States of the nation

November 21, 1997

INDIAN DEVELOPMENT: Selected Regional perspectives. Edited by Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen. Clarendon Press Oxford, 420pp, Pounds 40.00. ISBN 0 19 829204 X.

Africanists rightly deride statements beginning "In Africa, however,I" But is "In IndiaI" any better? India, with 60 per cent more people than sub-Saharan Africa, contains ecologies, regional economies, and arguably languages and cultures as varied and unsuitable for generalisation as Africa's. India's polities, too, are as diverse and in some respects as autonomous as Africa's; they include 18 major states, bound loosely by the rules of a national democratic parliament, judiciary and federal constitution.

There are lessons for development not only from India, but also within India. In India's diversity, some places have succeeded, along various dimensions, where others have failed. This splendid book draws some of those lessons, mainly in three long and fascinating chapters on the very different attainments of Uttar Pradesh (UP), West Bengal and Kerala along "human development" dimensions of success: longevity, health, educational attainment, empowerment and land for the poor, equality for women. This is a very fruitful approach, but leaves three key questions unanswered. First,are the human-development dimensions sufficient to plot the trajectory of success? The book says little about differences among Indian states in agricultural performance, and in the impact of policy on economic growth - which Amartya Sen, in his introduction, rightly classifies as a "means". Yet growth, especially in agriculture, is strongly correlated with declining poverty, increasing output, and sustainable public funding to improve the human-development dimensions that the authors rightly prioritise as "ends".

Second, are the key lessons to be learned within India - the main variations in success - really among states, among areas of the same state - or between urban and rural people, or among castes? The final chapter, by Mamta Murthy, Anne-Catherine Guio and Jean Dreze shows that in 14 Indian states variations in child mortality, and in excess mortality among girls, are best explained by differences among their 296 districts, including the proportion of their residents who are urban or members of scheduled tribes or castes.

Third, even accepting, as one must, that there are huge and important inter-state variations in human development performance, to what extent are there policy lessons, and are they for the states? Are the differences due to autonomous policies since independence, or to the states' different initial conditions - including local social awareness and political organisation, which press reforms upon some state governments but not others? The discussions of Kerala and West Bengal suggest that some governments and parties have much autonomy, as the idea of "lessons within India" implies. But this may be due to decisions at the centre, leading to differences among states in pressures on (and finances for) governments and parties.

Sen begins by contrasting achievements in human development, and exploring the lessons for economic "reform". As for contrasting achievements, in 1991 the southern state of Kerala had 94 per cent male literacy, 86 per cent female, and such good health conditions that life expectancy at birth by 1991 had reached 74 for females and 69 for males - similar to Hungary. Uttar Pradesh - with 139 million inhabitants, more than any African country - had "African" social conditions: male literacy of 56 per cent, female of only 25 per cent, and respective life expectancies of 57 and 55; most of north India fares little better. Sen stresses that opposition to liberalisation is almost irrelevant to these stark facts. He argues instead for less "state action" for monopoly, protection, regulation, subsidy and price-distortion of production. But they also stress that for such liberalisation to achieve sustained growth, let alone what they rightly call the ends of growth, viz. human development, India also needs much more "state action" to provide and restructure health, education, gender equality, and access to land.

European history since the Enlightenment underscores this book's message for India: the interdependence, for healthy societies, of two uneasy ideological bed-fellows, market reform through state withdrawal, and redistributive reform through state involvement.

But the book does little to explore the implicit constitutional problems for India's federal polity. Specifically, the state that has to do less lives, in its essence, in Delhi; the states that are to do more - and which have the constitutional remit for health, education and land reform - live in places like Lucknow and (worse) Patna. Is an increasingly active set of "social" states consistent with diminishing economic action by the central "economic" state, in a federal polity already creating huge strains and shifts in the newly loosened party allegiances in the Lok Sabha? Further, how are recalcitrant states to be prodded into acting in their citizens' interest? If from above, how will a disempowered economic state in Delhi achieve it? If from below, why, as so well described in this book, have successive state governments in UP (as in Bihar and several other states) resisted such pressure, in the interests of their rich clients?

On UP, Dreze and Haris Gazdar explore how "resilient inertia" has produced no effective land reform, little empowerment for the poor, and weak gains in health and literacy, despite rises in real income, even for the poor. The authors instructively compare UP with "south India" (SI), viz. Andhra, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, at the 1991 Census.

But how much autonomy have state-level politicians? Why is UP, as the authors show, so inertial, as contrasted not only with SI but with employment guarantee in Maharashtra, drought relief in Gujarat, primary education in Himachal Pradesh? It is not wholly convincing to argue that UP's low literacy creates vicious circles; its improvement is "a crucial tool for effective action in democratic politics" but not a necessary condition. (West Bengal, with its dynamic land policies, in 1987-8 had almost the same illiteracy rate as UP - 31-2 per cent - among rural boys aged 10-14.) A deeper diagnosis is that UP's "collapse of the pre-independence social order after zamindari abolition (was) not accompanied by a corresponding adaptation of collective arrangements".

Sunil Sengupta and Gazdar show that West Bengal achieved real land reform and decentralisation of democratic power, but also rather weak gains in health and literacy. The authors explain how capitalist (though equalising) land reform, made politically feasible by a politically active "broad alliance" of landless and tenants, was implemented almost entirely by the Left Front and its predecessors. Reform proved consistent with, and probably contributed to, poverty reduction and (in the 1980s) accelerated agricultural growth. It is important to distinguish between land redistribution (ceilings) and tenancy restrictions, as the authors do. To draw lessons from West Bengal and Kerala, one should add that tenancy restrictions, without effective ceilings on land ownership, induce landowners to resume personal cultivation of land formerly leased out, reducing income and jobs for the poor. Land re-distribution also leads to smaller holdings, which raise employment and output per hectare; tenancy reduction alone has the reverse effect. Crucial in implementing the land reforms in West Bengal was stimulation of vibrant local institutions. Sengupta and Gazdar see a problem in using this participatory energy subsequently, but suggest that the local authorities offer hope as implementers of central programmes, for employment and asset distribution, elsewhere characterised by inefficiency and evasion.

On Kerala, V. K. Ramachandran produces a monographic (152 pages!) discussion of the enormous progress since independence in health, literacy and female empowerment, and the significant if more modest progress in land reform. This chapter has historical depth, especially on the role of Protestant missionaries, and of class and caste organisation. The discussion is not politically neutral; the name of E. M. S. Namboodiripad - as politician, organiser, social theorist and interviewee - appears often. It might seem odd that Communist parties in Indian states spearheaded effective democratic social reforms, while Communist regimes elsewhere savagely repressed democracy. This surely has something to do with pressures from the judiciary, and the government in Delhi, even if (as Ramachandran stresses) they represented the class interests of opponents of land and labour reform.

Despite Ramachandran's justified praise for Kerala's land reform, mobilisation of the poor, regional convergence, social security and improved widespread health and education, he does not shy away from the serious failures in production, growth and employment. Kerala's human advance is due in large part to migrant remittances (themselves partly due to mass secondary education). These have allowed consumption for the average citizen as well as the poor to grow much faster than production. Slow agricultural growth, in particular, may soon imperil Kerala's social achievements, especially if migrant income from the Middle East dwindles. Also, Kerala's unemployment rates, three times the Indian average, are partly due to the enforcement, uniquely in India, of rural minimum wage and job security laws.

This is an outstanding survey of some key differences and lessons, within India, concerning some crucial components of human development and self-esteem. The writing is clear and readily accessible to non-specialists, with the unavoidable exception of the last chapter. Indian Development: Selected Regional Perspectives raises as many questions as it answers, but that is what good books do.

Michael Lipton is professor at the Poverty Research Unit, University of Sussex.

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