To most unbiased observers, particularly those who have an interest in India’s progress, most report cards on the Indian economy make for distressing reading. India has failed to prosper even though it has been free of colonial rule for nearly 70 years. A recent featured piece in The Economist of July 4, 2015—“Of Secrecy and Stunting”—is no exception. It reports on widespread malnutrition in India with particular emphasis on childhood malnutrition. While the trend is positive, the situation is still dire: African countries’ rate of underweight children is only 21%, compared to India’s 30%.
“A new study—conducted by the government and the UN agency for children, UNICEF—offers evidence of a steady and widespread fall in malnutrition. But the picture is still grim. Judged by measures such as the prevalence of “stunting” (when children are unusually short for their age) and “wasting” (when they weigh too little for their height), India is still vastly hungrier than Africa.”
The study referred to is the Rapid Survey on Children (RSOC) conducted in 2013-14. The Economist states that the study found a steady and secular fall in malnutrition across the states. The countrywide proportion of underweight children under five fell from 42.5% to below 30% in a decade. But some more prosperous states did relatively poorly compared to less prosperous states. For example, child hunger in Madhya Pradesh fell from 60% to 36%, and in Bihar from 56% to 37%, both relatively poor states. But a more prosperous Gujarat does worse than the national average: child hunger went from 44.6% to 33.5%.
Gujarat comes under special scrutiny in The Economist. That’s not surprising considering that it has a long-standing animosity against Narendra Modi, its erstwhile Chief Minister for a decade. Ahead of the 2014 general elections,The Economist declared (on April 5, 2014) that it was against India’s having Modi as its Prime Minister. Its overt animus towards Modi is long-standing and consistent. Following Modi’s resounding victory in the elections, it took the unprecedented step of justifying its stance in a convoluted piece on June 1, 2014 arguing that it was non-partisan and motivated by purely moral considerations. Reading it one suspects that the magazine doth protest too much.
Quite predictably, The Economist in this recent piece trots out Amartya Sen as its prime witness to the sins of Gujarat and Modi. They see eye to eye on what they perceive to be Modi’s grievous sins. Wherever and whenever it is even remotely possible, mention must be made of how terrible the BJP and Modi are. In essence this is grievance mongering taken to a high art.
The Economist notes that the RSOC report was finished by October 2014. It conjectures that the Modi government has not released it because it shows up Gujarat in a poor light. That is, the Modi government is self-serving. Perhaps I am naive and uninformed, but I have not found any institution not to be self-serving—and that goes double for The Economist when it comes to reporting about India. It doesmoutdo itself in gutter-inspector reporting: see its article of July 2014 on India’s sanitation and open defecation problem.
Notwithstanding The Economist’s clearly biased and probably maliciously motivated reporting, the matters of Indian child malnutrition and abysmal sanitation are horrifying and shameful. The causes of these—and other social ills—are for certain partly cultural but to a much larger extent it is economic. Indians are not like, say, the Japanese who are obsessively clean and fastidious. There are regional variations in the standards of cleanliness but overall the filth that Indians tolerate is hard to believe. There’s no denying that Indians are a dirty people. But it does not have to be this way.
Malnutrition, like child labor, is mostly an economic issue. It is not that poor parents care less for their children than rich parents. Choices are severely limited under poverty. These social problems are not endemic to India. They arise universally under conditions of material deprivation and poverty. There’s no denying that India is a desperately poor country. But it does not have to be this way.
The deeper issue that needs addressing is why is India unable to find its way out of persistent poverty. Granted that India’s population is unsustainably high given its natural resource endowment and the level of technology but the Indian economy performs far below its potential.
The factors that could have explained India’s poverty—massive external aggression, routine internal strife, devastating periodic natural disasters, widespread incapacity of the people to produce—are missing. The one factor that cannot be ruled out is systematic mismanagement of resources and large scale government malfeasance.
At the broadest level of analysis, poverty is a symptom or consequence of an imbalance between the amount of production and the number of people. Why doesn’t India produce enough for its needs? Could it be because Indians face barriers when they attempt to be productive? If so, what or who creates the barriers? Could it be the government?
The remarkable successes of the Indian diaspora suggest that perhaps India is poor because of government action/inaction. It’s the rules and regulations that Indians in India labor under that is the primary cause of India’s lack of progress. These “licence, control, permit, quota” rules and regulations originate in the British colonial era, which were made for the benefit of the British government and for the purposes of ruling a colonized people. Those did not change after 1947. Indians are nominally free, but in reality still oppressed by the government and its vast bureaucracy.
Until Indians become truly free of oppressive governance, India is doomed to be poor. But Indians are collectively responsible for the government India has. It is, after all, a democracy and therefore entirely responsible for its own fate. India’s suffering is entirely self-inflicted and thus avoidable through an act of will.
In the meanwhile, we should be reconciled to the tragedy of stunted and wasted children. India is a stunted and wasted country under the weight of an oppressive government.
Atanu Dey, Ph.D., is an economist. His blog “Atanu Dey on India’s Development” is at deeshaa.org. Connect on twitter @atanudey.