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Wednesday, 22 September 2010 00:00
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Let's not overdo the rant on failure in reaching major MDG goals


Now that it’s Millennium Development Goal (MDG) week, expect a host of studies/ articles/ commentaries around how India has failed to meet the important MDGs, on how parts of India are worse than sub-Saharan Africa or Bangladesh when it comes to nutrition, and so on.

The UN set the ball rolling when it said that “with just five years to the 2015 deadline for achieving the MDGs, the country as a whole will not be on track for a majority of the targets related to poverty, hunger, health, gender equality and environmental sustainability.” It goes on to add: “It is possible that poverty will be halved by 2015 but by no means certain... on hunger there are disappointing failures.” Others have jumped on to the bandwagon. Just the other day, Standard Chartered Bank and Cranfield University came out with a study showing that just 5.6 per cent of those in the boardroom were women. The Economic & Political Weekly had an article talking of the jump in inequality levels. The list goes on... a giant with, to use the sub-title of Pranab Bardhan’s book, feet of clay.

While obviously all this is true, the question is how true, and can an economy really be growing at 9 per cent a year for so long if a fourth of its men are anaemic (56 per cent for women), 28 per cent have a body mass index that’s below normal (33 per cent for women) and 45 per cent of children under the age of three are stunted? It does strain the credulity more than just a bit, doesn’t it?

The poverty numbers are the easiest to tackle, and not just using the Surjit Bhalla argument that all poverty estimates in India are based on the National Sample Survey and the NSS systematically captures less and less of India’s consumption, currently more than half the consumption is left out. Take the 37 per cent figure that Suresh Tendulkar has for poverty in India, as compared to the Planning Commission’s 25 per cent or so. Analysis from NCAER’s income surveys show that 11 per cent of Tendulkar’s poor actually own a two-wheeler and 9 per cent of them have TVs! If you hike the minimum expenditure below which you’re considered poor, the way Arjun Sengupta did to get his poverty number of 78 per cent, you get even more bizarre results — the NCAER data show a fourth of these households have a two-wheeler and a colour TV. In other words, the poverty numbers are hugely dodgy and, in all probability, India has already met the MDG goal on this front.

What of hunger and the “disappointing failures” in reducing the proportion of the hungry by half between 1990 and 2015 that the UN talks of? By the way, the Indian government report on the MDG, by the CSO, has a zero sign before this MDG and explains this to mean “slow or almost off-track”. I have no independent data, of the NCAER type, to contest this, but it does seem funny that hunger should increase when, even after taking into account inflation, income levels for the poorest fifth of the population, to use NCAER data, rose 4.5 per cent per year between 1994 and 2005 and by 6.5 per cent between 2005 and 2010. Is it possible, just possible, that as people get richer, they eat food that’s poorer in calorie counts? It does strain the credulity to juxtapose this hike in income levels (which, like it or not, is a by-product of the economy growing as fast as it is) with what the CSO has to say on this in its MDG report. “The proportion of population that has dietary energy consumption below 2100/ 2400 kcal in India tends to rise since 1987-88 with about 64 per cent below the norm in 1987-88 increasing to 76 per cent in 2004-05.”

C’mon guys, give me a break. It gets worse. Not only does the CSO rue the fall in calorie intake of the poorest fourth in rural India, it says, “The total of calorie intake of the top (that’s TOP) quartile of the rural population has similarly declined from 2863 kcal in 1987-88 to 2521 kcal in 2004-05.”

Perhaps the focus on calories is excessive and also driven by age-weight height-weight ratios that aren’t strictly relevant today?

What of gender equality, the boardroom barometer? At 5.3 per cent, the number of women boardroom directors in India is lower than Australia’s 8.3, Hong Kong’s 8.9, the UK’s 12.2 and the US’s 14.5. But surely the years of development have something to do with this, the levels of GDP and per capita incomes? Let’s take women in Parliament — the US was just7 per cent in 1990 and this rose to 17 per cent in 2008; the figures for India were 5 per cent and 9 per cent, respectively. That’s not bad given the 250 years of US democracy versus our 60, isn’t it? All of this, needless to say, is related to the proportion of women in the labour force — well, that in urban India rose from 15 per cent in 1999 to 20 per cent in 2004. In other words, as urbanisation increases, so will the proportion of working women, and those in board positions.

It is true, of course, that while the proportion of boys to girls is roughly equal in primary and secondary levels of education, it is pretty bad at higher levels of education (around 72 per cent at the tertiary level). Concentrating on the 72 per cent figure is fine, but this is rear-window economics. Look at Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Report and you find that the proportion of girls getting schooled is rising steadily — these are tomorrow’s graduates, GDP and urbanisation willing (why would a woman, or a man for that matter, want to be a graduate if s/he is going to remain in a village with few job opportunities?). Keep in mind, by the way, that the 72 per cent women-to-men ratio in tertiary education was just 54 per cent in 1990.

India has a long way to go, and various systems are in a mess, whether in public healthcare or education. But let’s not be so hard on ourselves by applying first-world standards to third- or second-world incomes.



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