The United Nations (UN) report on progress in attaining the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that countries set for themselves paints a disappointing picture of slow improvement. While the report acknowledges that gains have been made in areas like poverty reduction, elementary education, child health and drinking water supply in several parts of the developing world, these are not always on track and more can clearly be done. The report recognises that there has been a setback in hunger mitigation in recent years due to the sharp spike in food prices in 2008 and on account of the impact of the global economic crisis. Jobs have been lost, and economic access to food has been curbed.
Despite the gains made, says the report, half of the developing countries’ population still lacks essential sanitary facilities like toilets or latrines and that fewer girls than boys go to preliminary schools and far fewer to middle schools and above. On the upside, the report hails the drop in the proportion of the population subsisting on less than $1.25 (in constant terms) from 46 per cent in the base year of 1990 to 27 per cent in 2005 and the expectation that it will go down further to 15 per cent by the target year 2015, meeting the most critical millennium development goal.
Coming ahead of the UN summit this September in New York to review progress on MDGs and prepare an agenda for future action, this report seems somewhat unfair to India by not taking adequate note of its significant initiatives in the social sector. The lack of due appreciation of India’s achievements may partly be due to its geographical positioning, being in South Asia, which is home to some of the socio-economically most underdeveloped — and some even truly backward — countries of the world. This region has virtually been rated at par with or, in some cases, worse than Sub-Saharan Africa. Only in the case of poverty alleviation has India been singled out through the recognition that it is likely to slash its poverty rate from 51 per cent in 1990 to 24 per cent in 2015, while the rest of South Asia is set to miss the target in this key area.
On health, while it is true that the public health sector, especially in rural India, is still in a state of disrepair, despite the best efforts of a national rural health mission, the fact is that the mortality rate among children and mothers at child birth is gradually declining which, perhaps, is not the case in some other countries of this region. Even on hunger, India’s recent record is better than what is claimed. The UN report may be correct in pointing out that in south Asia, as a region, the level of hunger has reverted back to 1990, but its categorical assertion that the region, and India, will not be able to meet the millennium goal seems premature. But, it is a good warning to governments, both state and Central, to get their act together in delivering on the promise of ‘inclusive growth’.
Part of the problem is with data and part with measurement. The processes of inclusive growth have, over the past half a decade, made an impact on basic human development indicators. If the numbers do not bear this out the problem lies in large part with the poverty of estimation. The country’s statistical system is in disrepair and does not capture the full reality of development in the era of inclusive growth. The numbers on poverty suffer from the poverty of numbers.