Zia Haq picks his favourite read of 2023 - Hindustan Times

Zia Haq picks his favourite read of 2023

Dec 29, 2023 05:31 PM IST

As India surges ahead as the fastest-growing economy in the world, a new book shows that the nation needs more social welfare investment to keep up with poorer neighbours who have raced ahead in health and nutrition

When Pakistani economist Mahub-ul Haq unveiled the first-ever UN Human Development Report before journalists, he did a little thought experiment to ask them a simple question. If an alien were to decide on settling down on Earth, which country would it would choose: Costa Rica, a poorer country with a better quality of life where people lived longer, or one of the oil-rich Middle-eastern nations, where people died younger? The answer was obvious: nobody wants to die prematurely.

Putting growth in its place (Context)
Putting growth in its place (Context)

As India surges ahead as the fastest-growing economy in the world, a new book puts the country’s economic growth in its place. Academic Swati Narayan’s quest in Unequal is to find out why a newborn can expect to live till 80 in Sri Lanka, 74 in Bangladesh but only 69 in India?

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India is often readily compared with China in many areas, but Unequal takes an interesting detour to compare the different rates of social development in India, Bangladesh, once dismissed as a “basket case” by American diplomat Henry Kissinger, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

GDP, which measures the total value of goods and services produced in a given period, is a measure of how well the economy is doing; it is not, however, a measure of how well people are faring. Income alone doesn’t ensure human development. Access to health care and public provisioning of so-called merit goods, such as education and pensions, are equally important. These are, of course, well-known tenets of development economics.

Narayan’s insights from a five-year study across India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka bring new evidence of why these well-known tenets of development economics matter.

Zia Haq (HT Photo)
Zia Haq (HT Photo)

The author finds even poorer neighbours faring better than India on a range of indicators, such as health, nutrition, sanitation and education. Arthur Lewis, who can safely be called the first development economist, wrote, in his famous paper on the dual-sector model, that the “transfer of women’s work from the household to commercial employment is one of the most notable features of economic development”. Narayan finds that in all these countries – Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh especially – more women work outside the home than in India.

The author shows, through human stories and data, that India’s neighbours have leapfrogged on a range of social parameters, from health to nutrition. She pins down India’s problems to “systemic and, at times, barbaric inequalities” but also strikes an optimistic note. Social-welfare investments can have transformative effects, as they have in states like Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Unequal is a brilliant intellectual project.

READ MORE: HT editors pick their best reads of 2023

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    Zia Haq reports on public policy, economy and agriculture. Particularly interested in development economics and growth theories.

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