70 years since Independence, India still lags way behind on key social indicators

Community health worker preparing a vaccine in Odisha, India By DFID – UK Department for International Development – Community health worker gives a vaccination in Odisha state, IndiaUploaded by January, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24363618

This August 15th, India is set to celebrate its 71st Independence Day. Over the last seven decades, as an economy, we have grown to become the third largest by PPP, and Asia’s fastest growing major economy. Demonetisation notwithstanding, the country is expected to post a GDP growth of 7.2 percent this year, and 7.8 percent in 2018. With these figures, India is on course to become the world’s third largest economy by 2030, with a gross domestic product of USD 7.3 trillion.

However, though our economy may have grown by leaps and bounds, the country has not been doing as well in its key social indicators. Many argue that the fact that we have been able to keep a nation with such diverse languages and ethnic backgrounds together as a democracy, itself is a major achievement, but the fact remains that there are many areas where we still lag behind many other countries, including our neighbours.

This fact was highlighted by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen at a conference organised by the Tata Memorial centre earlier this year, where he spoke about how, despite being a much poorer nation than India, Bangladesh had performed much better in key social and human development indicators over the last few years, than India.

India’s Human Development Index vis-à-vis its neighbours

An increased life expectancy has brought India’s rankings to 131 out of 188 countries in the 2016 UN Human Development Report, based on 2015 data, and released in March 2017. However, inequalities in regional human development, especially in areas such as education, health and living standards in the country, have held back a higher rating.

In the overall HDI ranking, Pakistan is ranked at the 147th position, Nepal lags behind India at 144 and Bangladesh is ranked at the 139th, while countries like Sri Lanka (73), Maldives (105) Bhutan (132) have higher rankings.

Life Expectancy: At the time of Independence, life expectancy in India was 32 years. This has risen to 68.3, as per 2015 data. However, our neighbours, barring Pakistan, have fared much better. While Bangladesh’s life expectancy rate is 71.6, Sri Lanka has a life expectancy of 74.64 for both sexes, Bhutan’s is 69.8, Nepal’s is 69.2, while Pakistan’s is 66.4.

Infant mortality rate: In 1947, the Infant Mortality Rate (IMR), or the number of infants dying under the age of one, per 1000 live births, was 145.6. The country has seen a decline from 165 in 1960 to 38 per 1000 live births in 2015, as per data from the World Health Organisation (WHO). However, Bangladesh has an even lower IMR of just 31 per 1000 live births. The country has witnessed a rapid decline in its IMR from 176 in 1960. Nepal has an IMR of 29 – a rapid decline from 220 in 1960, Bhutan has an IMR of 27 and Sri Lanka, 8. Pakistan lags behind India with 66 deaths per 1000 live births.

Malnutrition among children:  According to data from the End of Childhood Index report, which is prepared and released by prepared by the non-profit organisation, Save the Children, India has the highest number of children under the age of five, who are moderate to severely stunted due to malnutrition – at 48 million. The global figure is 156 million.

In the End of Childhood report, which ranks countries based on where the most and fewest children are missing out on their childhoods, for reasons such as poor health, conflict, violence, child marriage, early pregnancy, malnutrition, exclusion from education and child labour, India is ranked at 116 among 172 nations. While its neighbours Sri Lanka (61), Bhutan (93) and Myanmar (112) are doing better, Bangladesh (134), Nepal (134) and Pakistan (148) are ranked lower than India.

Maternal mortality: As per 2015 data released by World Bank, the Maternal Mortality Rate for mothers, which highlights the number of new mothers dying per 100,000 live births, is 174. While this is a significant decline from 1995, when the figure was 556, the MMR is still amongst the highest in the world. While hospital deliveries have gone up to 75 percent, a large number of babies are still delivered by unskilled women at home, which contributes to the high MMR and IMR rates.

Among India’s neighbours, only Sri Lanka (30 per 100,000) and Bhutan (148 per 100,000) have a better MMR. However, Nepal has seen a drastic reduction in its MMR rate in the 15 years from 1990-2015  (901 to 258). Bangladesh also lags behind India, with an MMR of 176 per 100,000 births, while Pakistan’s is 178.      

Gender Inequality: India has continuously lagged behind most of its South Asian neighbours when it comes to Gender Equality. The country is ranked a measly 129 out of 159 countries on the Gender Inequality Index by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Bangladesh (119), Nepal (115), Sri Lanka (87) and Bhutan (110) are ranked higher than India in the Gender Inequality Index, while Pakistan (130) lags behind India.

In the 2016 Global Gender Gap report released by the World Economic Forum, a survey which ranks countries based on gender inequalities in health, education, economics and politics, has ranked India at 142nd position on the ‘health and survival’ parameter, among 144 countries.

In a country that is still highly patriarchal, the preference for boys remains. The country has a sex ratio of 943 females to 1,000 males. As per government reports, India’s sex ratio at birth, or the number of girls born alive for every 1000 boys, has declined over the last 65 years, from 946 to 887, even as per capita income increased nearly 10 times.

The country was also ranked a dismal 136th on economic participation and 113th on educational attainment. It was only on the political front that Indi fared well – coming 9th among 144 countries.

Literacy: When the first data was released, in 1951, the literacy levels were 16 percent. This has grown to around 74 percent in 2011, which is the latest year for which data is available. However, while male literacy rate is 82.14 percent, female literacy rate is only 65.46 percent.

According to data released in a blog post by New York-based International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity (or Education Commission), only 48 percent of the females studying up to fifth grade were found to be literate in India.  Nepal (92 percent), Pakistan (74 percent) and Bangladesh (54 percent) are all ahead of India.

As per the data, only 15 percent of Indian women who have studied till class II can read a sentence, which improves to 48 percent by 5th grade.  In Nepal, 47 percent women could read after completing education till grade 2, and 31 percent of women in Pakistan were literate after completing grade 2.

Female labour participation:  According to data released by the International Labour Organisation, while the percentage of Indian women in the work force increased between 1990 and 2005, from 35 to 37 percent, the trend has seen a reversal with the percentage decreasing to 27 percent in 2014. India, in fact, has the lowest Female Labour Force Participation (FLFP) in South Asia, at 27 percent, with the exception of Pakistan. While Bangladesh recorded an FLFP of  57.4 percent, Nepal had 79.9 percent, it was 35.1 percent in Sri Lanka and 24.6 percent in Pakistan.

The main decline in participation is among married women, aged 25-64, largely in the rural areas. One of the reasons that have been cited behind this declining participation is that while literacy levels have increased, the number of corresponding jobs have not. The declining trend also shows that more women between the ages of 15-24 choose to continue their education, rather than drop out at an early age to work. However, pressures in a patriarchal system have also led to many women being forced to stay at home, rather than go out and work.