By JYOTI THOTTAM
Published: September 6, 2013
In late June, a television reporter named Narayan Pargaien spent three days in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand to cover the region’s devastating monsoon floods, which have killed more than 5,700 people. Like most journalists covering the disaster, Pargaien dutifully described families who had lost everything, including their modest thatch-roofed homes. Unlike most journalists, Pargaien reported from the scene while perched on the shoulders of a flood victim in the middle of a swollen river. As the outrage poured in, Pargaien tried to explain himself. In an interview with the Indian Web site Newslaundry, he said the man who carried him had insisted upon it. “He was grateful to us and wanted to show me some respect,” Pargaien said, “as it was the first time someone of my level had visited his house.”
AN UNCERTAIN GLORY
India and Its Contradictions
By Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen
434 pp. Princeton University Press. $29.95.
The India captured in that image — a preening consumer economy built on the backs of the destitute — is the subject of “An Uncertain Glory,” a new book by the economists Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen that aims to bring the poor to the center of public discussion about the country’s future. It’s an urgent, passionate, political work that makes the case that India cannot move forward without investing significantly — as every other major industrialized country has already done — in public services: “The lack of health care, tolerably good schools and other basic facilities important for human well-being and elementary freedoms, keeps a majority of Indians shackled to their deprived lives in a way quite rarely seen in other self-respecting countries that are trying to move ahead in the world.”
Sen, who won the Nobel in economic science in 1998, and Drèze, his longtime collaborator, begin by retelling the story of India’s recent economic boom. They show that, leaving aside per capita income, which has grown impressively, India is actually falling behind its neighbors in South Asia — never mind America, Europe and China — in every social indicator that matters, from literacy to child malnutrition to access to toilets. The chapter on the country’s woeful schools is a welcome corrective to the idea of India as a nation of brilliant, job-stealing engineers. In fact, large numbers of Indian primary-school students are unable to write a simple sentence or do basic arithmetic. In an alarming chapter on health, Drèze and Sen point out that while the Taliban’s opposition to polio vaccines in Pakistan has rightly created an international furor, there is scant attention paid to India’s dismal rates of child immunization, which are among the lowest in the world, “even without a Taliban.”
These comparisons are rhetorical tools; the authors use them to show that India’s problems can’t be attributed to culture or democracy or a lack of tax revenue. Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka are all messy, multiparty democracies with deeply conservative religious traditions and legacies of colonial oppression. And yet, with fewer resources, they have made solid progress in improving health and education while India stagnates.
So what’s the problem? According to Drèze and Sen, even though the poor constitute a vast majority of Indian voters, they have been shut out of public discourse. “What a democratic system achieves depends largely on what issues are brought into political engagement,” they write. That’s why “An Uncertain Glory” directs so much of its criticism toward the “celebratory media,” the proliferation of satellite channels and newspapers dominated by breathless gossip about cricketers, billionaires and Bollywood stars and point-scoring among the political elite. The Indian media are not unique in their love of froth and scandal, but the stakes are higher when these news outlets set the agenda for a country with “the largest population of seriously undernourished people in the world.”
As if to prove their point, coverage of the book in India, where it was published in July, has been dominated by the “feud” between Drèze and Sen, champions of the poor, and the economists Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya, co-authors of “Why Growth Matters” and champions of market deregulation, who argue that too much spending on social welfare programs might derail economic growth. But it would be a mistake to read “An Uncertain Glory” as a screed against liberalization. This book is something bigger, a heartfelt plea to rethink what progress in a poor country ought to look like. What difference does it make, the authors ask, to lift millions above some notional poverty line if they still lack the basics of a decent life? That is the paradox at the heart of Katherine Boo’s best seller “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum” — it isn’t simply want of money that makes the slum dwellers of Annawadi miserable; it’s being trapped in a system that’s rigged against them.
While Drèze and Sen have called for investing in social welfare before, this book comes at a crucial time. Ineffectiveness and corruption plague India’s public sector, but recent data show that when it comes to health and education, outcomes in the private sector are no better. “There is a real need for pragmatism here,” they write, “and to avoid both the crushing inefficiency of market denial . . . and the pathology of ideological marketization.”
In the interest of pragmatism, Drèze and Sen might have devoted more thought to how to make India’s existing social-welfare initiatives work better. They describe successes in a few forward-thinking states, but it is not clear how to replicate those results on a national scale. The section on discrimination against girls — an issue on which Sen is an unquestioned expert — also cries out for a more prescriptive analysis. When even girls’ education seems to have no effect on gender inequality, what’s left?
Still, the value of “An Uncertain Glory” is its wide-angle view. In a sense, Drèze and Sen are playing a role similar to that of Narayan Pargaien’s cameraman. The shot intended for broadcast was supposed to show only the reporter with flood as background — viewers were never meant to see the man beneath him. But the anonymous cameraman pulled back to reveal the big, unflattering picture. Such small acts of conscience can enrich public reasoning enormously; India, as this important book argues, needs many more of them.