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How Is India Doing?’ An Exchange

In response to:

How Is India Doing? from the December 16, 1982 issue

To the Editors:

It is good that Armatya Sen [“How Is India Doing?” NYR, December 16] has made a case for investment in social infrastructure, showing that this is not only a significant tool in attempts to eradicate poverty and move towards inequality; but also has straightforward economic pay offs in terms of per capita income growth.

It is also good that he boldly confronts the issue of development without democracy and the values of “the fifth modernisation.”

One area, however, which does not appear to be as clear as he presumes is the value of “positive discrimination.” As pointed out by Andre Beteille in his G.L. Mehta Memorial Lectures,1 the untouchables, as Sen calls them, are somewhat different as a strata from say Blacks or Women. Blacks and women have an additional identity which they cannot shed while untouchables quite easily merge into a population. There is a growing feeling today—and there always was that feeling in Gandhi and his followers—that positive discrimination has added to the alienation and conflict between the caste and untouchables. It preempts “the untouchables” from shedding their untouchability as the moment they do it they lose the privileges. The debate on how to integrate is known as the debate between Gandhi and Ambedkar the leader of the “untouchables.” Gandhi wanted merging and Ambedkar the separate identity.

The declining sex ratio, the high rate of female infant deaths where the divergence increases between male and female, is beginning to enter the perceptions of elitist India.2 In fact it provides the perfect critical issue for a strong radical women’s movement in the Indian context.

That economists like Sen and sociologists like Beteille who have been systematically analysing inequality, should have taken note of the characteristics of sex-based inequality is also a sign of increasing awareness of the existence of this injustice.

Devaki Jain

Institute of Social Studies Trust

New Delhi, India

To the Editors:

I have some comments as to facts, and some on interpretation, concerning Amartya Sen’s neatly rounded discussion on “How is India Doing?” India’s rate of growth in the thirtyfive years since independence—in the range of 3 to 3.5 percent per annum—certainly marks a departure from a century of stagnation under the British. But this still represents a per capita income growth of barely 1 per cent a year. Is a vertical analysis of this kind, where you compare with past performance, worth much? A horizontal comparison with what other countries were doing in the same period shows the Indian growth rate in a worse light.

If one considers the three and a half decades as a whole, certainly China, and even neighbouring Pakistan and Sri Lanka, would seem to have done better. The growth rate in India’s industrial sector, which was around 3 percent annually between 1950 and 1965, in fact appears to have dropped off to about 4 percent during the past decade. The rate of growth in the farm sector has maintained a trend of 3 percent per annum; while in the first one and a half decades following independence, this was sustained by expansion of net acreage, in the more recent period it reflected a steady rise in productivity in the two major cereals, wheat and rice. There are some indications that farm productivity is now levelling off. With a shift in terms of trade in favour of agriculture, the proportion of income spent on foodgrains has actually increased for a majority of the population, thereby affecting adversely the demand for industrial products. It is one aspect of the kind of economic development that has taken place that per capita consumption of cloth today is less than what it was thirty years ago.

I have also to join issue with Sen when he says that growth of India’s national product “has speeded up from being about 3 to 3.5 percent per year to about 4 or 5 percent, touching 6 percent recently.” Facts will not substantiate the claim. In the period since 1980—covering the three years since Mrs. Gandhi’s return to power—, the rate of growth averages out to less than 3 percent per year. No, what a colleague of ours has christened the Hindu rate of growth—a statuesque 3 to 3.5 percent—remains undisequilibrated.

There have been, Sen claims, no major famines in India in the post-independence years. True, and I would agree with him that in an open system large-scale starvation is unlikely to occur, the authorities can pump in food and resources from elsewhere. This they have to do for their own dear life, for the stigma that attaches to a government which permits famines can be severe indeed. Even so, one of the harsher realities of Indian economic life is the almost total exclusion of the rural poor—by far the nation’s majority—from the normal arrangements for public distribution of foodgrains, something not known to happen in China. It is thus difficult to go along with Sen’s oblique suggestion that India has managed the problem of food distribution better than China. He quotes some estimates of what he calls extra mortality in China during 1959-61, but do we generalise from the experience of only three years, and is it not extraordinary that we had to wait twenty years for being made aware of a calamity of such colossal order? After all, the Soviet shortage in the thirties and the recent famine in Cambodia—both of which Sen refers to—became known to the rest of the world with only a short time interval.

On the negative side, Sen mentions the underdevelopment of elementary education and social services in India. However, from the point of view of the oligarchical groups who are in power, this lack of enthusiasm for primary education is part of a basic strategy for survival. An oligarchy can sustain itself only as long as general political and social awareness lags behind: keeping the majority illiterate thus helps. Sen’s glib assertion that “much of the leadership of all political parties in India—from the extreme right to the extreme left—“ comes from an elitist background is not of much help for understanding the phenomenon: a rightist party like the one led by Mrs. Gandhi—who is on record that elementary education is not that important for economic growth—would stall literacy programmes, while the leftists would place the maximum stress, along with land reforms, on such programmes. A great deal of the hostility evinced by New Delhi towards the Left government in the State of West Bengal is on account of the latter’s allout priority on elementary education.

Ashok Mitra

Indian Statistical Institute

Calcutta, India

To the Editors:

Did 16 to 23 million people perish from famine in China’s agricultural depression of 1960-61, as suggested by Amartya Sen? Yes, there was a great tragedy. No, we cannot quantify it yet.

There is no doubt that in 1960-61, famine existed in many localities in China. Bad weather was partially to blame; but foolish production and distribution policies of the central government were amplified foolishly by local officials. A precarious situation was converted to catastrophe. Ivan and Miriam London’s interviews of former residents (Worldview, March 1979) have confirmed this pattern.

Sen’s substantive point may be correct, that the ensuing famine in China [cost] more lives than have the famines in India; and that China’s closed political system not only contributed to causing the famine, but perhaps more importantly, reacted to famine conditions by covering them up, rather than by mobilizing relief supplies. This catastrophe is high on the tragically long list of self inflicted disasters the world has seen in this century. Hopefully we can learn from this and others, before we bring the ultimate one to everyone.

However, it is not yet possible to put a precise number on the size of this Chinese tragedy. The numbers that Sen mentions should not enter conventional wisdom about China.

The first problem in estimating “excess deaths” in a year is defining how many deaths are “normal.” Coale’s figure of 16.5 million excess deaths during the four years of 1958, 1959, 1960, and 1961 are based on a report of a death rate in China of 17.0 per thousand for this period, 60 percent higher than the rate of 10.6 per thousand given by another source for 1957 and 1962 (Population and Development Review 7:1, p. 89). This rate of 17 per thousand was, however, the “normal” level during the early 1950s, and reflected a large improvement from the death rate of the 1930s. The accuracy of the figure for the death rate in 1957 is not known.

Aird’s figure of 23 million is not an estimate of deaths. It is, rather, the statistical discrepancy between population figures for 1957 and 1965, if one accepts all other data concerning birth rates and death rates. Minor adjustments to estimates of birth or death rates, or population size at beginning and end points can have a large impact on the size of the statistical discrepancy. Aird’s main point is that a comprehensive reevaluation of data and assumptions are needed to make a coherent picture of China’s demographic changes (Population and Development Review 8:2, p. 278)….

Benedict Stavis

Cambridge, Massachusetts

To the Editors:

I wish to make a brief comment on the article “How Is India Doing?” by Professor Amartya Sen. It is confined at this stage to the use Professor Sen has made of the excellent paper by John S. Aird on “Population Studies and Population Policy in China” published recently in the Population and Development Review (Vol. 8, 1982).

After citing various estimates of birth and death rates and of population covering the period 1957 to 1964, and some of the observations and inferences that have been drawn on that basis, John Aird has made a very persuasive and earnest plea that “Chinese demographers should be permitted to review these estimates” (more specifically the official vital rates, as “their basis is not known”), produce “a more plausible series,” and “also be allowed to investigate the question whether the 1964 census total is too low.” As he also pointed out, the main reason for the paucity of the data necessary is the continuing central censorship. “No national population data can be made public without prior authorization by the State Council. Even officials of SSB (State Statistical Bureau) cannot use such figures in their articles and speeches until they have been cleared.”

In making this plea, John Aird was really speaking for all those interested in Chinese demographic data for the analysis and interpretation of social and economic trends in China; and it is therefore a plea that most of us would support without reservation. However, what Professor Sen has done is to use the official estimates and various related observations cited by Aird, for bringing out the appalling internal inconsistencies in these data and the inferences that might be drawn from them by those who are not aware of their limitations, to draw himself inferences that are totally unwarranted in the present state of our knowledge on what has been happening in China’s population over the last three decades. All of his quotations from Aird are from pp. 277 and 278 of the paper, giving the impression that the very important points made earlier on pp. 267-277 are not relevant for the inferences to be drawn.

The inferences drawn by Professor Sen are so serious, and of such far-reaching significance if correct, that it seems necessary to point out straightaway that they are at the very least premature. One could perhaps even describe them as irresponsible coming from an economist of Professor Sen’s stature, reputation and credibility. The publication of his article, with these inferences highlighted in your journal, could have effects exactly opposite of what John Aird had in mind; and, since Professor Sen is still an Indian by nationality (though normally living abroad), it could also create serious barriers to the closer relations that Indian and Chinese social scientists are now trying to develop.

The substance of the inferences Professor Sen has drawn deserve of course very much closer analysis and discussion, as any broad judgements coming from a leading economist of his maturity and depth should receive irrespective of their empirical basis and scientific validity….

K.N. Raj

Fellow, Centre for Development Studies

Trivandrum, India

Amartya Sen replies:

I am much encouraged by Ms. Devaki Jain’s letter, particularly by her pointing to the possibility that more understanding and awareness of India’s dismal record in sex-based differentials might itself contribute to the development of counteracting political movements (such as “a strong radical women’s movement”). Indeed, the quiet continuation of these terrible injustices has been much helped by the neglect of these issues in public discussion, which has tended to concentrate on more traditional variables such as growth rates. The point about the role of understanding and awareness applies also to other areas of inequality and neglect which I tried to discuss in my essay, such as endemic malnutrition and perpetual illiteracy of the Indian non-elite, especially the rural poor.

I share Ms. Jain’s doubts about the real value of “positive discrimination” in favor of the “untouchables.” However, while the doubts that I had expressed arose from the diagnosis that “positive discrimination has often done no more than recruit some of the ablest, or most advanced, ‘untouchable’ members into the charmed circle of the Indian elite,” Ms. Jain points to a different danger, namely, positive discrimination discourages the “untouchables” from “shedding their untouchability as the moment they do it they lose the privilege.” I cannot assess how important this issue currently is, but I see this as a consideration of possible gravity as and when the “untouchables” reach the happy position of being able to shed the statutory “privileges” without ending up having their traditional raw deal.

Dr. Ashok Mitra is much concerned with the numbers game of growth rates, and by choosing to ignore the main focus of my paper, namely, “the persistent inequities” in the Indian society, he does his best to deflect the discussion back to the economists’ traditional battleground. In this rather barren territory, he repeats some of the things I had said in passing, but gives the impression of contradicting me. He notes that India’s growth rate in the thirty-five years since independence, while much higher than before independence, is low compared with many other countries. (I had said that India’s “long-term growth average has been much lower than the world average.”) The one point of real difference concerns his denial of my statement that India’s growth rate has speeded up recently, and this he does by presenting his own estimate of the average growth rate over one particular configuration of three years. Comparison of growth trends is certainly a difficult exercise and often disputable, but there is indeed some evidence of a speeding up, reflected also in the data source I cited, World Development Report 1982 (growth rates of Indian gross domestic product, as given in Table 2.1: 1960-1973, 3.5 percent; 1973-1980, 3.8 percent; 1980, 6.5 percent; 1981, 5.6 percent). But the more important point is that Mitra overlooks altogether my argument that growth rate is a very daft—and a deeply alienated—way of judging economic progress. “The real blots on India’s performance,” as I tried to argue, “lie elsewhere.”

Dr. Mitra objects to my statement that “much of the leadership of all political parties in India—from the extreme right to the extreme left—comes from the elite background.” He does not deny the truth of the statement—he could not have—but finds it “not of much help,” since, he argues, the record of “leftist” governments (such as that of West Bengal, of which until recently Dr. Mitra was the finance minister) is so much better than that of other governments. I believe that the record of “leftist” governments in India is indeed better. But it is, nevertheless, not nearly good enough. In particular, the failure to deal effectively with various persistent inequities—including endemic malnutrition, continuing illiteracy, and female deprivation—is not unrelated to the nature of the leadership and dominant groups in these parties. Mitra dismisses the issue of pervasive elitism much too lightly.

Ashok Mitra writes very much better than he reads. He attributes to me the view that “India has managed the problem of food distribution better than China.” I had, on the contrary, argued that China has been more successful in raising the general level of nutrition and the expectation of life (“much higher than India’s miserable fifty-two years”), and I had related this success to “the anti-elitist achievements of China.” But I had also noted that China had been less successful in avoiding famine, judging from its experience during the food crisis years of 1959-1961, when millions died from food shortage.

I had argued that in a normal year the Chinese poor are better fed than the Indian poor, but when a political and economic crisis confuses the regime, which continues to pursue disastrous policies with dogmatic optimism, there are no opposition parties, or free newspapers, to force a change in China as they would in India. Dr. Mitra concedes that authorities in India have to “pump in food and resources” into distress areas (if necessary by importing) since “the stigma that attaches to a government which permits famine can be severe indeed.” But he seems to overlook the other side of the same coin, to wit, in a system with no real opposition parties or independent newspapers, the authorities can afford to discount such stigma and can prevent rebellious discussion of disastrous policies. The apolitical nature of Mitra’s analysis of China is striking.

Indeed, Dr. Mitra is tempted to disbelieve that there were extensive deaths related to food shortage in China during the period 1959-1961, despite the references on this that I had cited. He finds it incredible on grounds that “we had to wait twenty years for being made aware of a calamity of such colossal order.” Information on the famine was of course systematically suppressed, but there are plenty of contemporary discussions on a suspected famine and a good deal of hard statistics on the massive volume of “food remittances” sent from Hong Kong to relatives in China during those years.3 Also if Dr. Mitra were to broaden his reading habits to include, say, Han Suyin’s My House Has Two Doors (Book 4 of her Autobiography), he would find a moving and perceptive account by a sympathetic observer of “the years of want,” with city housewives trying to make do with “1,200 calories or less,” and people making infusion from fallen leaves “until there were no more leaves.”4

Professor Benedict Stavis’s letter is very helpful on this subject, particularly in clarifying the demographic issues involved in estimating the extra mortality and the net loss of population during the Chinese famine of 1959-1961. My argument about the relevance of newspapers and opposition parties in preventing famines did not, of course, depend in any way on the exact size of extra mortality in the Chinese famine. What was relevant for my argument was to note that “although the Chinese have an economic system that makes guaranteeing food to everyone much easier than in the Indian economy, it is China rather than India that has had sudden large-scale deaths from food shortages in recent times.”

Professor K.N. Raj manages to miss this point altogether. He rightly points out that there are, as John Aird has noted, many limitations of official Chinese data. He jumps from this to the conclusion that “the inferences” I had drawn, which he does not specify, were “totally unwarranted.” He overlooks that while I had cited different estimates of mortality and population loss in China during the famine, I had not used any of these estimates in developing my argument. I simply took note of what John Aird (like others) calls “the famine,” and what Stavis, in his letter, refers to as “the catastrophe.”

Professor Raj’s second point is harder to deal with. He accuses me of irresponsibility, and notes that because of my Indian nationality, the publication of my article could “create serious barriers to the closer relations that Indian and Chinese social scientists are now trying to develop.” I can only hope that this proves not to be the case; but I cannot really believe Professor Raj would want such considerations to prevent historical events from being examined. In any case, Professor Raj’s “responsible” reaction may do something to outweigh my “irresponsibility.” I would also hope that Chinese social scientists would not be led by Professor Raj’s argument to refrain from examining the failings of modern India. There are plenty to keep both the Chinese and us Indians busy.

  1. 1

    Beteille, Andre. “On Equality of Opportunity.” Fourth G. L. Mehta Memorial Lecture at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, March 1982.

  2. 2

    Jain, Devaki. “Indian Women Today and Tomorrow.” Padmaja Naidu Memorial Lectures, 1982.

  3. 3

    See, for example, Feng-hwa Mah, The Foreign Trade of Mainland China (Edinburgh University Press, 1972), pp. 175-176.

  4. 4

    Han Suyin, My House Has Two Doors, Book 4 of China: Autobiography, History, (Putnam, 1980), pp. 346-378.

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