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How Good is India's 'Own' National Human Development Report?


India's National Human Development Report 2001 (NHDR) is the latest in a series of publications that are linked to, but independent of, the annual, global Human Development Report issued by the UNDP (United Nations Development Program). While India's NHDR derives its conceptual moorings and methodology from the UNDP's Human Development Reports, it incorporates ideas from elsewhere, including the Reports on Human Development in South Asia published by the Human Development Centre, Islamabad.

The stated objectives of the NHDR are to build a consensus on the use of the human development approach; to develop a framework for identifying better development indicators; and to construct composite human development indices at the level of 29 States and 6 Union Territories of India. Its authors hope to inspire similar efforts at the sub-State level, and to encourage the widespread use of human development indices to guide public policies and to compare developmental performance over time and among States and sub-State units.

The NHDR stresses those indicators that assist in "evaluation of the development process in terms of its overall impact on the quality of life and the standard of living of people". The Report collates indicators of attainment in three "critical dimensions of well-being": longevity (defined as the ability to live a long and healthy life); education (the ability to read, write and acquire knowledge); and command over resources (the ability to enjoy a decent standard of living and have a socially meaningful life). Longevity attainments include life expectancy at age 1 (instead of life expectancy at birth, used by the UNDP); and infant mortality rate. The measure of adult literacy employed by the UNDP has been replaced with educational attainments, consisting of literacy rate at 7+ and intensity of formal education. Similarly, economic attainments include per capita real consumption expenditure adjusted for inequality, instead of real GDP per capita PPP, in addition to infrastructural endowments such as sanitation, employment, housing, roads, electricity, safe drinking water, etc.

The NHDR authors note that there is no direct relationship between the economic attainments of a society, as defined above, and the quality of life of an individual. There is an even less direct connection between economic development and social development; or the distribution of benefits between various regions of the country and different social groups. The Report asserts that development literature is increasingly shifting attention from mere material attainments or means of development "to outcomes that are either desirable in themselves or desirable because of their role in supporting better opportunities for people" (p.3). The trouble with such an approach is that it is well nigh impossible to assign numerical values without a degree of subjectivity. Like other human development indices, the NHDR faces difficulty in capturing the non-economic factors despite conceptually stressing their centrality.

The Report contains an extensive database measuring more than 70 distinct indicators at two or three points of time since the 1980s. A wide variety of sources have been tapped for the data: Censuses, National Sample Survey, National Family Health Survey and other official and some independent sources.

On the basis of the above dataset, the NHDR team constructed a Human Development Index (HDI), a Human Poverty Index (HPI) and a Gender Equality Index (GEI). Based on these indices, the Report demonstrates that, while there have been significant improvements in the levels of human development during the 1980s and the 1990s, there exist significant rural-urban and gender gaps. Besides, there are wide disparities in the levels of human development between the States. For instance, the HDI for Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Orissa in the 1980s was half of that of Kerala. Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh have improved their HDI significantly over the 1990s. The limitations of these indices are noted in the Report itself: the economically less-developed States also figure low on the HDI but such correspondence between economic development and HDI does not hold for middle-income States. While these indices are able to distinguish sharply between the best and the worst performing States, the lack of correspondence between economic development and HDI in the middle-income States seriously limits its utility as most States fall within the middle-income category.

The Report however, observes that there is a correspondence between growth in female literacy and the Gender Equality Index; and that the south Indian States have a higher Gender Equality Index than those in the north. HPI suggests that human poverty has declined significantly over the 1980s (by 47 per cent) and in the 1990s (by 39 per cent). Interestingly, the decline is marginally higher in the rural areas. The relative rankings of the States on the Human Poverty Index stayed unchanged over the 1980s and 1990s, with HPI in Bihar, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Uttar Pradesh ranging between 55-60 per cent while the better-off States like Kerala, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh have a HPI of 32-35 per cent.

The Report advocates a governance approach to human development, adopting the UNDP's concept of governance. Further, it views governance as a continuous interplay between (a) institutions, (b) the delivery mechanism and (c) the supportive and subordinate framework of rules, procedures and legislation. This conception of governance, sanitised of political content, instead of offering a framework for governance in any holistic sense, merely suggests small structural and procedural changes at the national level. It proposes an alternative model of governance in which the institutions of decentralised governance - panchayats, (statutory, democratically-elected, self-governing local authorities in rural areas) and civil society actors - are seen to have a central role. However, no correlation is made between decentralisation and its impact on human development.

The central 'message' of the Report is that human development can be promoted only if the following are ensured:

  • devolution of power to manage local affairs and decentralisation of decision making;

  • civil service reforms aimed at improving transparency, accountability, efficiency and sensitivity in public administration at all levels;

  • enforcing incentive/disincentive structures that truly reflect social values and norms;

  • procedural reforms covering all aspects of government's interface with public; and

  • empowerment, particularly of women, the marginal and the excluded.

The Report lays down the parameters for future public policies for human development within the neo-liberal framework, by defining the state's role as follows:

Minimal functions: defence; law and order; property rights and public health; macroeconomic management; building perspectives; and, anticipatory and prospective tracking of global economy. Disaster relief and anti-poverty programmes are also recommended for public investment and are seen as ways of improving equity.

Intermediate functions: addressing externalities (basic education and environment protection); regulating monopoly (utility regulation and anti-trust policy); and, overcoming imperfect formations (insurance, financial regulation and consumer protection). In such a role, the state is viewed to be improving equity by providing for redistributive pension, family and unemployment allowances, etc.).

Activist functions: the state's primary role is seen to co-ordinate private activity by fostering market, while equity is to be improved by asset redistribution.

The NHDR is a valuable contribution to the development literature in that it is the first systematic collation and assessment of all-India data on the state of human development in the country. The Report provides 130 pages containing new and useful data series, covering periods of 10-25 years. This dataset will be invaluable to many future studies on the development process in India. There are useful comparisons of development policy performance among States and economic, educational and health attainments, differentiated by gender and selected social groups (for example, Scheduled Castes and Tribes, the elderly population, children and the disabled). The Report also raises new issues for discussion by stressing the centrality of civil society and local government institutions in fostering human development. It also attempts to draw a link, albeit tenuously, between corruption, judicial delays, fiscal responsibility of governments and expanding domain of governance to include the market and the civil society.

The indices offered in the NHDR have the potential of capturing the imagination of the public and policy makers alike. It is likely that they will play a central role in public policy formulation in the short to medium term, both, at the national and international levels.

National Human Development Report 2001, New Delhi: Planning Commission, Government of India, 2002 (now being published by Oxford University Press, New Delhi), iv + 297 pp. Electronic Copy available at the Planning Commission Website in PDF format.

Keywords: India, human development, governance indicators, socio-economic development

Commentator: Amit Prakash, Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, (July 2002)

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