Rejecting GDP as measure of growth, University of Chicago scholar wonders if Gujarat could be called developmental model

marthaBy Counterview Desk

Well-known University of Chicago scholar, Martha C Nussbaum, a “distinguished service professor of law and ethics”, writing in the context of India’s recent Lok Sabha elections, “fought” on the plank of “development”,  has said that human development should be treated more than gross domestic product of a country. The scholar says, the question as to what is development becomes relevant is Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister, is being “touted as a hero of development policy because of his record in promoting economic growth in Gujarat.” She insists, “it’s time to rehearse again the arguments that have led leading development thinkers all over the world, from the United Nations Development Programme to the World Bank, to reject growth as an adequate measure of development and to prefer, in its place, what is now known as the ‘Human Development’ paradigm.”

Nussbaum quotes well known economist Mahbub Ul Haq, who wrote in 1990, in the first of the “Human Development Reports” of the United Nations Development Programme: “The real wealth of a nation is its people. And the purpose of development is to create an enabling environment for people to enjoy long, healthy, and creative lives. This simple but powerful truth is too often forgotten in the pursuit of material and financial wealth.” She comments, “This is not a partisan political statement, it is an evident truth of human life. Development is about people and their lives. Rightly understood, it is a normative concept: it means that those lives are getting better.”

Rejecting the “growth-based model of development” which measures development simply by looking to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita, Nussbaum says, “First of all, even if we want an average measure that is a single number, a strategy I’ll shortly call into question—it’s far from obvious that average GDP is the right number… The GDP doesn’t as adequately capture the daily perspective, because the profits of foreign investment can be repatriated by the foreign country in ways that don’t necessarily change the lives of the people in the nation in which they invest.”

“Furthermore”, she says, “a crude measure like average GDP is a measure of the stuff that is around. It does not tell us who has it or what it is doing. Above all, it tells us nothing about distribution. It can thus give high marks to nations or States that contain alarming inequalities. For example, South Africa under apartheid used to shoot to the top of the development tables, despite the fact that a large majority of its people were unable to enjoy the fruits of the nation’s overall prosperity. So too with States within nations: a high average GDP is compatible with enormous inequalities, and attention to average GDP positively distracts attention from those inequalities.”

Citing another shortcoming of approaches based on economic growth, she says, “Even when distribution is factored in, they fail to examine aspects of the quality of a human life that are not very well correlated with growth. Research and real-life experimentation show clearly that promoting growth does not automatically improve people’s health, their education, their opportunities for political participation, or the opportunities of women to protect their bodily integrity from rape and domestic violence. And since we are talking of growth in the world’s largest democracy, we might well ask for yet more: the cultivation of informed and critical citizenship, the ability to engage in public debate with active curiosity and trained critical capacities, not merely some dogmas learned by rote.”

At the same time, Nussbaum says, “Nor is the Human Development Index, which is typically the first table in the annual Human Development Reports, the true alternative proposal. The HDI, an aggregate measure that includes education, GDP, and longevity in accordance with a complex formula, was always simply an attention-getting device. By placing the accent on education and health, the HDI shows that new rankings emerge, different from those produced by attention to GDP alone. But the HDI was always supposed to be an appetizer, so to speak, not the entire meal. Piqued by the appetizer, one should then read on, and several hundred pages of tables would then report many other ‘human capabilities’—and their absence.”

Gujarat “model”

Given this framework, Nussbaum proposes to look at the issue of human development from what she calls “Central Human Capabilities”, Consisting of 10 paradigms, she insists on the need to shift from the “space of comparison from growth alone to the framework of human opportunity, with a strong focus on distribution and social equality”. It is this context that she seeks to examine, in this context “Narendra Modi’s Gujarat”. Nussbaum  says, “Measured by the growth paradigm, its achievements are strong indeed. The growth rate of per capita SDP (State Domestic Product) between 2000 and 2011 averages 8.2 percent, higher than any other State excepting Uttarakhand (10.0). Other high performers, close behind Gujarat, are Tamil Nadu (7.5), Kerala (7.0), and Maharashtra (7.5).”

But she stresses, “If, however, we begin to examine distribution, things immediately look very different. Gujarat’s rate of rural poverty is 26.7 percent, of urban poverty 17.9 percent; the combined poverty rate is 23.0 percent. Of the high economic performers, Maharashtra does worse, but Uttarakhand, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala do much better, with combined rates of poverty of 18 percent, 17.1 percent and 12.0 percent respectively. Moreover, the following States, not such stellar economic performers, have lower combined rates of poverty than Gujarat: Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, and Punjab.”

Looking this “more closely”, she says, “Gujarat has life expectancy at birth of 64.9 years for males, 69.0 years for females. The figures for Tamil Nadu are 70.9 (female) and 67.1 (male), for Kerala 76.9 (female) and 71.5 (male). Lest we ascribe these differences to climate or genes, quite a few other States also outperform Gujarat: these include Maharashtra, Haryana, Punjab, Karnataka, and West Bengal. In infant mortality and maternal mortality, Gujarat also lags well behind the two southern States and quite a few others. In maternal mortality, indeed, Gujarat has the high rate of 148 deaths per 100,000 live births, as compared with just 81 for Kerala and 97 for Tamil Nadu. So: comparable growth achievements, utterly disparate health outcomes.”

She further says, “The health data for Gujarat are distressing in general, particularly given the State’s wealth; but signs of discrimination against females are equally disturbing. The same discrepancy registers in the sex ratio. Roughly speaking, demographers estimate that when equal nutrition and health care are present, and when sex-selective abortion is absent, we should expect 102 females to 100 males. Alone in India, Kerala comes close to this balanced ratio, at 1,084 women to 1,000 males: it’s the only State where females outnumber males. But in Gujarat the figure is unusually low: 918 to 1,000.”

She adds, “Only a few States do worse: Bihar, Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, and Uttar Pradesh. That’s it. Even Rajasthan, with its long history of discrimination against females, performs better, with 926 females to 1,000 males. And most States are way above that, though below Kerala: in Tamil Nadu, for example, the figure is 995, in Odisha 978, in Andhra Pradesh 992. This is not a problem that originates with government: its roots are complex and cultural. But what has the Gujarat State government done to address it? We may search for an answer, but we will not find one.

Turning to education, Nussbaum  says, “it’s the same story, only more so. The literacy rate (of people above age 7) in Gujarat is 70.7 percent for females, 87.2 percent for males; in Kerala the figures are 92 and 96 percent respectively, in Tamil Nadu, 73.9 and 86.8 (showing a relative failure of that State in comparison with Kerala). Once again, the aggregate achievement of Gujarat is weak, but the gender discrepancy is particularly striking. The proportion of non-literate persons in the age group 15-19 is, in Gujarat, 16.3 for females, 7.4 for males; in Kerala, 0.9 for females, 0.8 for males; in Tamil Nadu, 2.5 for females, 1.3 for males (so the shortfall in earlier years is made up later on).”

She adds, “The following States also have higher female adolescent literacy than Gujarat: Assam, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Punjab, Uttarakhand, and West Bengal. Turning to the proportion of the population who have had at least eight years of schooling: in Gujarat, it is 52.6 percent for women, 61.2 per ent for men; in Kerala, 93.6 percent for women, 87.1 percent for men, in Tamil Nadu 74.4 percent for women, 73.6 percent for men. Other high performers are Andhra Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Punjab, and Uttarakhand.”

Beyond the “bare bones of education”, Nussbaum says, “If we want to know how well students are equipped by their education to take part in public debate, we will find much to distress us all over India, with the infamous and continued dominance of rote learning. But Gujarat’s schools have a special tradition of encouraging groupthink and docility, while discouraging critical thinking. Is this reputation unearned? If not, what steps are being taken to promote the active and critical use of the mind? Even if we should decide to ignore citizenship, as we should not, the skill of critical thinking is essential for a healthy business culture.”

Asking what does Gujarat have to say here, she answers, “Quite apart from the fact that Modi has not even apologised for the depiction of Adolf Hitler as a hero in State textbooks, despite years of national and international protest, he has not even come forward to describe the steps his allegedly forward-looking State has taken or is planning to emulate those business models and, at the same time, to foster active citizenship. We can surely forgive underperformance, since correcting such deficiencies takes time. But if the leader does not confront and acknowledge the deficiencies and formulate a constructive plan to address them, things are unlikely to change for the better.”

Nussbaum wonders, “What is the explanation for Gujarat’s low performance in health and education, in contrast with Tamil Nadu and Kerala, which have comparable rates of economic growth? Clearly, it is the superior quality of public services, particularly in health care and education, in those two States. This is a story often told, and the remarkable fact that Kerala has achieved a life expectancy comparable to that of inner-city New York is by now world-famous (shameful for the United States, glorious for Kerala). Kerala’s stellar achievements in literacy and in gender equality are also discussed everywhere, and Tamil Nadu comes very close.

She concludes, “The history of the south is different from that of Gujarat, and many aspects of culture and tradition are different, so one is comparing against a different baseline. But one thing that surely helps is that the south has resolutely refused the politics of religious division, which surely distracts attention from other matters.”

— Rajiv Shah


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