households travel more than half a kilometre in rural areas and more than 100 meters in urban areas to fetch their supplies. This problem is further compounded by lack of access to sanitation. About half of total households in India still defecate in open. This situation is particularly piquant for women and girls.  It is estimated that around 290 million women in India in 2011, the worst sufferers of open defecation, continue with the age-old practice even after 20 years of economic reforms. Only 28% of the households use LPG (Liquefied Petroleum Gas) as a cooing fuel. Around two-thirds of the total households have electricity as the main source of lighting in the country in 2011. Any improvement in access to toilet facilities, water, electricity and LPG is likely to result in a considerable reduction in domestic drudgery especially for girls/women, freeing up their time for other activities including schooling and perusing professional life.

India is simply not doing enough for its women to improve access to resources and freedom of movement as well as improving decision making power.  There is an urgent need to rethink as how to expedite the process of women empowerment in a patriarchal and traditional society with innumerable obstacles.  After the Delhi gang rape murder, crimes against women are engaging national attention like never before, and there is greater demand for effective crime prevention, strict implementation of law and expeditious justice delivery.  But this alone is not going to help. Let us not construe the problem so narrowly. To deal with a problem that has roots in social behaviour and prejudice, mere legislation is not enough. To achieve the long-term vision, however, one has to create an environment where sons and daughters are equally valued. At the same time women empowerment requires undoing of patriarchal myths.  For this, women must have access to education and training along with economic empowerment through property rights, favourable credit and entrepreneurial support as well as opportunity in paid employment. Insuring reproductive rights and better living conditions could be another effective way to empower women in India.

In the broader context of the debate on India’s inclusive growth, it is appropriate to accelerate the process of urbanization. Urbanisation is the process in which the number of people living in the urban areas increases compared to the rural ones. It is considered as the engine of economic and social change. Because of higher levels of productivity and wages in urban areas in general and large cities in particular, the “consumption poverty” at least is expected to be lower than in rural areas.[12] As such, the migrants from the backward regions are expected to benefit migrating into urban areas.  

The level of urbanization in India, unlike the experience of several developing countries at comparable levels of economic growth, has been quite low. It increased sluggishly from 17.3% in 1951 to 31.2% in 2011. The definition of urban seems to be quite broad, and hence, it includes areas which still do not show any dynamism as the term urbanization would tend to imply. As a result, a sizable proportion of so-called urban population virtually live in “rural areas”.  There is an urgent need to expedite the process of “real” urbanization in the country to achieve a balanced development.

Also, economic growth across regions has not been balanced, with some of the most backward areas, mainly located in the four large north Indian States of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, yet to experience any significant growth. The delivery of essential social services like health and education at the grass roots level is also poor and this is a major causative factor in unequal development.

In sum, it is indeed sad that the policy makers/politicians in India who are talking of inclusive growth are yet to suggest an effective plan of action. It is high time that political parties focus on improving people’s ability to earn more rather than dolling out subsidies that make people dependent on the political class and system.  The immediate vision of India’s development planning must, therefore, ensure broad-based improvement in the quality of life of the people, especially those belonging to the bottom of pyramid. In this context, the above noted action areas -  namely reproductive health, education, living conditions and gender equality as well as higher level of “real” urbanization -     will play decisive role. These are much bigger and effective interventions and India must think about.

[1] Based on the observation of Mr. Shekhar Kapur, Filmmaker on poll promises.

[3] Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen. 2013. An Uncertain Glory: India and its contradictions, Allen Lane; Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya. 2012. India’s Trust with Destiny, Harper Collins.

[4] See author’s post - Food Security Bill and malnutrition in India- at

[5] For details, see: Reimagining India: Unlocking the Potential of Asia's Next Superpower by McKinsey & Company, 2013.

[6] The Twelfth Five Year Plan (2012-2017) aims at “faster, sustainable and more inclusive growth”. But how, it is not very clear.

[7] As per the Planning Commission, Government of India, at the all India level share of the population below poverty line (BPL) was 21.9% in 2011-12, almost 270 million. This means that every fifth Indian lives below the poverty line.  The government has set the bar abysmally low, defining as BPL anyone earning Rs. 27.20 or less in rural areas and up to Rs 33.30 in urban areas. This is totally erroneous.

[8] India: Why pace of development is slow?” Blog Entries by Devendra K Kothari at:

[9] See article: “Body of unequal evidence” by Sunil Khilani at

[10] Devendra Kothari, “Implications of Emerging Demographic Scenario: Based on the Provisional Results of Census of India 2011”,  A Brief,  a publication of Management Institute of Population and Development – A Unit of Parivar Seva Sanstha, New Delhi, 2011.  

[11] Education in India needs intensive care, not a quick fix (Part II)” Blog Entries by Devendra K Kothari at:

[12] Mitra Anup. 2013. Insights into Inclusive Growth, Employment and Wellbeing in India, Springer, New Delhi.