Let’s keep the score
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Let’s keep the score

If the world wants to realise the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, we need a new policy trajectory for most countries, writes Sitaram Yechury.

columns Updated: May 21, 2011 16:41 IST
Sitaram Yechury
Sitaram Yechury
Hindustan Times

As the Parliament building is being spruced up to receive President Barack Obama, he has reportedly fired an advance missive in the form of a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh conveying his expectations. Apart from certain defence and telecom deals and nuclear commerce, the letter reportedly seeks greater market access to US agricultural products in India. Succumbing to such pressures, as are already being mounted in the World Trade Organisation’s Doha round of negotiations, will only further accentuate the agrarian crisis and distress in our country.

This runs contrary to the declarations Obama made before the recent United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) summit. Never short of flowery rhetoric, he declared : “At the dawn of a new millennium, we set concrete goals to free our fellow men, women and children from the injustice of extreme poverty”. He went on to caution, “that if the international community just keeps doing the same things the same way, we will miss many development goals. That is the truth.” However, there was nothing concrete on how the US intends to do things differently.

The MDGs, adopted by 191 nations and signed by 147 heads of state and governments in 2000, envisaged among others, halving extreme poverty and hunger from 1990 levels, reducing by two-thirds the child-mortality rate and slashing maternal mortality by three-quarters and achieving universal primary education. A UN review, however, shows that between 1990 and 2008, the mortality rate of children under 5 in developing countries declined only from 10 per cent to 7.2 per cent — far from the target of a two-thirds reduction by 2015. Maternal mortality declined from 480 deaths per 100,000 live births in 1990 to 450 deaths in 2005. The 2015 goal is closer to 120. Enrolment in primary education reached only 89 per cent in 2008, up from 80 per cent in 1991.

The situation has worsened further. The UNDP MDGs Report 2010 states, “Newly updated estimates from the World Bank suggest that the global economic crisis will leave an additional 50 million people in extreme poverty in 2009 and some 64 million by the end of 2010 relative to a no-crisis scenario, principally in sub-Saharan Africa and eastern and south-eastern Asia. Moreover, the effects of the crisis are likely to persist: poverty rates will be slightly higher in 2015 and even beyond, to 2020, than they would have been had the world economy grown steadily at its pre-crisis pace”.

Coming home, the India Country Report 2009 reveals: The number of people living below poverty line in 1990 was 37.2 per cent. This was to be brought down to 18.5 per cent by 2015 but is expected, most optimistically, to reach 22 per cent. There were 53.5 per cent of underweight children below 3 years age in 1990 targetted to be reduced to 26.8. This is expected to come down to about 40 per cent only. Under-five child mortality rate was 125 per 1,000 live births in 1990 targetted to be reduced to 42. It is expected to only reach 70. In 1990, infant mortality rate was 80 per 1,000 live births targeted to be reduced to 26.7. This is expected to reach only 46. In 1990, maternal mortality rate was 437 per 100,000 live births targeted to be brought down to 109. This is expected to reach only 135. Only 51 per cent of our population are covered by sanitation facilities targeted to be brought down to 38. Our government states this goal cannot be achieved. The developed countries had pledged in 2002 to contribute 0.7 per cent of their Gross National Income (GNI) as aid to meet MDGs. But many reneged on this commitment. In 2009, the US contributed only 0.2 per cent of its GDP to aid, while the European Union’s contribution is only 0.48 per cent of its GNI. On average, developmental assistance amounted to only 0.31 per cent of GDP of developed nations last year.

Does this mean that the MDGs are simply unachievable? On the contrary, they are perfectly realisable if only there is a shift in the policy trajectory globally and domestically in India. This is endorsed by the UN itself : Sha Zukang, UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, states, “Policies and interventions will be needed to eliminate the persistent or even increasing inequalities between the rich and the poor, between those living in rural or remote areas or in slums versus better-off urban populations, and those disadvantaged by geographic location, sex, age, disability or ethnicity”.

The New York Times reports that the US has made commitments of about $12.2 trillion in bailout packages. In India, the Tax Forgone data in the budget shows that the government provided tax concessions (2009-10) amounting to R5,02,299 crore. If these amounts of money were instead used for public investments rather than bailing out corporates, this would have generated substantial employment and the consequent expansion of domestic demand would have sustained the cycle of economic growth. This, in turn, would have led to substantial reduction in the levels of poverty and malnutrition. Such a shift in the policy trajectory would also have to include strict regulations on financial markets to prevent speculative trading in food and other essential commodities leading to inflation which pushes greater numbers into poverty. Further, in the ongoing negotiations in the WTO and on climate change, the developed countries must desist from reneging declared commitments and imposing crippling pressures on the developing world’s energy needs that prevent effective measures to tackle poverty from being undertaken. President Obama, having won the Nobel Prize must now earn it by leading the developed world towards such a shift in the policy trajectory in order to realise the MDGs.

Sitaram Yechury is CPI(M) Politburo member and Rajya Sabha MP. The views expressed by the author are personal.

First Published: Oct 25, 2010 22:07 IST