Understanding India’s Economic Growth and Development

This post is a review of the recent book by Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen titled An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions. An earlier post in this blog has dealt with the vexed relation between economic growth and development and elsewhere, I have discussed the need to focus on the structure of economic growth. Drèze and Sen’s book contains 10 chapters including the introduction (‘A New India?’) and the conclusion (‘The Need for Impatience’); the main text spreads across 287 pages. Their argument is buttressed with comparative exercises between Indian states, international comparisons, historical facts, surveys, published data sources and contemporary events apart from ample secondary literature. However, this review does not engage with their empirical findings.

For Drèze and Sen, the aim of any society should be the expansion of human capabilities. And, institutions such as markets and democracy are a means to that end. Similarly, economic growth ‘generates resources’ which can be used to improve human capabilities. As they write in the preface, ‘the achievement of high growth must ultimately be judged in terms of the impact of that economic growth on the lives and freedoms of the people’ (p. viii). Human capabilities, as is to be expected, refer to a spectrum of endowments and the ability to access all of them. For instance, it includes, in no particular order, nutrition (pp. 157-162), education (see ch. 5), health (see ch. 6), clean environment (pp. 41-44), access to energy (pp. 84-87), transportation, communication and banking infrastructure. The ability to access them, however, is severely constrained by caste (pp. 218-223). And some of them are also constrained by gender (pp. 224-239) besides other power relations.

Given India’s high growth rate, the authors pose one major question: why has the ‘pace of change … been excruciatingly slow’ for majority of the Indian populace (p. 29)? According to Drèze and Sen, the major cause for this is the abysmal situation of public education and health in India. (There are some Indian states which have done relatively better.) This is because of issues relating to accountability and also due to insufficient public spending. Moreover, the authors harshly criticize the Indian media for their ‘excessive focus on a relatively small part of the population whose lives and problems are much discussed’ (p. 261; see also pp. 262-267). This wide gap in public discourse provides their motivation in writing the book. Hence, they point out the ‘importance of enlightened public reasoning’ as ‘a central part of the general thesis of this book’ (p. 239). Furthermore, they state that ‘this book is aimed much more as an attempted contribution to public reasoning, including discussion in the media, than at giving professional advice to the government in office’ (p. 253).

Is their account of economic growth and development entirely satisfactory? Their second chapter is about ‘Integrating Growth with Development’. First, what determines economic growth? According to mainstream (neoclassical) economics, a growth in physical capital, human capital (educated and healthy workforce) and technological progress causes economic growth. This is known as the supply-side view of economic growth. If we accept this growth account, then clearly an improvement in the quality of life directly contributes to faster economic growth. Drèze and Sen do not have theoretical dissatisfactions with mainstream economics, as is made very clear in the following passage written in the context of a discussion on markets.

Relying solely on the market has become a strongly advocated theme in India on the basis on highly exaggerated expectations, often based on a misreading of the conclusions of mainstream economics, which includes much scepticism of the performance of markets in the presence of externalities, public goods, asymmetric information and distributional disparities. We do not have to look for any “alternative economic paradigm” to see what the market cannot do, in addition to what it can do – and do very well. (p. 184; emphasis added)

They also approvingly cite Joel Mokyr and Elhanan Helpman who emphasize the importance of ‘accumulation of knowledge’ and ‘total-factor productivity’ through education in economic growth respectively (p. 35). This is the supply-side production function approach in understanding the growth determinants. No one denies their significance. However, if one is convinced by such a theory/view of economic growth, the popular version of it being the Cobb-Douglas production function in various clothes, then, theoretically, physical capital can be substituted with human capital. And, this would entail a very different method of attaining economic development from that mentioned in the book. Moreover, aggregate demand does not play a role in this growth account; as the authors write in the preface, the ‘expansion of human capability, in turn, allows a faster expansion of resources and production, on which economic growth ultimately depends’ (p. x). That is, economic growth is entirely determined by the growth of aggregate supply, without considering the problems which can arise from aggregate demand deficiency (such as a fall in wage income or decrease in government spending). Without getting into the details of the argument, it appears that their conception of economic growth and development sits more comfortably with the economics of the classical economists (such as Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Karl Marx) combined with the effective demand theories of Michal Kalecki and John Maynard Keynes.

The surplus generated from economic growth can be utilized for societal needs which is further determined through socio-political movements and economic considerations of the entrepreneurs as well as the state. To put it differently, ‘the fruits of growth’ need to be allocated intelligently – based on our physical, economic, environmental, social and cultural needs (p. 9; cf. p. 14, p. 18, p. 38). There are two very different kinds of distribution that takes place – income distribution between wage-earners and profit-earners and the expenditure of the government from the revenue they collect as taxes and duties. They also observe,

The impact of economic growth on the lives of the people is partly a matter of income distribution, but it also depends greatly on the use that is made of the public revenue generated by economic expansion. (p. 37)

They mention the importance of collective bargaining (p. 141) and point out that the NREGA ‘strengthened the bargaining power of rural workers’ (p. 201). But their focus in the book is how to utilize public revenue in improving the quality of life (p. 269). Since this public revenue can be utilized in a variety of ways, Drèze and Sen assert ‘the constructive role of the state for growth and development’ (p. 39; italics in original). Hence, the organs of the state need to be made more accountable (ch. 4).

Since democracy offers ‘significant opportunities’ for improving the quality of life as well as its pace, the authors are ‘contingently optimistic’ (p. xii). In fact, the issues addressed by the authors are intended to be a contribution to a wider debate on how to construct a better society. Thus, the book aims to provide ‘reasoned solutions to the problems’ (p. 3). They also write that ‘economic reforms, even when appropriate, require informed public debate’ (p. 28). In sum, there ought to be a ‘greater use of informed reasoning in the practice of democracy’ (p. 181). As they observe, and correctly, I think, that daily troubles are ‘less spectacular and less immediate – [and hence] provide a much harder challenge’ to politicize (p. 14). The book is primarily about these issues and since they cover a vast terrain, there have been some omissions. Two very varied issues come to my mind: the influence of public debt on economic growth is only addressed briefly (p. 18) and the gap between English and non-English speakers get barely one paragraph (pp. 215-6). In addition, there is no mention of freedoms relating to sexuality. To conclude, the book is an excellent contribution in so far as it provides an accessible introduction to several social concerns such as armed conflicts, child mortality, corporate power, corruption, land ownership, minimum wages, nutrition, open defecation, pollution and sanitation.