POLITICS

Why UNDP's Human Development Report Ends Up Presenting A Skewed Image Of India

The indices mean nothing in terms of real human development.

24/03/2017 12:30 PM IST | Updated 24/03/2017 1:29 PM IST
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On Wednesday, yet another annual Human Development Report (HDR) of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) stated that India is ranked rather poorly in achieving "human development" — at 131 in a list of 188 countries — and that it slipped down one place compared to last year. It also said that the country is way behind two small island nations in its poor neighbourhood, such as Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

For India, and many others, it's an annual name and shame game in which they are told which class they belong to — whether they are with the Nordic and Western countries, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, Bolivia and Bangladesh, or Nepal and Benin. Beyond that, it doesn't really matter, because any measurement of development doesn't change in a year. A listing every five or ten years would have made more sense.

It's not some sort of annual sweepstakes as it's made out to be, particularly by the media. Class change takes a much longer time.

For India, and many others, it's an annual name and shame game in which they are told which class they belong to

But the real futility of the annual exercise by the HDR is something else — aggregating development progress in a big, populous, and diverse country such as India and comparing it with tiny islands such as the Maldives, inhabited by about 350,000 people. It's misleading and patently incorrect because India's development record is spread over a spectrum — at one end, there is Kerala that is as good as Malaysia, and at the other is Chattisgarh that is worse than Eritrea. In fact, nothing misleads development in India as much as the Human Development Index (HDI) of the HDR because Indian identity is certainly not the lens to look at how Indians live.

The India Human Development Report prepared by the Institute of Applied Manpower Research for Planning Commission in 2011 demonstrates this futility. According to this report, among the Indian states, Kerala tops the list with an HDI of 0.790 followed by Delhi at 0.750. According to the HDR standards, they belong to the high human development category. Six states have HDI ranging between 0.652 and 0.570, which essentially put them in the category of medium human development. The rest of the states are of low human development.

Nothing misleads development in India as much as the Human Development Index of the HDR because Indian identity is certainly not the lens to look at how Indians live

In fact, eight states in the national HDR (although it's six years old, the indices couldn't have dramatically changed because the development indicators haven't) are comparable to the 20 countries at the bottom of the HDI list of UNDP. Had Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa and Chattisgarh been separate countries, they would have been placed between the Central African Republic and Eritrea at the bottom of the list.

Except the seven states and the Northeast, excluding Assam, the rest of India, which, in fact, is the bulk of India, belongs to the low — or rather very low — human development category. Most of them deserve to be in the company of the bottom 25 of the HDI list of the HDR. In other words, the HDR conceals this predominant story of low human development by aggregating and homogenising India into a medium human development country. In the process, it also does a disservice to the shining stars of Indian development, such as Kerala, Delhi, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab and Goa.

A few years ago, UNDP spoke of a language of localisation when it was peddling Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). MDGs was the alternative expression for development and the push was for localising — both in terms of devising policies and programmes as well as for measuring them, although what the world still saw were aggregate figures.

Except the seven states and the Northeast, excluding Assam, the rest of India ... belongs to the low — or rather very low — human development category

To be meaningful, HDI should be localised because for countries such as India, it's the states that make all the difference. As Article One of the Constitution says, India is a union of states, and that's how it's governed. The Seventh schedule of the Constitution lists the subjects that the states and the federal government (the Centre) should govern separately and together. The elements that make up the HDI, such as life expectancy, education and income levels, are primarily the concern of the states and if they slacken, people live poor quality lives. If the states do well, their people also do well. The Centre or its countless national programmes don't make a dent.

The measure of good health, education and income is also a measure of good governance and progressive socio-political legacies. It's not something that the federal Indian government can achieve, but only the states and their people can. If the government of India indeed had an effective role, the poor HDI states in India, such as Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Assam, wouldn't have stayed where they have been for years. If governance cannot be aggregated, how can its results be?

To be meaningful, HDI should be localised because for countries such as India, it's the states that make all the difference

To get a sense of the real progress of India, what the world needs to see is not the composite HDI that makes India look honourable as a medium human development country, despite some of the worst development indicators in the world, but the state of play in the states. Not a single central scheme or policy can irreversibly lift people out of poverty — not even the NREGA — and improve the overall human development indicators unless the states are serious about transformative socio-political changes and good governance.

Clubbing India with countries with a million population or less, and terming it as the third largest economy in the world, are both ridiculous because they mean nothing in terms of real human development.

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