Is there not an old saying about how truth depends on which side of Jerusalem one is on? After a heady weekend in which some of the finest minds in the world and India acknowledged and celebrated the prospects of an emerging nation at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, comes a realisation that much has been accomplished, but more needs to be done. A UN report has said that India is unlikely to accomplish the Millennium Development Goals for which the deadline is 2015, seven years after committing to it. Contrast this with Finance Minister P. Chidambaram’s statement at the summit that India’s ‘anchor growth rate’ now stands at around 8.5 per cent, giving it a baseline which would be the envy of just about every finance minister in the world. Between the UN report and the finance minister’s statement falls the reality of sprawling India, in which the details lie in the devil of the deliverables in the form of better education, healthcare and employment opportunities for the poor.
The minister himself dwelt at length on the social outcomes of growth and the need to deliver the services necessary to achieve development goals. In that sense, the UN report does not show the slimy underbelly of growth, but the path that a growing economy must take to make growth inclusive. Looking back, one can be proud that the debate has shifted over the decades from poverty levels close to starvation to one in which decent employment, rather than unemployment, seems to be an emerging challenge. Roads, hospitals and schools are the new triumvirate of development goals in the broader sense. The UN report talks of how India is an early achiever in goals related to HIV, tuberculosis, primary education, forest cover, etc, while it is slow on issues such as sanitation, deep poverty and malnutrition among children. While hoping that economic growth would solve some of these problems through a combination of employment, migration and better opportunities, there is no denying that administrative delivery mechanisms need to be sharpened, and officials galvanised to focus on how best to spread the gains of growth to those who really need to gain from it.
The UN’s broader definition of development goals is a reminder of the gap that could arise between the numerical dynamics of growth and the ground realities. Emerging urbanisation, high carbon emissions that cause climate change and remaining pockets of deep poverty are a reminder that economic growth is part of a long journey, and not a destination in itself.