Keys to happiness

North India seems to be lagging behind the south in HDI

By Commentarao: S.L. RAO
  • Published 18.02.15


Better access: Arcot village, Tamil Nadu

Large federations have considerable variance among their component states. The southern states of the United States of America were largely poor, many people were deprived of the essentials of life; there were extremely poor white people but they could look down on black people; racial discrimination made the latter legally inferior. That has changed and migration from the north to the now prosperous southern states has increased.

Ashish Bose, the distinguished demographer, coined the acronym BIMARU in the 1980s to describe Indian states that were inferior on many counts of well-being compared to other states. BIMARU plays on the word " bimar" meaning sick. The BIMARU states were Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh.

A book by Samuel Paul and Kala Seetharam Sridhar, The Paradox of India's North-South Divide: Lessons from the States and the Regions (Sage, 2015), mines available data to establish the differences and the possible reasons for them. The book examines economic outcomes (production of goods and services, employment and standards of living); also public governance (the average tenure of chief ministers, police firings in the state) and socio-cultural differences (the rise of mass movements of the under-classes). Added to these quantitative parameters we need qualitative ones.

The United Nations Development Programme brought out the first human development index for its member countries in the early 1990s. They went beyond the growth of the gross domestic product to measure other indicators of well-being (like literacy, female literacy, child survival and so on). The National Council of Applied Economic Research in the early 1990s studied an all-India sample of over 30,000 households to establish these differences between states. The sample also gave extra representation to majority-minority religions in different states (for example, Muslims in Uttar Pradesh, or Christians in Kerala and so on).

This data helped the Sachar committee report on the status of Muslims in different states. State governments now report on human development indicators in their respective states. More recently, such data is available for many districts as well. This granularity of data for each state, district and perhaps in due course, talukas, cities and towns, will help policy-makers develop policies for one geographical location that is lower in human development indicators than another.

India has a low rank on the HDI in comparison to most other countries. Thus India's HDI of 2013 is 135 out of a total of 187 countries. The rank has not changed from the previous period. In contrast, during 2008-2013, China's HDI moved up by 10 ranks; Sri Lanka's by five ranks, and Bangladesh and Nepal, the per capita incomes of which are much lower than India's, have moved up by two and four ranks respectively.

Paul and Sridhar do not merely rank states. They provide other measures for a detailed comparison between Tamil Nadu and UP. More limited parameters determine the findings of India's north versus south. In the north and the south they exclude Maharashtra, Gujarat, West Bengal (all relatively more developed states). They compare the states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala in the south with the four BIMARU states in the north.

Their work shows the starting parameters between the two to be similar till 1980s. Social mobilization, for example, in the rise of the Dravida-Dalit movement and its hold on political power for over 40 years, which are the cornerstones of Tamil Nadu's broad-based advances in the well-being of its population, a majority of whom are Dalits and other backward classes. However, in contrast, UP, in spite of the hold on power by the Yadavs (OBCs) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (Dalits), for over 30 years shows little improvement.

Looking at all indicators of basic services in urban areas by themselves, Paul and Sridhar find that slum households in the north are much worse off than their counterparts in the south. Census 2011 data shows that on an average in the southern states, the possession of assets improves with higher incomes. So does access to basic public services - which improves with higher incomes as a result of rapid economic growth.

The significant increase in per capita income in the southern states enabled a larger proportion of their urban poor to acquire certain private assets than their counterparts in the north with lower incomes. Further, access to basic public services such as water supply, electricity, better sanitation and sewerage is also much better in the slums of the south than in the north. Economic reforms since 1991 enabled southerners to take more advantage of the relative freedom for enterprise. The quality of governance and the demand factor (working through social mobilization) were also stronger in Tamil Nadu when compared to UP.

Tamil Nadu had higher initial levels than UP on indicators such as literacy, infant mortality rate (reflecting the status of health), urbanization, food crop yields per acre, electricity, and roads. Tamil Nadu's initial conditions were better in human capabilities, urbanization, infrastructure, and resource efficiency, although the degree of superiority varied between the factors. But initial conditions in UP in terms of the stock of all graduates, and political stability (measured by the chief minister's average tenure), were about the same or even slightly better than those in Tamil Nadu. On per capita development spending, Tamil Nadu's initial condition was only slightly better than that of UP's. While Tamil Nadu had an edge with regard to the initial conditions of several factors, it did not have an initial advantage in others. By regions (north vs south) also, overall, the findings are similar to the UP-Tamil Nadu comparison. Indeed, the north started with a better record in terms of chief ministers' tenures than the South.

Rising per capita incomes have led to an improvement in the quality of life of the citizens in the southern states. The access to assets and amenities available to southern citizens is decidedly better than that of their northern counterparts. This holds true also for the low income people living in urban slums in the south. This is not to say that the poor have benefited to the same extent as the rest of the population. But the quality of life of the poor in the south, judged by assets and amenities, is better than that of their counterparts in the north.

Looking at governance, UP has had long tenured chief ministers for some years now. However, its HDI ranking remains low. Clearly it is the quality of governance, not just the longevity of chief ministers, that is important. Thus, good governance in Tamil Nadu (and the south) made it take advantage of the 1991 reforms.

Relatively smaller states and Union territories (Haryana, Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh, Goa, Pondicherry, Sikkim and so on) have performed much better than big ones. UP and Bihar are the largest states in India by population size and Madhya Pradesh (till Chhattisgarh was formed) by extent. In addition to smaller sizes of states, the quality of leadership in social mobilization was also critical.

The HDI map for Indian states in 2006 lists Indian states by their respective human development indices. India's national average score for HDI was 0.467 in 2008, 0.519 in 2010, 0.554 in 2012, and 0.586 in 2014. Progress has been slow. Kerala shows the best HDI; while others range between 0.358 and 0.790. Well below the all-India average are Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Bihar. Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, UP, Rajasthan, Assam, Andhra Pradesh, Uttarakhand, West Bengal and Karnataka. Near or above the average are Gujarat, Jammu and Kashmir, Haryana, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, the Northeast (excluding Assam), Punjab, Goa, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi, and Kerala.

India has improved its HDI in all of its administrative subdivisions, but by world standards they are low. The reasons are many and complex: the quality of political and social leadership, the response to public opinion, the size of administrative units, the localization of authority, outcomes in relation to outlays by governments, the tradition of good administration and administrative quality being some.

The author is former director-general, National Council of Applied Economic Research