Unequal: Why India Lags Behind its Neighbours (Book Review)

March 22, 2024

     By Duncan Green     

If you’re in the development world, you may have seen passing reference to the apparent anomaly that India, the giant of South Asia, has been overtaken in terms of social progress by Bangladesh, its poorer and slower-growing neighbour. You may vaguely put it down to religion, or (lack of) caste, or Bangladesh’s vibrant NGO scene.

Unequal: Why India Lags Behind its Neighbours, by Swati Narayan (full disclosure, she’s a friend and former Exfam colleague) , goes much deeper than that, adding depth and texture as she lays out the findings of 5 years of PhD research that included a close reading of the history of India’s Eastern neighbours (Nepal as well as Bangladesh) and the ‘southern supermodels’ on India’s southern tip – both in India (Tamil Nadu, Kerala) and Sri Lanka.

Into the mix she throws the results of her in-depth surveys of 80 cross border villages. It’s a huge piece of work that feels like a near-definitive explanation of India’s underperformance/its neighbours achievements.

The style is captivating (especially for something that began as a PhD! 😉), blending first hand reportage (the book opens with Bangladeshi villagers laughing that they can see their counterparts on the Indian side of the border still taking a dump in the open fields, when the Bangladeshis all have home toilets), burrowing into the different histories, showing a great analytical eye for the right questions to ask (and answer) – ‘why are even strangers in Nepal so willing to help one another? Why does the government invest so consistently in schools, textbooks and teachers? Did the Maoist People’s War really reduce caste inequalities?’

It reminds me a bit of Yuen Yuen Ang’s great book on How China Escaped the Poverty Trap, also based on her PhD. I guess those years of deep, even obsessive immersive study are a unique chance to dig into a question in such massive depth – shame more of them don’t result in such readable, ground-breaking books……

So what does she find? Over the last 50 years Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, the Maldives and even Bhutan have overtaken India. Their citizens live longer, healthier, better educated lives. Fewer kids are stunted; more girls go to school.

From the Indian side, the culprit is ‘multiple layers of severe inequalities that aggravate one another’. She focuses on three: class, caste and gender. In India, these have sucked the energy out of development.

In contrast, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, ‘have been able to gradually, over centuries, dilute such inequalities.’ Note the ‘centuries’ – one of the real contributions of the book is to uncover the long-run historical explanations behind those last 50 years of divergence, in addition to the proximate causes (Nepal’s Maoist civil war; Bangladesh’s independence war an ensuing famine, as captured by Naomi Hossein in her book ‘The Aid Lab’). ‘For almost a millennium, Buddhism’s ‘egalitarian and universalist ethic’ thrived in East Bengal’. Fascinating – the grand historical sweep reminds me of Amartya Sen, but Narayan is a whole lot easier to read! She provides potted histories to explain how Bangladesh and Nepal ended up being more egalitarian than India on her three chosen topics: class, caste and gender.

She’s nuanced on this, avoiding simplistic ‘Bangladesh good, India bad’ generalizations. 9% of Bangladeshis are Hindus, many of them lower cast Dalits who face every bit as much discrimination as their Indian counterparts.

On those Southern Supermodels, she identifies four overarching similarities that help to explain their stellar performance compared to northern India: social reform movements; a commitment to universal public services; women’s agency and cultural tries between the states and countries. Again, potted histories help explain each of these sources of outperformance.

Unequal fills a big gap in our understanding of a huge development story – it may not make her many friends among the Indian government, but they need to read this. And although her main audience is India’s policy makers and assorted researchers and wonks, it’s fully accessible to outsiders. I hope the publisher, Westland, gives it a proper push outside the subcontinent.

March 22, 2024
Duncan Green


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