Thursday, 21 August 2014

Reading Dreze and Sen 2: India's problems are not because of its democratic character, but rather due to a lack of it.

Given that China has done much better than India in using its economic growth for the advancement of public services and social infrastructure (which means the provision of basic social services such as schooling, healthcare, safe water, drainage, housing etc), some people in India are often tempted to think that this is because China is authoritarian and India a democracy. The conclusion that these persons reach is that it is India’s democracy that is to blame for its lag behind China. But Dreze and Sen argue that this needs to be questioned.

They point out that, in China, policies are decided at the top, with little scope for pressures from below (i.e. from citizens like us). It is a fact that Chinese leaders – although authoritarian - have been strongly committed to eliminating hunger and illiteracy, and this has certainly helped China’s socio-economic advancement. But authoritarian political systems like China always remains fragile because government leaders can arbitrarily change their priorities in a counter-productive direction and citizens can do very little about it.

Dreze and Sen stress that the gravity of this danger is made clear by the following example: from 1959-62, a catastrophic famine occurred in China. The regime failed to understand what was going on, there was no public pressure against its policies and so it continued its policy mistakes for 3 years, resulting in the death of 30 million (I.e. 30,000,000) people. This is highly unlikely in a democracy which allows room for public pressure, and in which the government is forced to be more accountable to citizens.
Another example they provide of the fragility of the process of economic and social advancement through an authoritarian system is China’s economic reforms in 1979. These reforms involved a huge retreat from the principle of universal healthcare coverage: the proportion of rural population covered by free or heavily subsidized healthcare crashed to around 10% within a few years. In a democracy, healthcare could not have been withdrawn so easily and swiftly. This withdrawal of universal entitlement to healthcare reduced the progress of longevity in China, and China’s large lead over India in life expectancy dwindled over the following 2 decades (falling from a 14 year lead to just 7 years)[1]

Being a democracy, India has the advantage of having political leaders who are accountable to its citizens (the UPA regime’s rout in the 2014 elections is a good example of the advantage of being a democracy; if India was not a democracy, its citizens would not have been able to effectively show their disfavor regarding UPA’s policies much less bring about its end). But how much a democracy is able to achieve depends largely on what issues are brought into political engagement i.e. what issues are considered important enough by citizens and are translated into ‘demands’ by the public from the government.

Making certain issues important in the public mind is not easy and does take time (it took many years and the Delhi Gang-rape of 2012 to make women’s right to safety a public demand), but once these issues become a ‘normal’ public demand, they are less capable of being ignored by a democratic government. On the other hand, decisions by authoritarian governments are taken by a handful of leaders at the top and - even when benevolent and public-oriented - can be suddenly and arbitrarily withdrawn. 
Given India’s multiple problems, some may be tempted to demand that India gives up or reduces its commitment to democracy for which so many have fought and out of which so much good has come to India. But the continuance of India’s problems is not because of democracy, but instead because MORE use has not been made of the opportunities offered by a political democracy and a free society to solve the problems that so many Indians continue to face.

[The purpose of the ‘Reading Dreze and Sen’ series of blogs is to briefly summarise some of the arguments given by Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen in their book ‘An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions’. The arguments are of the authors alone and the blogs are merely a recapitulation of them in as simple a way possible (the style is deliberately informal). The aim is to help myself to remember the details of these arguments (writing always helps!) but more importantly to hopefully trigger conversation and provoke contestation regarding the issues raised, even if on small forums like facebook :)]

[1] Chinese authorities eventually reintroduced social health insurance on a large scale from around 2004. 

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