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Bangladesh shows the way

By Jean Drze

In India, social progress is slower and less broad-based than in Bangladesh, despite much faster economic growth.

IN THE context of the recent panic over the growth rate of the Muslim population in India, recent international data on "human development" in India and Bangladesh make interesting reading. Surely, India must be far ahead of Bangladesh in this respect? Indeed, Bangladesh is not only poorer (much poorer) than India, but also saddled with a large Muslim population. India, for its part, is now a "superpower". One would, therefore, expect its citizens to be much healthier, better fed and better educated than their Bengali neighbours.

Let us examine the evidence. A good starting point is the infant mortality rate: 51 per 1,000 live births in Bangladesh compared with 67 per 1,000 in India, according to the latest Human Development Report. In other words, infant mortality is much lower in Bangladesh.

This is all the more interesting as the positions were reversed not so long ago: in 1990, the infant mortality rate was estimated at 91 per 1,000 in Bangladesh, and 80 per 1,000 in India. India has been neatly leap-frogged, that too during a period when economic growth was much faster in India than in Bangladesh.

Other indicators relating to child health point in the same direction. According to the same Report, 95 per cent of infants in Bangladesh are vaccinated against tuberculosis, and 77 per cent are vaccinated against measles. The corresponding figures in India are only 81 per cent and 67 per cent, respectively.

Similarly, 97 per cent of the population in Bangladesh have access to an "improved water source," compared with 84 per cent in India; and 48 per cent of Bangladeshis have access to "improved sanitation," compared with 28 per cent of Indians.

For good measure, the maternal mortality rate is much higher in India than in Bangladesh: 540 and 380 per 100,000 live births, respectively. Contraceptive prevalence, for its part, is higher in Bangladesh than in India — the "wrong" ranking again!

Perhaps all this has something to do with the fact that public expenditure on health as a proportion of GDP is almost twice as high in Bangladesh (1.6 per cent) as in India (0.9 per cent). The reverse applies to military expenditure, also known as "defence": 2.3 per cent of GDP in India compared with 1.1 per cent in Bangladesh. So much for health. But in education at least, India must be way ahead? Can Bangladesh boast a fraction of India's Nobel prizes, famous writers, nuclear scientists, eminent scholars?

Perhaps not, but Bangladesh appears to be closer to universal primary education than India: it has achieved a "net primary enrolment ratio" of 87 per cent, higher than India's 83 per cent. What is more, Bangladesh has eliminated the gender bias in primary education, in sharp contrast with India where school participation rates continue to be much higher for boys than for girls. Other gender-related indicators also put Bangladesh in a relatively favourable light, compared with India: Bangladesh, for instance, has a higher female-male ratio and much higher rates of female labour force participation.

However, there is a consolation of sorts: the nutrition situation is no better in Bangladesh than in India. In both countries, about half of all children are undernourished. No country in the world fares worse in this respect, but at least India is not alone in the back seat.

Some of these estimates may not be very accurate. Perhaps the ranking would be reversed, in some cases, if exact figures were available. But the general pattern, whereby Bangladesh is now doing better than India in terms of many aspects of social development, is unlikely to reflect measurement errors. This pattern is all the more striking as India used to fare better than Bangladesh in all these respects not so long ago — say in the early 1970s , when Bangladesh became independent.

Bangladesh is no paradise of human development. Like India, it is still one of the most deprived countries in the world. However, social indicators in Bangladesh are improving quite rapidly.

Whether one looks at infant mortality, or vaccination rates, or school participation, or child nutrition, or fertility rates, the message is similar: living conditions are rapidly improving, not just for a privileged elite but also for the population at large. In India, social progress is slower and less broad-based, despite much faster economic growth. This is one indication, among many others, that India's development strategy is fundamentally distorted and lop-sided.

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