A toilet is cheap to build and performs a vital sanitary function. Yet, India – one of the largest economies in the world – is unable to get many of its people to use one. According to a National Statistical Office survey released on Monday, more than one out of every four rural Indian households have no access to a toilet and defecate in the open. When it comes to open defecation, India lags behind all of its neighbours in South Asia.
The shortage of toilets isn’t the only problem in India’s development story. Seven decades after Independence, India’s progress on improving the lives of its citizens is quite poor. On the most basic human need, nutrition, India ranks 102nd on the Global Hunger Index. It has slid from its rank in 2018 of 95. So not only is India bad at feeding its people, its rate of improvement is so slow, other countries are going past it. As of now, the average Indian is worse fed than any of her neighbours. Even Pakistan, long derided as a failed state, is able to provide better nutrition to its citizens.
On life expectancy as well as child mortality rate, Nepal beats India. Bangladeshi girls are better educated than Indian girls. As part of the same trend, India has one of the worst rates of female workplace participation, with just nine countries across the world doing worse. Every one of India’s neighbours is more progressive when it comes to women in the workplace.
Unfortunately, there is very little public discussion about these poor social indicators (which, recursively, is maybe why they are so poor in the first place). One study found that only 3% of questions in Parliament relate to children while just 5% of these questions relate to early childhood care and development. This, even though Indian children face one of the most hostile environment growing up anywhere in the world. A study by economists Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen found that only 1% of editorials in India’s major newspaper dealt with health.
As India’s public discourse ignores social indicators, it concentrates much more on economic indicators. For a while, India’s status as an emerging super power was hotly discussed – a somewhat bizarre conversation, given the quality of life of most Indians. Of late, as an economic slowdown has hit India, the Union government has taken to firefighting it in the media and even offering policy fixes – a stark contrast to how slowly governments react to India’s poor social indicators.
These warped priorities are a grave mistake. Not only is improving social indicators the primary responsibility of any society, India must realise that there is no way to expand its economy over the long term without first drastically improving living standards. As economist Ashoka Mody noted, by pointing to a World Bank report on the growth of East Asia, sustained economic growth has occurred only once a country has “invested in people”.
India must learn from this. It must concentrate first and foremost on health and education. Only by improving its social indicators can India hope to move to high economic growth.