The Uncertain Glory Still Under Observation

In their seminal work, An Uncertain Glory, India and Its Contradictions, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and Belgian economist Jean Drèze wrote that “while India has rapidly climbed the ladder of economic growth rates, it has fallen relatively behind on the scale of social indicators of living standards, even compared to many countries that India has overtaken in terms of economic growth.” This key text, published in 2013, analyzed and exposed the failures of one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, then at 6 percent. Over a decade later, India’s “uncertain glory” remains just as uncertain, despite Narendra Modi’s aspirations to make it a great power. According to Drèze, now a visiting professor at Ranchi University and honorary professor at the Delhi School of Economics, interviewed by Reset DOC, this uncertainty stems from a lack of reliable data necessary to address the country’s current economic situation (and its societal progress). Secondly, India appears to have been outperformed by its neighbors, including Bangladesh, in various “social indicators”. And thirdly, because “we can’t talk about an Indian democracy today.”

Modi has been widely criticized, both domestically and internationally, for undermining democratic institutions and pluralism, which have been core elements of the Indian republic. In your opinion, can we still talk about an Indian democracy?

I don’t think there was much democracy in the first place. There were democratic institutions that worked reasonably well for a small minority but remained out of reach for most. Even the electoral system, which was egalitarian in principle, gave little real power to the underprivileged. Nevertheless, there were important elements of democracy, such as freedom of expression and separation of powers. The conduct of elections, as far as they go, also achieved relatively high standards of freedom and fairness. Today, even these traces of democracy have more or less disappeared. The short answer is no, I don’t think we can talk about Indian democracy today.


Last year, you highlighted the difficulty of accurately estimating poverty in India due to the lack of reliable data. You cited various surveys, noting that some, such as the Consumer Pyramid Household Surveys may inflate progress rates over time, while others are considered more trustworthy. How can we ascertain the true state of India’s current economic situation and what are the most recent poverty statistics? Which provide a more accurate depiction?

The debate about poverty in India has become a little tiresome. In the old days, for better or worse, there were serious arguments based on rich and credible data sets. Today, we have to do with whatever little statistical crumbs the Indian government throws at the public. From 2011-12 onwards, there are no reliable poverty estimates as things stand. All we can say for now is that there has been some poverty decline over the last twelve years, but nothing like what one would hope to see in such a fast-growing economy. The most worrying trend is the virtual stagnation of real wages from around 2014 onwards. I can’t think of any other example of an economy growing at more than 5 percent per year for a whole decade without a major increase in real wages. This does not preclude some poverty reduction, as workers can still earn more by moving into better-paid occupations. Recent data from the 2022-23 Household Consumption Survey suggest that poverty is declining, as might be expected, but the pace of poverty decline is hard to estimate from the limited information that has been released so far. The reliability of this survey, and its comparability with previous surveys, also await scrutiny.


When your book, “An Uncertain Glory,” was published, India was struck by the indicator “Proportion of Households Practicing Open Defecation,” which stood at 55 percent compared to Bangladesh’s 8.4 percent (2005-6). What is this figure today?

According to the fifth National Family Health Survey (NFHS), conducted in 2019-21, one-fifth of all Indian households were still practicing open defecation at that time. This is in spite of the Modi government declaring India “open defecation free” in 2019. Of course, there has been substantial progress in this domain since we wrote An Uncertain Glory. But India is still way behind Bangladesh, where open defecation has virtually disappeared. In fact, India is lagging behind all other South Asian countries in this respect.


What’s the most recent data on other “social development” indicators, such as occupation/female occupation/per capita income/adult literacy…?

Many social indicators are available from the periodic NFHS [the latest is the fifth in 2019-20, ed], the Indian version of the worldwide Demographic and Health Surveys. They suggest slow but steady progress over the last twenty years or so. From a historical perspective, this is a positive development. From a comparative perspective, however, India has been outdone by its neighbors in a wide range of social indicators, including life expectancy, child mortality, fertility, nutrition, sanitation, and elementary education. Only Pakistan is doing worse. The contrast with Bangladesh and Nepal, both until recently much worse off than India, is particularly telling. The clue to this enigma may well lie in India’s exceptional levels of economic and social inequality. Few countries in the world have such an oppressive social system where extreme inequalities of class, caste, and gender reinforce each other and put the underprivileged in a situation of crushing disempowerment. These social divisions undermine the country’s ability to progress rapidly in areas like health and education.


Again, in An Uncertain Glory, you and Amartya Sen contend that both China and Bangladesh have experienced superior economic progress compared to India. What do you think accounts for this disparity? Is India’s democracy a contributing factor, while China’s highly centralized system may serve as a potential growth factor?

China and Bangladesh are not ahead of India in every respect. China has a much higher GDP per capita than India does today, and it is also doing much better in terms of life expectancy, literacy rates, and most social indicators of this kind. On the other hand, it has a very authoritarian political system where the entire population is under constant state surveillance and control. The Chinese people have paid a heavy price for this authoritarianism, not only in dark times such as the famines of 1959-61 and the Cultural Revolution but also daily in terms of restricted freedoms. The point we have made is that India would do well to learn from China’s positive achievements without falling into this authoritarian trap. China’s authoritarianism may have facilitated some of these achievements, but that would not be a good reason to imitate its authoritarianism, especially since authoritarian tendencies in India take a very different form, devoid of any commitment to the underprivileged. Similar remarks can be made about Bangladesh: it is by no means a model for India, yet India has much to learn from its positive achievements. For instance, gender-related indicators in Bangladesh are much better than in India today. This is not what most people would expect, and it is a useful reminder that India has a very long way to go in expanding women’s freedoms, whether in terms of employment opportunities, access to education, property rights, or dignified treatment.


Can we accept the erosion of democratic values in India for enhanced economic performance? Globally, democratic values have been eroded in pursuit of economic development. Will Indians be willing to toleratee this centralization of power for the price of “toilets for all”?

I don’t think that there is a trade-off between toilets and freedom. The recent promotion of sanitation in India has been through democratic means. Coercive methods were certainly used from time to time, but it is doubtful that they contributed much. In Bangladesh, the expansion of sanitation facilities has been entirely voluntary. Beyond toilets, most of India’s major social initiatives in recent years, from the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act to the National Food Security Act, have been an outcome of democratic politics. If India were to further restrict civil liberties, without altering its class structure, the disempowerment of the underprivileged would intensify. Whatever little pressure there is on the government to do something for the poor for the sake of winning votes would vanish. It is all very well to expect that a benevolent autocrat would make up for this, but how can we foretell the character of the autocrat? Modi is certainly not an inspiring precursor.

I think it is pointless to speculate about what India might look like under some dictatorship. Democratic institutions are hard-won gains, we owe it to future generations to preserve them. Jettisoning them for the sake of a short-term economic growth spurt would be like plundering the environment for that purpose. In addition, there is no evidence that this gamble would work. Indeed, the recent erosion of democratic values in India has not improved economic performance – quite the contrary. Nor is it the case that authoritarianism has generally helped with economic growth worldwide. For every autocrat who is doing well, you can find another who has led the country down the river.



Cover photo: A metro train moves past buildings and slums, in Mumbai, India, 18 June, 2023. (Photo by Niharika Kulkarni/NurPhoto via AFP.)

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