Look beyond GDP

Economy might be booming but the latest Social Progress Index places India near the bottom

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Rupali Mehra | April 10, 2015


#GDP   #social progress index   #rupali mehra governance now  

It is one of the most unforgivable incidents, yet it is one in many. This week a child fell to her death in a sump at school because she had to go to fetch water. The government primary school that Susanna studied in is not in the rural interiors of India, but in a bustling, modern city – India's IT capital Bengaluru. Yet it doesn't even a have tap for children, let alone purified drinking water.

The nine-year-old child's body was found on April 7. In a day the incident has slipped off the front pages. It didn't even find mention in 24/7 national news channels.

Should it come as a shock? Not really. After all, we hear about such cases every other day, don't we?

So then, should it be any surprise that bizarre and horrific incidents like this push India to the pit bottom of the Social Progress Index, a measure to rank societies based on how they meet the needs of citizens?

The latest statistics suggest India is the world's fastest growing economy, clocking an impressive GDP of 7.5% in the last quarter of 2014.

But before we give ourselves a big pat on the back, let’s look over our shoulder for a reality check. The fact is we rank a pathetic 101 out of 133 countries on social progress.

We are nine places below our main competitor, China, and even lower than neighbours Nepal and Bangladesh in the 2015 survey released on April 9.

The survey looks at nations with three broad parameters. The first: basic human needs like nutrition and medical care, water, shelter, sanitation and personal safety. The next benchmark is general well-being, health and knowledge. Finally, opportunity, in terms of access to advance education, personal rights and tolerance.

It’s easy to shrug off these measures and label them as a 'western' or even 'socialist' viewpoint. But the truth is that for India, this is a serious reality check. It ultimately affects the well-being of each of us.

We hear, see and read about tragic incidents every day. Shocking stories of lack of personal safety, of pedestrians being crushed under the wheels of a truck because a faulty traffic signal. Shameful stories of lack of sanitation forcing scavengers to carry baskets of faecal waste on their heads. Disturbing stories of lack of tolerance for other communities, religions and alternative views. All these, bit by bit, lead to the erosion of our social progress.

In 1933 when American economist Joseph Kuznets came up with the concept of GDP, he did add a warning that “the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from the measurement of national income”, says Michael Green, the creator of the Social Progress Index.

But 82 years later we are still using the same old measurement, of economic progress alone. The social scientist stresses that "we need a measure based on the real things that matter to real people."

Reports suggest the EU is set to adopt the Social Progress Index soon. Our neighbour Bhutan has its own Gross National Happiness index since the 1970s.

So are we really willing to listen and, importantly, make the effort to better our own cities, towns and mofussils? Can we make them more liveable, happier, healthier and safer? So far we've proudly worn the term 'jugaad' or a makeshift approach as a badge of honour. We can fix anything with 'jugaad'! But this attitude of a temporary fix is costing us dear. Can we look for real and permanent solutions?

So that no other parent like Swamy will ever have to lose his child again because her school did not brother to fix a tap for water.
 

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