How India Can Make Global Indices Reflect The Very Real Progress Made On Ground

How India Can Make Global Indices Reflect The Very Real Progress Made On Ground

by Pratim Ranjan Bose - Tuesday, October 25, 2022 12:34 PM IST
How India Can Make Global Indices Reflect The Very Real Progress Made On GroundMid-day meals being served at a government school near Bengaluru.
  • The Multidimensional Poverty Index leaves clues for India to improve its ranking in social indicators. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to change India’s image as a dirty, poor, third-world country. From declaring India open defecation free to near 100 per cent rural electrification or semi-high speed and high-speed rail projects—all are part of this initiative. 

There is enough evidence to suggest that the initiative paid off on economic fronts. India’s ranking improved by leaps and bounds in the World Bank ranking for ease of doing business, logistics efficiency, electricity access etc. 

However, in terms of social indicators, India had a poor run. The jinx is finally broken by an encouraging report in Global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) 2022. More importantly, it gave us a model to work on to improve rankings in other indicators, in a time-bound manner. 

Prepared by UNDP and the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, the global MPI constructs a deprivation profile of each household and person through 10 indicators spanning health, education and standard of living. India's performance improved significantly in each of these areas.

The latest report states that the incidence of poverty, in India, declined from 55.1 per cent in 2005-06 to 16.4 per cent in 2019-21.

Overall, 415 million Indians exited poverty during the 15 years. The rate of poverty alleviation improved from 27.5 million a year to 28 million a year during the last five years.  

Earlier this year, the World Bank pegged the poverty rate in India at 10 per cent. An IMF working paper argued that less than one per cent of people were below the extreme poverty line of $1.90 per person per day. MPI confirmed the trend by pegging severe poverty at 4.2 per cent.  

Realign Schemes For The Poor

Launched in 2010, MPI is the most credible poverty measure and there are many takeaways from the recent report. 

First, it helped delink slum-dwelling from absolute poverty. According to a recent World Bank report, 35 per cent of the urban population in India lives in slums. MPI states that urban poverty dropped from 9 per cent in 2005-06, meaning all those who live in slums are not poor. 

This is not to glorify slums. The vast expanse of ‘jhuggis’ that greets the visitors in Mumbai, for example, are far from ideal as dwellings besides projecting a negative image of the country.  

The government has already rolled out several schemes to resolve housing issues for the underprivileged. Mud huts are being replaced by concrete Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) houses in rural India at a fast pace.

The urban version of the scheme is also popular. More low-cost housing initiatives were launched during the pandemic. 

However, it is questionable if we can remove slums altogether any time soon. Slums have a strong link to the political economy of land encroachment. Slum dwellers decide the fate of election results in cities. This is exactly why past rehabilitation attempts failed. 

Having said that, the MPI will help the government to weaken this political economy by redirecting its welfare schemes only to the five percent ‘poor’ in cities. A similar exercise is also expected in rural India where 21 per cent people are estimated to be multi-dimensionally poor. 

Secondly, all estimates (World Bank, IMF, MPI) put together, India now has 1-4 per cent of the population living in abject poverty. In comparison, only 0.1% of China’s population is below the International Poverty Line of $1.9 a day. 

What is damaging to India’s image is: we still have the largest number of nearly 228 million poor (multi-dimensional). There is a possibility that this number is inflated as there is a strong political economy that encourages people to fake poverty. 

However, the challenge is to improve our image to the global audience, which will in turn help us attract more investment and gain command in global politics as well. It is, therefore, essential to reduce this number in a time-bound manner. 

The solution lies in the graded realignment of schemes for the poor and keeping a strong watch on the vulnerable section. India has expanded the scope of welfare schemes dramatically in the last 15 years. It’s time to stop misuse, as is alleged in MNREGA, PMAY etc. 

Increasing NFHS Frequency A Boon

That absolute poverty in India has reduced dramatically during three decades of liberalisation, is an everyday experience. 

However, in the past, we failed to translate that into numbers. India’s Human Development Indicator (HDI) ranking didn’t improve in the last two decades. The poor run is also evident in Global Hunger (read ‘nutrition’) Index(GHI), published by European NGOs, Concern Worldwide and Welthungerhilfe. 

Worse, even a populous Bangladesh—that doesn’t have a credible data collection and dissemination system—fared better than us in HDI. The overwhelming dominance of international NGOs in Bangladesh who have an interest in showcasing their contribution is a reason behind this. 

However, that’s no excuse for our failures. There is no denying either that parts of the country grew way ahead of others, while states like Bihar and UP lagged way behind, thereby pulling down the average. 

Having said that, the structural reason behind improved MPI performance lies in dishing out the necessary data.

The P V Narasimha Rao government rolled out the National Family Health Survey(NFHS) in 1992-93. However, we lacked in maintaining periodicity. 

NFHS-II was released in 1998-99 and NFHS-III in 2005-06. The next edition, NFHS-IV (2014-15), was rolled out by the Modi government. More importantly, the government defined a three-year periodicity paving way for NFHS-V in 2019-21. 

The regular periodicity made NFHS a credible source for external agencies. India’s MPI score is based on NFHS. More importantly, higher frequency of survey means we can keep watch on the progress on desired social fronts in a time-bound manner. 

India also launched the first edition of the Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey (2016-18). It's time to fix a periodicity of the same to rob the wind out of GHI.

Measuring undernourishment through a telephonic survey of 3000 respondents in a country of 1.4 billion is crazy. GHI did that. 

Take The Challenge To Improve HDI 

In a recent newspaper article (“Fact-checking the HDI tally,” Times of India, 18 October 2022), Sanjeev Sanyal, a member of Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council and Aakansha Arora, director of the council pointed out the serious fallacies in HDI 2021 of UNDP. 

It was stupid and malicious to unilaterally attribute 4.7 million COVID deaths to India, ignoring the country's estimate of 0.52 million, under the guise of a ‘statistical model’ and adjusting the life expectancy of Indians accordingly. 

Prepared by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the model used even media reports (which are piecemeal by nature), as a source to draw the covid death estimate. 

India laid out extensive reporting protocol on covid from day one. However, there was the scope of underreporting by States. But any sane Indian would agree that a few hundred dead bodies on Ganga were not proof enough that four million bodies were hushed up. 

One can sense the politics behind it, particularly in view of the recent power struggle in global politics manifesting itself into a war of words to control the mind space.

WHO in particular was embroiled in controversy about its handling of COVID. There were also allegations of Chinese influence. 

However, it is more important to beat them in their own game and prove them hollow, as China did. Sanyal and Arora suggested systemic changes in information dissemination, like timely reporting of data, computation of life expectancy annually etc, which will act as a check on global agencies. 

India is a party to the global power struggle both by design and by default. Submitting to the western binary would have ruined us. At the same time, Delhi is aspiring to turn the crisis into an opportunity to increase India’s stake in the world economy and politics vis-à-vis China. 

Improving the country's image will go a long way in achieving these goals. It's time we take a five-year target to improve the HDI score significantly to announce India’s arrival on the global stage. 

This is doable if we remain mindful of the rules of the game.  

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