Governing India's many spaces -Pulapre Balakrishnan
Ill fares the land where wealth accumulates, and the social and natural environment suffer
As the general elections approach, it would be politic to take stock of the progress made by the incumbent party and look out for the areas that call for particular attention by the one that gains power. Without anticipating complete agreement on the indicators that ought to be used, I look at the changes since 2014 in three indices for India. These are the indices of the ‘Ease of Doing Business’ (EDB), ‘Human Development’ (HDI) and ‘Environmental Performance’ (EPI). They are self explanatory, and their importance unlikely to be contested, even though they may not exhaust all concerns. Published by separate international bodies, they are used to rank the world’s countries according to their performance in the related sphere. Rankings by themselves do not reveal the level of attainment but they do convey how far a country is from the global frontier.
The business ecosystem
The EDB, an indicator put out by the World Bank, is meant mainly as an index of the effect of government regulations on running a business. It is also meant to reflect the extent of property rights in a society. Responses are sought from government officials, lawyers, business consultants, accountants and other professionals involved in providing advice on legal and regulatory compliance. A country’s ranking is based on the extent to which government regulations facilitate the following: starting a business, obtaining construction permits, getting an electricity connection, registering property, accessing credit, protection of investors, paying taxes, trading across borders, enforcement of contracts and resolving insolvency. The Narendra Modi government has set much at store by India’s improved ranking in terms of the EDB index. Actually, the improvement is considerable. From a rank of 134 in 2014, India’s rank improved to 77 in 2018. As 190 countries were ranked in 2018, India was in the top 50%. The position is not spectacular but the improvement is, as said, noteworthy.
It is important to note that the use of the EDB has not been without controversy, with the World Bank’s Chief Economist, a Nobel Laureate, suggesting in an interview that in the past political bias may have crept into the ranking of countries. Let us for a moment overlook this episode and assume that in the case of India the ranking reflects reality. Perhaps a bigger problem with the EDB is that it measures the effect of government regulations alone. While it is important to take this aspect into account, in any situation the ease of doing business is dependent upon other factors too. One of these is the availability of ‘producer services’, with electricity, water supply and waste management coming to mind. There is little reason to believe that this infrastructure has improved in India in the last five years. The Planning Commission used to release data on infrastructural investment, but we have had none since its demise. Despite all these shortcomings, it is yet important to be concerned with the ease of doing business in India, an aspect that has been given little or no importance in public policy for over 50 years, and to note that the EDB ranking for the country shows significant improvement since 2014.
A true measure
We may turn next to the better known Human Development Index. It is the result of a rare India-Pakistan collaboration in the global discourse on public policy, having been devised by Amartya Sen and Mahbub ul Haq for the United Nations Development Programme. The HDI is a combination of indicators of income, health and education in a country. Its conceptual basis has been critiqued. First, it has been pointed out that the index combines incommensurate categories, as income, health and education are not substitutes. Second, while it does go beyond purely economic measures of progress, in that it looks at the health and education achievements in a population, it can say little about the ‘quality’ of development. As pointed out by Selim Jahan of the UNDP, data can “[tell] us only a part of the story about people’s lives. For instance, it is increasingly clear that it is not enough simply to count how many children are in school: we need also to know whether they are learning anything.” He could have had India in mind!
Nevertheless the HDI has now gained reasonable acceptance globally as indicative of the development strides a country has taken. When we turn to the HDI, we find that India’s ranking has not altered since 2014. India was ranked 130 in 2014, and has remained in the same place out of 185 countries in 2018. It is of relevance here that India’s HDI ranking has not improved despite it being the world’s fastest growing major economy in recent years, as the government often points out in its assessments. This despite income being a component of the index. What this reveals is that an economy can grow fast without much progress in human development. Also, India’s HDI position in the bottom third of countries points to how much it needs to progress to earn the label ‘the world’s largest democracy’.
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