Indian policymakers may be a bit premature in applauding themselves over the findings of the recently released Human Development Report (HDR) 2003, which commends the country's significant contribution towards achieving the first Millennium Development Goal of halving the proportion of poor people in the world by 2015, as well as making remarkable progress towards decentralization in some states.
HDR 2003 highlights that India, home to one in six of the world's people, has achieved great progress on most fronts. Poverty has been dramatically reduced and improvements made in education for both males and females. There has also been tremendous improvement, it says, in gender literacy gaps, particularly in the states of Madhya Pradesh and to some extent in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
Noting the progress in health and education, the report says the southern state of Kerala has health indicators similar to those of the US, despite a per capita income 99 per cent lower than the US, and annual spending on health of $28 per person!
Despite the apparent signs of India's sustained progress on the human development index (HDI) and the gender related development index (GDI), social activists and researchers caution against complacence. They say there are clear indications in HDR 2003 that India is not doing enough or
doing it fast enough to improve the human condition of its people.
The annual report, brought out by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) since 1990, explores major issues of global concern and the progress made by countries in human development and well being.
The HDI is a summary measure of three dimensions of human development, namely living a long and healthy life, being educated and having a decent standard of living while GDI captures gender inequalities in human capabilities.
In the HDR list, not only is India ranked a low 127 out of 175 countries with regard to performance on social indicators such as life expectancy, literacy and so on, its ranking has also fallen three notches since last year. K C Pant, Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, Government of
India, is quick to point out that the country's ranking has fallen mainly due to the addition of two new nations in this year's list - Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Occupied Palestinian Territories - and that Botswana has moved up above India as compared to last year.
However, the fact that India's ranking continues to remain so low indicates how much more work needs to be done. According to human rights activist Joseph Gathia of the Delhi-based NGO, Centre of Concern for Child Labor (CCFCL), the report indicates that a peaceful, social environment is very
important before we launch major socio-economic programs.
"Indian states which were more communally peaceful have shown better results in social development. This is clear in the case of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh despite their high poverty levels," he observes. The UNDP report makes special mention of education policies in these two states that have delivered results. The states of Kerala, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh also find mention for having brought significant improvements as a result of successful decentralization.
The report shows that in many countries, women, the rural poor and ethnic minorities do not get their fair share of increased social spending. Data shows patterns of discrimination in terms of access to education, healthcare, safe water and sanitation. Referring to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) the report argues that gender equality is at the core of whether the goals will be achieved.
By 2015, all 191 United Nations Member States have pledged to: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; achieve universal primary education; promote gender equality and empower women; reduce child mortality; improve maternal health; combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; ensure environmental sustainability; and develop a global partnership for development.
The MDGs are based on the premise that economic growth alone will not rescue the world from the poverty that entraps more than one billion people. Without addressing issues like malnutrition and illiteracy that are both causes and symptoms of poverty, the goals will not be met, stresses the report. Referring to the statistics today, it says over 13 million children have died through diarrhoea in the past decade.
Each year, over half a million women - one for every minute of the day - die in pregnancy and childbirth while more than 800 million suffer from malnutrition. One clear indicator of the gender crisis is the gap in mortality rates between men and women. Despite women's biological advantage, they have higher mortality rates in several countries, mainly in South and East Asia.
The report mentions the "missing women" phenomenon or females estimated to have died due to discrimination in access to health and nutrition. Improvements have occurred in Bangladesh, Pakistan and most Arab States. Yet, there have been only small improvements in India and deterioration in China, it points out.
Women activists here have expressed dissatisfaction with the data regarding gender, dismissing these as old wine in a new bottle. "There is nothing new in the data on declining sex ratios or discriminatory practices, resulting in a fatigue of reading," complains Ranjana Kumari of the Centre for Social Research (CSR), a Delhi-based NGO working on women's rights.
She feels the report has not clearly outlined the linkages between female feticide and female infanticide to the declining sex ratios and stresses the need for more gender-disaggregated data.
According to Gathia, children and elderly people - two major segments of population - have not been taken into consideration while preparing data for the report. "About 40 per cent of the population in Asia is under 18 years of age, but the report makes no linkages between adolescents and development programs," he claims.
On the flipside, there is appreciation that the report has taken to task rich countries - asking them to honor their commitments to deliver financing for development. "For a change, the report is looking at the old debate of fixing the responsibility of developed nations," notes Kumari. "The voluntary concept has not worked and developed nations look at aid in terms of trade benefits."
Meanwhile, Pant says that for the first time, India's Tenth Five-Year Plan has put forward certain quantifiable human development related targets, especially for poverty, employment and social and environmental indicators. "These are in many ways more ambitious than the Millennium targets, but we are committed to ensure their attainment."