An Uncertain Glory: Dreze and Sen’s fantastic introduction to India and its Contradictions

December 5, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

India dominates many debates on development – home to a third of the world’s absolute (<$1.25 a day) poor, the world’s biggest democracy, anan uncertain glory--621x414 emerging power with a space programme, a buzzing beehive of political and social activism and experimentation. With their new book, An Uncertain Glory, Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen have given us a brilliant introduction to India’s political and economic ferment, setting out a powerful manifesto on what is wrong with the country, and what needs to change.

The model of change set out in the book combines active citizenship (Dreze’s speciality – he has been centrally involved in some of India’s most renowned social victories, such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, NREGA – with a commitment to democracy as an act of public reasoning (Sen’s stock in trade).

If I have one criticism of the book, it is with this model of change. It reads a bit like a traditional NGO treatise (OK, rather better researched): here’s the problem, here’s the solution. Now get on with it. Lots of policies, but not much on the politics of how such ideas might come to fruition.

The book sees the drivers of change as expanding education (albeit slower than elsewhere), progressive legislation such as the Right to Information Act, corruption-curbing technology, decentralization and long term shifts in social norms. But the dualism between (good) citizens and (bad/lazy/venal) politicians remains pretty stark: beyond citizen action and public debate, not much sense of how such social and political earthquakes might occur – who are the allies in positions of power? Why so little on religion as both a driver and blocker of change? What coalitions are feasible? What critical junctures may be needed to disrupt the political stasis? What, in short are the politics of successful reform?

China v IndiaThe commitment to an activist form of democracy is picked up in one of the book’s intellectual threads – the comparison between China and India, not on who’s going to be the big superpower (left), but on social progress.

India’s commitment to democracy was a unique experiment in such a poor country and has both been an achievement in itself, and a means of avoiding the famines that have characterized autocracies, including China (one of Sen’s most famous contributions has been to show that democracy leads to the avoidance of famine). But beyond that, when it comes to ending poverty and ensuring the right to everything from decent education to flush toilets, China has been far more successful.

Dreze and Sen focus on inequality, delving into India’s ‘unique cocktail of lethal divisions and disparities’– class, gender, caste, religion (see yesterday’s post for their brilliant overview on caste).

The over-riding feature of this inequality, both as symptom and cause, is the ‘Indian folly’ of an abysmal education system. There is a fantastic quote from Tagore: ‘the imposing tower of misery that today rests on the heart of India has its sole foundation in the absence of education’. The origins of the education crisis go all the way back to independence – India’s first five year plan in 1951 favoured self-financing handicraft as the best way for poor children to learn.

An Uncertain Glory explores India’s miserable underperformance on health and education relative to neighbours such as Bangladesh and Nepal, even while its economy has grown much faster. Over 40% of India’s kids are underweight, compared to 25% in Sub-Saharan Africa, yet children’s weights did not improve during a growth surge from 1998-2005 and anaemia even increased. It takes a particular brand of incompetence and neglect for decades of stellar growth to have no apparent impact on India’s sky-high levels of under-nutrition.

The disparity with Bangladesh is in large part down to the position of women, combined with a focus on basic health care and elementary education. Some stats: Proportion of households practicing open defecation – India 55%; Bangladesh 8%. Proportion of fully immunized 1-2 year olds: India 44%; Bangladesh 82%. I would love to read the equivalent book on how Bangladesh has so comprehensively outperformed its giant neighbour. Any suggestions?

Regional variations within India provide just as much ammunition to social reformers. Kerala’s track record is well established, but Tamil Nadu is if anything even more impressive. On issues such as missing women (the result of the increasing use of sex-selective abortion), there is a diagonal fault line dividing India between progressive, effective states to the East and South, and the opposite in the West and North.

An Uncertain Glory covers all the standard issues – social protection, targeting v universalism, cash transfers v food, private v public, but also a few non-usual suspects, (energy, the role of the media) and is a goldmine of killer facts for activists. The writing is more punchy and accessible than Sen’s normally pretty unfathomable prose – presumably down to Dreze’s influence as an activist and ‘organic intellectual’.

The book ends with a wonderful quote from Ambrose Bierce: ‘Patience is a minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue’. To those impatient with India’s failure to turn democracy and growth into a new life for hundreds of millions of its citizens, this book will be a godsend.