Interview: Swati Narayan, author, Unequal; Why India Lags behind its Neighbours - Hindustan Times
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Interview: Swati Narayan, author, Unequal; Why India Lags behind its Neighbours

BySyed Saad Ahmed
May 25, 2024 06:24 PM IST

Swati Narayan talks about why the nation has fallen behind neighbours such as Bangladesh on human development indices and how a lack of coordination between government bodies, who throw money at problems without actually solving them with a coordinated grassroots approach, is at the crux of the issue

How did you begin comparing social indicators, such as health, nutrition, education, etc, of Indian states with neighbouring countries? What was the academic or intellectual foundation you built upon?

Author Swati Narayan (Courtesy the subject)
Author Swati Narayan (Courtesy the subject)

In 2004, Jean Dreze wrote an article about how Bangladesh was leapfrogging ahead of India in terms of these social indicators. At that time, a South Asian NGO I was working with had asked me to write a pan-South Asian report, for which he wrote the foreword. In 2014, I started my PhD with Dreze as my co-guide at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. All this time, the data showed that our neighbours were doing better than us. With this book, I was able to culminate this analysis.

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Regarding the intellectual tradition, my work draws upon the human development approach, the capabilities approach, and a comparison of entitlements. I also looked at the research in other South Asian countries, such as Naomi Hossain’s work on Bangladesh.

368pp, ₹599; Westland
368pp, ₹599; Westland

How did you distil so many years of academic research into a book and make it accessible to a general audience?

My PhD was five years. After that, I decided to convert it into a book. I didn’t want to write an academic tome sitting on a dusty bookshelf; I wanted to engage another audience. My agent told me to add stories and make it lighter. A journalist friend helped me make it more descriptive. I took my field notes and combined them with the scholarly analysis. As academics, we’re usually not supposed to insert ourselves in the narrative. But as a teenager, I’d read Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land, which is based on his experience as an anthropologist in Egypt, and took inspiration from it. Now, many development economists are doing that.

I also found a wonderful publisher in Westland because the second half is just endnotes, appendix, methodology, and sources. The first half is as readable as possible. I had to write four or five drafts before it even went to the publisher.

You write, “The adoption of low-cost, novel ideas such as ‘Little Doctors’ in Bangladeshi public policy is a typical trait of high achievers in human development. They pay close attention to the little details.” Have you identified any reasons for certain countries exhibiting these traits or are these mere flukes?

In India, we tend to throw money at problems. But they don’t have as much money and they’re well aware of that, so they ensure that every taka is spent well. There are two books on this trait of high achievers: Development with a Human Face by Richard Jolly and Santosh Mehrotra and Good Health at Low Cost.

‘Little Doctors’ is an experiment in health education in classrooms without using expensive doctors — let the students do the work instead of doctors. Amazingly, Bangladeshi policymakers learnt this from Japanese classrooms because Japan is a donor. This is not a fluke; it’s a social contract of Bangladeshi society where they demand a lot from governments. There’s also an openness and humbleness, so they learn from others.

In India’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, we give cash grants to build toilets. But in Bangladesh and Nepal, they give materials such as cement rings and doors instead of money. They educate people on how open defecation can lead to diseases. People build toilets and use them because they understand their value. Both governments spend money on information, education, and communication, and ‘Little Doctors’ is part of this health promotion. In India, it’s all separate ministries doing separate things.

How much weight do evidence-based recommendations like yours carry in the Indian polity today?

I thought a lot about this. Let me answer your question, but also, let me twist it. So, yes, my work is directed at policymakers and I’m so happy it was mentioned in the Parliament! State governments — and also national governments — seek inputs and advice from academics. I’m also involved with various activist movements, which usually create the architecture for welfare programmes.

But I think citizens are the biggest policy-shapers; that’s why I wrote my work for a general audience. When we demand progressive policies, those policies come into play. We shouldn’t underestimate our role.

This idea of comparative analysis [across South Asian nations]… when you realise that something is better across the border, you are more likely to demand the same. In my book, I write about the Channar Revolt of the 19th century. When women in Travancore realised that their caste sisters across the border could cover their upper bodies and didn’t have to pay a “breast tax”, they fought for over 40 years for the right to wear dignified clothes.

Few Indians travel across the border to Bangladesh or Nepal. So, I hope this book, as it goes into local languages, raises the aspiration of ordinary Indians — that we can lead a better life — and provides concrete ideas about what to ask for. These are not freebies given by politicians.

It’s interesting you say that because these so-called freebies are considered a waste of public money.

I’m shocked they’re called freebies because there are no free lunches. These are public resources bought with public money through direct or indirect taxes and given back to the public. So there’s nothing free about it — it’s just a redistribution. It’s great when citizens demand electoral competition, that is, give us back more for the money that we gave you. Today, citizens pay a higher percentage of their incomes as taxes than corporations do. So, we need to get services for what we pay.

Moreover, with the Goods and Services Tax, etc, there is more indirect taxation and poorer people are paying more to the tax pool. So they should be getting and demanding more. I think this whole “freebie culture, patronage politics, you’re our beneficiary…” discourse should change to rights-based entitlements enshrined in laws so they’re not just at the whims of governments. I’ve been working towards this for decades.

You write, “Radical social movements in South Asia have acted as catalysts to usher in greater social equality”. How much have these movements relied on academic work or evidence-based research in the past? Or was this push for progressive measures motivated largely by the lived experiences of people and communities?

It’s both: people demanding more and academic insights. I’ll give a couple of examples. In Tamil Nadu, the Dravidian parties have their roots in the Self-Respect Movement. The state’s electorate demands a lot from the parties, but this came about through many decades of the movement and its close relationship with the Tamil film industry. It led to the mass communication of ideas, ideals, and ideology.

Since 1916, when the Non-Brahmin Manifesto was put forth, the caste composition of the state’s bureaucracy has changed. When people in the government are concerned about their communities, they demand more. So now, you have Dalit literature flourishing, the Dalit movement has strengthened, and Dalit voices have come to the fore. That’s why we should have proportional representation and women should represent half the seats in Parliament. The caste composition of our governments, bureaucracy, activists, and journalists has to change and this happens with literate societies. Learning from south India is an excellent idea.

Another example is from Bangladesh. According to The Lancet, the most important medical discovery of the 20th century is that of Oral Rehydration Solution (ORS) in Bangladeshi refugee camps after the 1971 war — using sugar, salt, and water to cure dehydration and diarrhoea. This was a scientific idea based on evidence found in refugee camps. And then, Building Resources Across Communities (BRAC), now the largest NGO in the world, went door-to-door and taught every Bangladeshi mother how to make ORS.

The best example is from India — the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). Academic activists studied the Maharashtra employment guarantee of the 1970s and said it could spread all over India. They demanded this through a bottom-up rather than a top-down approach; there was a big social movement. People don’t realise that it’s the largest employer in the world today, many times larger than the Indian army, the US army, and the Chinese army combined. Sixty to seventy million homes receive temporary employment to improve rural areas.

Although this is not related to your research, did you glean any insights from your respondents on what they thought of the narrative of India as an ascendant superpower amid the subpar government services they encountered?

In other South Asian countries, they are aware of this, so they are mystified and irritated with our delusions of being a superpower. As I write in my book, after India’s economic blockade of Nepal in 2016, ordinary Nepalis were hostile towards me because most of them had suffered in the absence of fuel and medicines. They didn’t realise that the blockade didn’t have the support of all Indians.

Even in Bangladesh, people are puzzled when they see open defecation across the border. By the time India launched the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, they had almost eradicated open defecation. They can see clear signs of our underdevelopment and they wonder why we think we’re a superpower. In Bangladesh, the civil society, government officials, and NGOs compare themselves to Sri Lanka. The latter has been the pioneer and benchmark for human development across South Asia for the last 50 to 60 years. Only we don’t seem to be aware of that. Women in Sri Lanka and Kerala live as long as American men. We think that just because we’re a large country with a huge population, we’re somehow superior!

Did you encounter this awareness about our failings in India too?

Much less because this notion of a superpower… I’ll give an example. Every presentation I make, Indians in the audience say, “It’s a population problem. How can we learn from Bangladesh?” Bangladesh is willing to learn from Japan, a country with a tenth of its population, but a GDP larger than ours. We glorify our economic power without realising that it is simply the product of a large population. Going to the moon doesn’t change people’s lives.

You challenge neoliberalist assumptions that government cuts in spending and privatisation are key to economic and social growth or that economic growth alone is a “rising tide that lifts all boats”. Is there now greater acknowledgement of these assumptions’ failures among governments and multilateral organisations?

You say acknowledgement, but it’s just rhetoric. We’re getting smarter at manipulating words. For 30 years, multilateral organisations have been saying that we should have user fees: school fees, hospital fees, etc. Now, they’ve reversed their stand, but decades of development and millions of lives were lost. There was no apology, no compensation, zero accountability!

I now work in public health, where earlier there was the ideal of universal healthcare and building primary healthcare centres to prevent and cure diseases. They’ve now watered it down to universal health coverage, which supports insurance-based models, insurance companies, and private hospitals. And governments continue to cut budgets for education, health, etc. and divert funds from basic necessities.

In the past decade, private firms and consultancies have started playing a bigger role in governance and policymaking in India. What effect has this had?

It’s been terrible because the government has been cutting jobs at a time of high unemployment. And the consultants’ jobs are short term. They’re also inexperienced because they are hired at an entry level and they move after five years or so.

The slogan “minimum government, maximum governance” is privatising basic welfare measures to bodies with no accountability. So whose door do you knock on when there’s no governance? It’s just become maximum grievances with zero accountability, more exclusion, and inequality.

Syed Saad Ahmed is a writer and communications professional.

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