India and its Contradictions

India’s contradiction is a rapidly growing economy with lagging social indicators. Though the country is straggling towards the middle-income status, fully half if its population defecates in the open and its immunization rates are amongst the lowest in South Asia. Sen and Dreze believe that it is important to draw attention to India’s failings so that we do not become complacent. And they do an admirable job in painting the picture of some of country’s failings.

India’s two failings are: persistence of mass poverty and the failure of the government to provide social services such as adequate nutrition, basic health services, and elementary education to the poor. The authors attribute these failing to (1) stingy public outlays for such provisions (2) ineptitude and corruption in such provision

They make a convincing case that the public outlays for such provisions are indeed stingy but comparing India’s expenditures to those of other countries. But their remedies for the ineptitude and corruption leave much to be desired. Their remedy is basically greater public scrutiny of government’s practices by common people and the media. Right now, Sen and Dreze believe, the media is not covering the government’s failings to the extent that it should. Instead it gives disproportionate coverage to celebrity gossip and issues of interest to the middle class. If the media would be more vigilant and shine the spotlight more frequently on failings of governance that are responsible for the lagging social indicators, people would more frequently hold their government accountable for such failings. Thus their remedy is moral suasion.

Moral suasion, important as it is, needs to be buttressed by major policy changes. The authors give a short shrift to proposals made my many others for greater privatization of public services. The authors contend that private sector cannot be the solution to these problems because there is very little money to be made by serving the poor. But in contending so, the authors ignore massive evidence of successful private provision of such services to the poor that the advocates are basing their arguments upon. For example, the education researcher James Tooley has made this career by uncovering the operation and effective delivery of Affordable Private Schools (APS) in the slums of poor countries around the world. Instead of considering such evidence as an invitation to consider alternative models of delivery, the authors use the theory of market failure to argue the impossibility of effective provision of food and healthcare to the poor!

The book is a great reference for learning about the failings of economic development in India. But as a source for effective proposals, it falls short.

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