Analysis: India Must Boost Its Quality Of Human Capital

Analysis: India Must Boost Its Quality Of Human Capital

How is India faring on the human development stakes at a time when there is much talk about “civilisational resurgence”?

Patralekha ChatterjeeUpdated: Wednesday, March 20, 2024, 11:25 PM IST
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Representative Pic | Pixabay

As India gears up for general elections, possibly one of the most consequential, how does one frame the past decade? You can choose to view the country through the prism of the larger-than-life size presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in nearly every nook and corner, now even on our WhatsApp; through glitzy mega infrastructure projects — new roads, highways, airports, railway stations, bridges, hospital buildings — or through the slew of government schemes like Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana (PMJAY) and welfare measures like free foodgrain and subsidised cooking gas for the poor, packaged as ‘Modi ki guarantee’; or through status markers like India becoming the world’s fifth-largest economy and its rising geopolitical clout.

In a fluid, à-la-carte world where countries increasingly feel they no longer have to pick from a fixed menu of viewpoints, you can equally choose to assess India through its deepening fault lines, growing polarisation, status of minorities, through the eyes of the jobless and through stories of artists, writers, activists, journalists who feel edged out of the public square.

There is a third way of telling the India story: how is India faring on the human development stakes at a time when there is much talk about “civilisational resurgence” and when the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and its supporters pitch Hindutva as the centrepiece of the national identity?

Which brings me to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)’s latest Human Development Report (HDR) which notes that India has improved its ranking on ‘human development.’ For the first time, there is slight progress since India slipped in 2020 and 2021. Across key HDI indicators — life expectancy, education, and gross national income (GNI) per capita — India has improved. Titled Breaking the Gridlock: Reimagining Cooperation in a Polarized World, the report draws on data from 2022.

India’s HDI record is not great, given its impressive economic growth in recent decades and benchmarked against many other developing countries. Despite numerous government welfare schemes in the past decade and earlier, India’s current HDI rank is 134 out of 193 countries. India is sandwiched between Equatorial Guinea (133) and Micronesia (135). Many South Asian neighbours fare better — Bangladesh ranks 129, Bhutan 125 and Sri Lanka — despite its economic crisis — is at 78.

Moving on to Southeast Asia, Thailand is in the “very high human development” category — 66th out of 193. When disaggregated by gender, female HDI for Thailand (0.807) is higher than for male (0.798) — a development not seen in other countries, even among others in the "very high human development" category. And this is despite political turmoil in recent years, including stretches of military rule.

Vietnam, at present witnessing manufacturing and economic growth, ranks 107. Then there is China, the only country which matches India in scale. China’s HDI rank is now 75.

If you compare the present with the situation in 1990, as the UN report does, India has improved its record significantly. Since 1990, life expectancy at birth has risen by 9.1 years; expected years of schooling have increased by 4.6 years, and mean years of schooling have grown by 3.8 years.

India’s HDI story has an added layer — there are huge variations between states. Southern India is leagues ahead of most states in the northern part of the country. Politically crucial and populous states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar trail on human development.

The nub of the matter, however, is that other countries are running faster on human development. It is easy to see why.

“Thailand’s HDI value has always been impressive, for years now. I reckon it is a legacy of the first educational reforms and universal health care system implemented by the Thaksin Shinawatra government,” says Wannaphong Durongkaveroj, Assistant Professor of Economics, Ramkhamhaeng University, Bangkok. The “bold reforms in education and health”, as he puts it, kicked off more than 20 years ago.

Thailand has been implementing the 30-baht healthcare scheme launched in 2001 by then prime minister Shinawatra. It provides a fundamental right to all Thai citizens to access health services. Successive governments have not tinkered with this in any substantive way. Out-of-pocket medical expenses in Thailand (as percentage of current health expenditure) are far lower than in India.

However, Thailand is now facing problems seen in many developed countries, such as an ageing society and inequality in income and wealth, points out Wannaphong.

Education has been a key component of the economic transformation of Vietnam since the launch of Doi Moi (renovation) reforms, started in 1986 based on the fundamental understanding that for an economy to thrive, its people must have the relevant education, training and skills required to underpin business and power growth.

Vietnam has leveraged its demographic dividend by investing hugely in building up the capacity of its people. There have been consistent efforts to not only promote access to primary education but also to ensure its quality through minimum standards. In the 2022 OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which tests 15-year-olds in mathematics, reading and science, 72% of students in Vietnam attained at least Level 2 proficiency in mathematics (OECD average: 69%), some 77% of students attained Level 2 or higher in reading (OECD average: 74%) and about 79% of students attained Level 2 or higher in science (OECD average: 76%).

Troublingly, in India, human development is a lower priority than development of physical infrastructure which are visible and therefore politically easier to sell.

“The assumption is that infrastructure alone delivers human development. But infrastructure cannot guarantee better health, education, and well-being, as Amartya Sen’s work reminds us,” says Indrajit Roy, professor, Global Development Politics, University of York.

On the eve of elections, ordinary Indians are entitled to ask why 35% of Indian children younger than five years old are stunted after more than three decades of strong growth. Or why a quarter of youth in the 14-18 age group are unable to read a standard II level text fluently in their regional language, as the latest Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) tells us.

“…The quality of our human capital, more than our bridges and airports,” will “determine how rapidly we ascend the development ladder,” observe Raghuram Rajan and Rohit Lamba in their 2023 book, Breaking the Mould: Reimagining India's Economic Future. Human capital will be key, whether Indian businesses choose to focus on manufacturing or services. As the authors point out, the space for low-skilled or unskilled labour is shrinking rapidly.

Without a huge leap in the capabilities of ordinary Indians, ‘Viksit Bharat’ will remain a pipe dream.

Patralekha Chatterjee is a writer and columnist who spends her time in South and Southeast Asia, and looks at modern-day connects between the two adjacent regions. X: @Patralekha2011

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