2 – Human Development: Meanings, Mechanisms and Measurement – Social Development in Independent India


Human Development: Meanings, Mechanisms and Measurement

Rajiv Balakrishnan




Human development (HD), a concept of relatively recent vintage, is, as is well known, understood to refer to the development or expansion of ‘choice’ or opportunity, not only in spheres such as the standard of living, education, health but also in less tangible domains such as women's empowerment and political freedom.1 HD is an idea whose time has come; one which gained currency as the realization grew that deprivation and lack of opportunity could be extensive even when economic indicators are robust. The rationale for planned efforts to promote HD does not however derive merely from its desirability as an end in itself; it stems also from the fact that the expansion of opportunity could foster a people-centred growth trajectory. While HD can thus be conducive to economic development (ED), economic growth in turn generates the resources that make investments in HD possible.

Let us now take a closer look at how ED and HD affect each other. GNP provides the basis for investments in HD, but to what extent GNP actually translates into HD depends on factors like public spending and HD prioritization, access to public goods, whether growth is employment-intensive, corruption in government, and the HD-building role of NGOs such as the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. HD also depends on the household spending on HD items such as food, education and health. This in turn depends on poverty reduction, since, when poor households earn extra income, they are likely to spend a greater proportion of their disposable incomes on these items. Income ‘distribution’ is another important factor; when it is relatively egalitarian, the household spending on HD items like education and health is likely to be more widespread. There are also indications that when women control the household income, a greater proportion of it is likely to be spent on calorie consumption. These are the routes through which GNP has an impact on HD. HD, in turn, for instance, through the impact of education and health of workers on productivity, impacts economic growth.2 Corroborating the two-way connections, from ED to HD and from HD to ED, the country-level data for developing countries show that in the movement from ED to HD, public expenditure on social services and the level of female education are especially salient. As regards the movement in the opposite direction, from HD to ED, two facilitating factors were found to be critical—namely, the investment rate and income distribution.3

When the linkages are strong in both directions, from ED to HD and HD to ED, it fosters a virtuous cycle of development. Conversely, when one does not fuel the other, when HD and ED are at low levels, a vicious cycle ensues, in which a weak HD leads to a weak ED, and a weak ED constrains the growth of HD. What happens when, due to constraints like a low social expenditure ratio (public expenditure as a percentage of GDP), ED does not foster HD? Or when, due to the low rate of investment, HD does not generate ED? In both instances, we are left with lopsided development. Thus, we have two types of lopsided development—that is, HD lopsided and ED lopsided. Overall, we have four categories—that is, (a) virtuous cycle countries, (b) vicious cycle countries, (c) HD-lopsided countries and (d) ED-lopsided countries. The developing countries, when grouped in these categories, display a strong regional pattern, according to one study. Thus, the East Asian countries were ‘heavily represented’ in the virtuous cycle category, while, of the 37 countries in the vicious cycle category, 21 were from Sub-Saharan Africa and 9 from Latin America.4

From the policy perspective, the key question is, ‘Under what circumstances does a country move from the vicious cycle category to the virtuous cycle category?’ The history of the developing countries shows that while HD lopsidedness allowed this to happen (except in the case of Costa Rica), EG lopsidedness, in all cases, meant that a country moved into a vicious cycle. The moral of the story: ‘…HD must be strengthened before a virtuous cycle can be attained. Policy reforms which focus only on economic growth are unlikely to succeed’.5

If we look at the development experience within India, then also we find like trajectories. Of the three states which were in the HD-lopsided category in 1981, that is, Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, Tamil Nadu had moved into the virtuous cycle category a decade later, while Karnataka did so by 2001. Relatively strong HD in these states seems to have helped them to have a more participatory growth in the reforms period. (Kerala is an exception; though it has been in the HD-lopsided category, it never moved into the virtuous cycle mode.) While the four states that were in the virtuous cycle category in 1981 (Gujarat, Maharashtra, Haryana and Punjab) continued to be so even two decades later, the BIMARU states (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh), Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Assam, which were in the vicious cycle category in 1981, remained so even in 2001. No state passed directly from the vicious to the virtuous categories. Overall, the implication that can be drawn is that ‘…the sequencing of policy should be such that HD is strengthened before a virtuous cycle can be attained’.6 On a positive note, the country's track record in this respect seems to have become increasingly encouraging. Thus, the HD indicators show a declining inter-state trend in disparity.7

When one considers the HD-success stories in Asia, Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean, we find that the HD triggers vary from region to region. The evidence leads to the following conclusions:

  • Even relatively poor growth can be compensated by good, relatively egalitarian income distribution (for as we have seen, widely spread income gains are conducive to greater HD-related household spending).
  • A greater role for public spending, is also important, as the experiences of Cuba, Jamaica and Madagascar suggest.
  • In HD-success countries like Mauritius and Sri Lanka, where growth was ‘good but not spectacular’, good distribution and ‘good and well allocated social expenditure’ were compensatory elements.
  • A good social expenditure ratio and prioritization of HD were compensatory factors in Botswana and Malaysia, which had good growth but relatively poor distribution.
  • Singapore's was a case of good growth and moderate income distribution, combined with only moderate social expenditure, but the saving grace was its high female enrolment rates in primary schooling.
  • In Lesotho, where growth was good but distribution was not, public expenditure and its prioritization were favourable as was the female primary enrolment ratio.
  • Chile and Costa Rica, the countries with moderate growth, did not have very good income distribution, but their social expenditures were good and well allocated. These countries had effective and comprehensive social programmes, and high female-enrolment ratios.

Thus, there need be no formulaic trajectory of success of HD. The triggering factors, the histories of these countries show, were diverse. Korea, Singapore and Chile, the countries that were not democracies ‘for much of the period under observation’, saw HD as a way to stimulate growth, while in democracies like Jamaica and Sri Lanka, and in particular, communist Cuba, HD was sought after as a goal in itself. All the success stories, however, were marked by a political commitment to HD.8


Prioritization in the sphere of government policy was thought necessary if the gospel of HD was to fulfil its promise, and herein lay the genesis of a measurement agenda, for quantification could highlight deficiency and fuel advocacy.9 Right from the start, however, it was acknowledged that quantification of so diverse a phenomenon as HD was fraught with practical difficulties. Hence, measurement was confined to three key components only—health, as approximated by life expectancy; knowledge, in terms of literacy and schooling; and standard of living, as shown by income. A given country's ranking on each of the three scales was quantified and the results aggregated to derive a composite, snapshot measure—the Human Development Index, or HDI. With fine-tuning part and parcel of its measurement mindset, the HDI was recast in many a mould to make it a better measure. To cite cases in point, knowledge, initially assessed in terms of literacy alone, soon acquired an added element—years of schooling; standard of living, as captured by income, was subject to an ‘adjustment’ or weightage such that countries with greater income disparities were pushed down in the scale of HDI ranking; and fine-tuning was carried out to arrive at ‘gender-adjusted HDIs’. Similarly, income beyond a threshold level was discounted on the ground that ‘achieving a respectable level of human development does not require unlimited income’. This was given a further twist in the 1999 HDR, whose HDIs were based on a new formula that did not discount income as severely as before. Indices other than the HDI have been formulated as well, such as the Gender Empowerment Measure. The Human Freedom Index is another case in point. High levels of freedom tend to be associated with a high level of HD, according to one human development report. Another example is the Human Poverty Index, introduced in the 1997 HDR, which argued that poverty was no longer inevitable as the world had what it took to put an end to it. Yet another composite measure, the Reproductive Health Index of the UNFPA (United Nations Fund for Population Activities), is based on six parameters of maternal health.10


Apart from the fact that HDI-type indices gloss over the strands that go to make them up, there are many facets that they do not capture. As we have seen, the HDI is itself confined to a circumscribed ambit of three basic indicators of well-being—income, education and longevity. These, it is believed, are the key factors that capture and allow a rough and ready quantification of the entire gamut of HD factors. The question however arises as to whether there is a need to broaden the scope of the HDI, so as to incorporate a set of indicators that can better quantify the entirety of HD.

In a study to investigate the issue, based on cross-country data, 11 broad categories of HD were identified. These include mental well-being, empowerment (especially of the deprived), political freedoms, social relations, conditions of work and leisure, political security (freedom from political violence and stability), economic security and the state of the environment. Under each of these categories, a number of indicators were identified. For instance, under mental well-being, the suicide rate was selected as an indicator; under ‘Work Conditions’, the unemployment rate and minimum wage policy were among the indicators; and under ‘Community Well-Being’, the variables included ‘crime rate’, ‘alcohol use’, ‘corruption’, ‘trust in others’ and ‘rule of law’.11

In the next step, from within each of the 11 broad categories, correlated variables were eliminated. For instance, under the category ‘Community Well-Being’, the three indicators, that is, ‘rule of law’, ‘corruption’ and ‘perceptions of quality of public institutions’, were highly inter-correlated. Only one of these variables, ‘rule of law’—a World Bank measure of ‘the extent to which agents have confidence in the rules of society and abide by them’, was included in the final list of variables. Variables that were not correlated with other variables within a given category were also selected.

In this way, a list of 39 variables was arrived at. Of these, the ones that were found to be strongly correlated with the HDI were eliminated on the ground that ‘these variables were already encompassed by the HDI measure’. This left 31 variables that were not correlated with the HDI, ‘indicating that the HDI is not able to measure a broad definition of HD’.12 While the study also attested to the superiority of the HDI over per capita income as an HD indicator,13 it makes the point that ‘…extending the concept and measurement of human development to a broader set of dimensions seriously affects the way one should measure and assess country performance’.14

While the authors thus make out a case for more comprehensive indicators, their study of the limitations of the HD measures also underlines the need for disaggregated profiles focused on specific features of HD, to complement the HDI or like indices. More particularly, profiles can facilitate an identification of key factors that need to be redressed in a given context or setting. These could relate to aspects like quality of teaching or syllabi, domestic duties inimical to the girl child's school attendance, and bottlenecks in medical supplies to remote areas. Both quantitative as well as qualitative data have a role to play in these types of assessments to probe the roots of the HD bottlenecks. As opposed to a profile, a composite index can only facilitate a first-stage identification of deprivation pockets, across or within nations, either to make out a case for advocacy or as a preparatory phase in a planning exercise to determine resource allocation priorities. It is true that, as in the case of the HDI, a profile too can impart clout to advocacy, and facilitate planning for resource allocation. But the distinguishing rationale for a ‘profile’, and its cutting edge, is that of ascertaining the precise points at which interventions might optimally be targeted.


Facets of HD, which have been rooted in, or have gained currency in, different historical contexts in different parts of the world include John Dewey's views on the individual in relation to society, which was critical in shaping the 20th-century schooling and democracy in America, and was a source of inspiration for participatory initiatives in the social development sphere.15 To cite another case in point, in the Philippines, Nepal and Bangladesh, the move towards greater opportunities for political participation occurred as a ‘second wave’ of the transition from autocracy to democracy. In autocratic China, on the other hand, rural development provided the rationale for decentralization and village democracy.16 The past, clearly, is not history. Even within a region, its legacy can vary. Thus, in the state of Orissa, while mobilization for environmental protest had been on the rise post-Independence, there had been a marked difference in the coastal regions as compared to the inland areas, where protest occurred less often and was not sufficiently sustained. Communal ties, which prevented different groups from coming together for a common cause, has been identified as the explanatory factor.17 This is one instance of how the legacy of the past determines the parameters of social capital, that is, the ‘trust, networks and norms shared by a group of actors that enable them to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives’.18 Social capital has been at the root of the high quality of democracy in Italy, according to Putnam, whose pioneering study19 provoked an energetic debate on the concept and led to a collaborative project on Democracy and Social Capital in Segmented Societies, the aim of which was to investigate whether social capital has had an impact on the democracy and environmental protest movements in India and South Africa.20 In a study of the functioning of the panchayats in Uttar Pradesh, conducted as part of that project, it was found that social capital tends to build up within caste-based segments, rather than across them.21 Yet, there are grounds for hope. In the two study districts of Uttar Pradesh, there are indications that the processes of conflict resolution through negotiation and bargaining, may, in time, lead to a more broad-based social capital uniting caste/class groups.22


As we have seen, the past clearly cannot be wished away. While it can shackle, it can also liberate. Thus, when concepts laden with social development overtones enjoy wide currency in society, these bequeaths of history enable rather than stymie, as developments in Kerala, Sri Lanka, Costa Rica and China attest. These are among the regions of the world where phenomenally high levels of health were achieved at a low cost. Breakthroughs occurred in the context of the spread of medical technology, large public spending on health and education, the density and efficiency of services, policies to ensure a nutritional floor, immunization campaigns, etc. Of the social elements critical to the success of the health initiatives in a region, the salient ones were an open political system, radicalism, a dedication to education, and egalitarianism, including a high degree of female autonomy.23

In Kerala, the matrilineal institutions among the Nayars and Ezhavas allowed women a considerable degree of autonomy. Moreover, the social reform movements of the Ezhavas and Nayars, together with the struggles over the right to entry in temples, had helped politicize the society and set the stage for the communist electoral victory. Education, sought to be promoted as an important facet of social reform, was seen as a route to upward mobility by the lower castes and self-preservation for the upper castes in the rapidly changing times.24 At the same time, Christian missionaries established schools in Kerala throughout the 19th century, including the first girls’ school in 1819. Reacting to the demand for schooling and the missionary inroads, the princely governments of Travancore and Cochin put state-sponsored schooling on their agendas.25

In Sri Lanka, a resurgence of Sinhalese cultural nationalism with its stress on Western values had as its helmsman Anagarika Dharmapala, who argued that sanitation, education and work made Europe great. Curiously, in that country, the colonial government's Donoughmore Commission had advocated franchise for women on the ground that their concern about the health of their children would place it high on the political agenda. Over the next half-century, not only health but also education featured prominently in the manifestos of Sri Lanka's political parties.26

While in Sri Lanka, Kerala and Costa Rica, political parties competed with each other to provide educational and health services to the electorate,27 in China, Cuba and Vietnam, the route to low mortality followed a different path. Take the case of China (which, like Kerala, Sri Lanka and Costa Rica achieved good health at a low level of income), where health, education and the status of women were ideological aims. Activism in tune with state policies and the spontaneity permitted by decentralization were also important. Yet, even in China, the respect for health (traditional medicine) and education had long antecedents.28 Overall, while social and political will were key factors at work in Kerala, Sri Lanka and Costa Rica, in China, it was political will that was critical.29

Within India, while Kerala and West Bengal are the states that have had the longest period of Left Front rule, Kerala's poor are far more politically conscious, to the point of radical militancy. This can be traced back to the extremely rigid social exclusion in Kerala, which the depressed castes fought against—notably the Ezhavas, who came together under their charismatic leader, Sri Narayana Guru. At a later stage, leaders of the upper castes too became aware of the need for social reform, and established their own organizations. When the communists arrived on the scene, they found a fertile ground to sow their seeds. In West Bengal, by contrast, the caste system was much less onerous, due to the influence of religious reformers like Chaitanya Deva and others, and this may be one reason why radicalism of the Kerala variety did not take root there.30


While inherited factors can be critical in promoting HD, we have seen how political will can compensate, as the recent history of China shows. The state however may need to be critically monitored and rapped on the knuckles from time to time to ensure justice for the poor and the downtrodden. A democratic polity provides for this, but vigilance and activism on the part of the people are critical as well. In this context, we briefly take a look at India's development path of massive state-sponsored projects such as the Sardar Sarovar Dam, which, once commissioned, will submerge verdant tracts in the Narmada valley, in the process displacing some half a million people and depriving them of their livelihoods. The rationale was that you cannot make an omelette without breaking an egg; that communities in the regions rich in resources like water, minerals, etc. should willingly resettle, as not to do so was ‘…an indication of their unwillingness to share…resources with others’.31 It was these presumptions of an arrogant and overbearing state that came to be challenged by the NBA (Narmada Bachao Andolan), which raised the issues of whether displacement was necessary, what benefits would accrue and to whom, whether similar benefits could be achieved without displacement, who were to bear the costs and who was to decide that the balance of benefits over costs was in favour of the project. ‘These demands were virtually a challenge to the powers of the decision makers to displace people as they chose’.32 Eventually, a state under siege yielded ground; it agreed to the proper resettlement of those who were to be displaced. This ‘reasonable stand’, however, ‘…was taken precisely to deny any challenge to the displacement itself’.33 Moreover, only lip service was paid to rehabilitation. Thus, amidst the throng of people milling about in the peak marriage season in the project-affected Village Chota Badada, a banner proclaims: ‘This entire village has been resettled. If you see anyone here, they are only ghosts’.34 Tragically, a large number of houses and lands have already been submerged without full rehabilitation.35

As the waters of the Narmada rise and threaten to submerge the hutments of the valley's dwellers, the key issue is, ‘Will the displaced people be properly rehabilitated?’ They should be, as per the law, which requires that the displaced families be compensated, one year before submersion, with homesteads, civic facilities and livelihood-sustaining cultivable land. International Labour Organization Convention 107 on indigenous peoples (to which India is a signatory) even states that the compensatory land should be at least as good as the land from which the affected people were displaced.36 Further, construction on the dam to raise its height, which would increase the extent of submersion, was not to be permitted unless rehabilitation of the affected people was complete, as per judicial pronouncement. Yet, notwithstanding incomplete rehabilitation, construction to raise the height of the dam was ordered to be continued. In the meanwhile, an oversight group (OSG) was appointed to investigate the rehabilitation scenario. This was patently illegal, allowing the construction on the dam to meanwhile become a fiat accompli.37 The creation of the OSG appears to have been Machiavellian, nothing more than ‘…a stalling tactic, allowing construction of the dam to proceed without prior rehabilitation’.38 Evidences of incomplete and poor rehabilitation by the NBA and the GoM (group of ministers) were brushed aside, and the OSG constituted to look into the issue.39 The OSG report, whose findings were accepted by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as ‘fairly accurate’,40 has been critiqued for its omission of several thousands of project-affected families (PAFs). 41 Nonetheless, the report itself identifies inadequacies in the rehabilitation process. 42 Hence, ‘…there is no doubt whatsoever that the basic condition of rehabilitation in advance of submergence has been violated…’.43

Moreover, whatever is being done in the name of rehabilitation is inadequate, even by the yardstick of the law. Thus, ‘Cash compensation, which the Madhya Pradesh government…has been distributing in lieu of land, is explicitly prohibited by the NWDTA (Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award), which mandates that all PAFs be given two hectares of cultivable and irrigable land either in the command area of the dam or in their own state…’.44 Even the identification of those who are to be considered project-affected is inadequate. Thus, it does not include those whose land were taken over for the housing needs of project staff, or those whose lands were to be overrun by the canals that were to draw water away from the Narmada to other destinations, or the landless labourers who earned a living by mining sand from the river bed, and who could no longer do it because the reservoir would be too deep.45 Other evidence of negligence can be seen in the Madhya Pradesh government's callous under-enumeration of PAFs by distinguishing those ‘permanently’ affected (whose lands or house plots will be submerged throughout the year) from those ‘temporarily affected’, and arguing that only the ‘permanently’ affected needed to be rehabilitated. This in violation of the NWDTA, as even temporary submergence can destroy crops.46


As we have seen, if Kerala, Sri Lanka and Costa Rica achieved a phenomenal good health at relatively low levels of income, it is because their inherited social assets gave them a head start. The point is illustrated also by a comparison of the politically conscious states of West Bengal and Kerala; historical developments in Kerala made the poor far more politically conscious, and this element of the social fabric was critical to the state's superior health profile.47 Still, even when an inherited social edge is lacking or is deficient, political will can compensate, as the case of China bears testimony. The Chinese experience also fosters the hope that political will can bail out countries that have weak HD. Where political will is weak or inadequate, there is a need to bolster it. Besides, even if social will has not been inherited, it can be built afresh. Struggles for transparency and accountability in governance acquire salience in this context as does the need for a greater degree of people's participation, the building of ‘social capital’, and a role for watchdog institutions, fact-finding agencies and think tanks.