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UNDP human development report focuses on India's mixed record

G. Srinivasan

New Delhi , Sept. 8

THAT India ranked 127th in the 2005 Human Development Report of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) focussing on three measurable dimensions - living a long and healthy life, being educated and having a decent standard of living - is a testimony to the mixed record of economic reform the country embraced in 1991.

The report credits India as a success story for globalisation by dint of moving into the premier league of world economic growth with high technology exports booming. The incidence of income poverty has fallen from 36 per cent in the early 1990s to somewhere between 25 and 30 per cent today. Even as exact figures are widely disputed due to problems with survey data, the report contends that overall "the evidence suggests that the pick-up growth has not translated into a commensurate decline in poverty".

What is disturbing is that improvements in child and infant mortality are slowing down and India is now off-track for these millennium development goals.

The report cites the paradoxical situation where some of India's southern cities might be in the midst of a technology boom, but one in every eleven Indian children dies in the first five years of life for lack of "low-technology, low cost interventions. Malnutrition, which has barely improved over the past decade, affects half the country's children. About one in 4 girls and more than one in 10 boys do not attend primary school."

Explaining the conundrum of why accelerated income growth not propelled India onto a faster poverty reduction tack, the report said extreme poverty is concentrated in rural areas of the northern poverty-belt States including Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, while income growth has been most dynamic in other States, urban areas and services sectors. Rural poverty has fallen rapidly in Gujarat and Tamil Nadu but less progress has been achieved in the Northern States. At a national level, rural unemployment is rising, agricultural output is increasing at less than two per cent a year, farm wages are stagnating and growth is virtually "jobless", the report observes.

The deeper problem plaguing India is its human development legacy. Pervasive gender inequalities, interacting with rural poverty and inequalities between States are undermining the potential for translating growth into human development. Illustrating this, it said girls aged 1-5 are 50 per cent more likely to die than boys which translates into 1,30,000 "missing" girls. If India closed the gender gap in mortality between girls and boys aged 1-5 that would save an estimated 1.30 lakh lives, reducing its overall child mortality rate by 5 per cent. About one-third of India's children are under weight at birth, reflecting poor maternal health.

Stating that inadequate public health provision exacerbates vulnerability, only 42 per cent of children are fully immunised as revealed by national health surveys, even 15 years had elapsed after universal childhood immunisation was introduced. Coverage is lowest in the States with the highest child death rates and less than 20 per cent in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The report rightly rebukes India that it might be "a world leader in computer software services, but when it comes to basic immunisation services for children in poor rural areas, the record is less impressive".

Noting that state inequalities interact with gender and income-based inequalities, it said States such as Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh are marked by some of the deepest gender inequalities. It said girls born in Kerala are five times more likely to reach their fifth birthday, are twice as likely to become literate and are likely to live 20 years longer than girls born in Uttar Pradesh.

The report stated that translating economic success into human development advances would require public policies aimed explicitly at broadening the distribution of benefits from growth and global integration, increased public investment in rural areas and services and political leadership to end poor governance and address the underlying causes of gender inequality.

While taking note of the $1.5 billion National Rural Health Mission targeting some three lakh villages to raise public health spending from 0.9 per cent of national income to 2.3 per cent and also spending on education, the report aptly counsels that converting enhanced outlays into improved outcomes would demand "a stronger focus on effective delivery and measures to improve the quality of public services".

So the outlay versus outcome motto matters now more than ever before if India is to make tangible success in human development initiatives. That is the long and short of this year's UNDP report on human development index in India.

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