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Poverty in India increasingly region-, group-specific, says 'Social Development Report'

A pathbreaking new report assesses development issues like poverty, unemployment, health and sanitation, urban governance, decentralisation, communal relations and how far women and marginalised groups have progressed across the social indices. It finds that the spatial map and social base of poverty in India have significantly changed over time

Poverty and inequality in India are increasingly becoming polarised along regional and class lines, according to the country's first ever 'Social Development Report'. The report speaks of a 'fourth world' of marginalised peoples that exists within this country of 1 billion-plus that while aspiring to be an economic superpower is also home to one in four of the world's undernourished.

Whereas India accounts for 17% of the world's population, 36% of the world's poor (those surviving on less than US$ 1 a day) live in this country, as do 68% of those afflicted with leprosy and 30% of people suffering from tuberculosis. India also accounts for 26% of vaccine-preventable deaths among under-5-year-olds.

Even as India's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) registers impressive growth, the authors of the report warn that since the country's economy was liberalised 15 years ago, social and economic disparities have sharpened and regional imbalances have grown to a point where social instability has become a serious threat.

Says social scientist Amit Bhaduri: "India is a political success and an economic failure despite its 8% GDP growth rate, simply because there are between 280 million and 300 million people in the country who live in sub-human poverty."

The 225-page report, brought out by the New Delhi-based autonomous Council for Social Development (CSD) and published by Oxford University Press, essentially discusses issues related to poverty and unemployment in a compilation of more than 170 'development reports' on India. The authors' focus is on challenges in the health sector, education, urban governance, communal relations, social integration, inequality, population mobility, decentralisation and social security -- using facts based entirely on official statistics.

Although, according to 1999-2000 figures, the proportion of poor people in the total population declined from 55% in 1973-74 to 26% (about 260 million -- 193 million in rural areas and 67 million in urban areas), by the turn of the century, the progress was impressive only in certain regions in three states -- western Punjab (down from 28% to 6.16%), northern Haryana (from 35% to 8.74%) and Kerala (60% to 12.72%).

In three poor states in eastern India, the poverty ratio dropped far more slowly -- from 66% to 47.15% in Orissa, 62% to 42.6% in Bihar, and 51% to 36.09% in Assam.

The report also stresses that the distribution of poverty in India's hierarchical society remains skewed against traditionally disadvantaged sections of the population, including indigenous peoples and dalits. These disadvantaged sections accounted for 75% of the total number of poor people in India, in 1999-2000.

Besides, there are huge disparities among the social classes, with the percentage of poor among scheduled tribes being 43.8%, within scheduled castes 36.2%, and within other backward classes, 21%.

Whilst grading, the states' performance in 21 indicators were taken into account, including demography, gender ratios, healthcare, education, unemployment, poverty and social deprivation.

In rural India, Kerala tops the states in social indicators, followed by Himachal Pradesh. Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir and Haryana also figure among the best-performing states on the social development front, while Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa are at the bottom of the social indicators list.

In urban India, Kerala has been pushed to third place. Himachal Pradesh tops the list on social criteria, followed by Punjab, Karnataka and Assam. At the bottom are Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Orissa.

Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, which account for 45% of the country's population, also account for two-thirds of infant deaths in the country (26% in Uttar Pradesh alone), and two-thirds of maternal deaths. Less than 25% of children in these states are immunised.

According to the report, Kerala has the lowest infant mortality rate (IMR) of 11 deaths per 1,000 live births, followed by Mizoram and Goa with an IMR of 16. Orissa has the highest IMR of 83, Madhya Pradesh's IMR is 82, and Uttar Pradesh's is 76.

Among disadvantaged classes, the IMR significiantly higher that the rate among the rest of the population -- the IMR among scheduled castes is 83, 85.2 among scheduled tribes, and 76 among other disadvantaged classes, compared to India's overall rate of 61.8. A similar trend is also witnessed with regard to the mortality rate of children under 5, underweight children and children and women with anaemia.

On the literacy front, Kerala has the highest literacy rate of 90.92%, followed by Mizoram at 88.49% and Goa at 82.32%. Bihar has the lowest literacy rate of 47.53%, Jharkhand 54.13% and Jammu and Kashmir 54.46%.

Mizoram tops the list of states with the lowest gender gap in literacy with a difference of only 4.56 percentage points. In Meghalaya it is 5.73 percentage points and 6.34 percentage points in Kerala.

Rajasthan has a large gap in gender literacy of 32.12 percentage points, Jharkhand 28.56 percentage points, and Uttar Pradesh 27.25 percentage points.

Ironically, India's most prosperous states of Punjab and Haryana were the worst performers when it came to child (under-6 years) sex ratios, indicating a high incidence of sex-selective abortions which have been banned in India since 1994. There were only 796 female children for every 1,000 male children in the under-6 age-group in Punjab, 808 in Haryana and 837 in another prosperous state, western Gujarat. This is a classic case of mismatch between economic and social indicators.

Conversely, traditional societies including tribal communities that rank low on other economic and social indicators have an impressive sex ratio of 975 girls to 1,000 boys in Chhattisgarh, 973 in Meghalaya and 966 in Tripura -- much higher than the national figure of 906. "The social problems of contemporary India are the result of a complex nexus between the factors of exclusion and inclusion that are rooted in the history, values and cultural ethos of the country," says social scientist Amitabh Kundu, the report's chief editor.

"Many of these problems are based on policies of segregation that have not been addressed by the development strategies followed by successive governments," he adds. "The incidence of poverty has certainly come down but not uniformly, and the same is true for the spread of primary education and healthcare."

"The policies of globalisation and economic liberalisation have undermined the role of larger societal norms as well as the state apparatus that could have countered exclusionary forces, keeping social tensions simmering," argues Muchkund Dubey, former career diplomat and current president of the CSD. "As a matter of deliberate policy, the government has started scaling down, if not retreating from, its constitutional responsibility of providing public goods in such crucial areas as education, health, sanitation and housing," he adds, pointing out that this has resulted in "a sharp deterioration in the condition of the poorest and marginalised."

The report points towards an Indian society that is becoming increasingly polarised not just along class lines but also across regions and states. "If the gap between the richest and poorest states was roughly around 1:3 during the 1990s, this gap has now widened to around 1:5," says N J Kurian who is on the editorial board of the report.

Pointing to the yawning gap between policy prescriptions and the implementation of programmes, Neera Chandhoke, professor of political science at Delhi University, said government policies "meant for the poor have been indiscriminately generalised," and the situation had been compounded by "rampant corruption and mismanagement of scarce resources".

She added that Punjab and Haryana clearly indicated that "economic growth does not necessarily lead to social development," and that "the relationship that is often sought to be drawn between democracy and social development is rather tenuous".

A report prepared in April 2004 by the United States-based financial services leader Goldman Sachs observed: "India is often characterised as a country of contradictions. This idea is exemplified by the popular phrase that India accounts for close to a third of the world's software engineers and a quarter of the world's undernourished."

The only piece of good news, according to the report, is that India has defied the doomsayers' predictions that such a disparate country could never succeed as a single nation state. Instead, it has emerged as one of the fastest growing countries of the world.

InfoChange News and Features, February 2006