This is happening at a time when we have seen a decade of high economic growth—of late as high as seven to eight per cent—even as we aspire to take our rightful place among the leading nations of the world. At its worst, such stagnation means that growth is not trickling down and, as a government, we have failed to give people a chance to better fulfil their basic daily needs. At its best, this means other countries are progressing much faster and we have to run just to catch up with them.
The malaise runs deeper than we can see. But it is clear that this growth has not translated into benefits in the social sector for millions of our people. The rewards of India’s ‘opening up’ are disproportionately going towards the more privileged. Overall, we continue to lag behind in education and public health.
It is important to create wealth. After all, that is what economic growth is all about. But growth will lose its meaning if it is not inclusive, and if it doesn’t improve the life of large sections of our public. For many of our people, wealth has not trickled down. What is the point of an economy growing at a high rate if it doesn’t enrich the quality of life of large numbers of our people?
Besides improving the quality of life of the vulnerable sections, social development is essential for economic growth itself. Amartya Sen touched the heart of the matter when he wrote, "Illiteracy, ill health, economic insecurity and the neglect of women’s interests and powers not only hurt the deprived, but also make it harder to achieve general economic and social progress. Nothing is as debilitating for India’s social health as the continued disparities in social opportunities. The chain of potential economic progress snaps at its weakest link."
We (and across the border, Pakistan) set aside whopping amounts on military spending. While we spent 2.3 per cent of our GDP on defence, the figure is a paltry 0.91 per cent on health. The amount spent on education is comparatively better at 4.1 per cent of the GDP. Our latest budget has hiked the allocation for education by 31 per cent and for health by 22 per cent. This is quite heartening as it tries to sustain economic growth with investments in the social sector. The Economic Survey, while making a strong case for improving elementary education and primary healthcare, among other things, stated that it will "result in tangible human development, enhance capacity-building and create opportunities for people to productively participate in the growth process." When we make meaningful interventions in the education and health sectors, we are actually investing in the future economic security of India. Who else but its informed, aware and healthy citizens can protect and guard the long-term interests of this country?
But allocations address only a part of the issue. The real problems lie in service delivery. Recent surveys have shown that even the deprived sections have little faith in the government schools and primary health centres. Poor quality is driving them to expensive private options that are again pushing them into poverty and want. There is a crisis of credibility as far as government handling of education and health is concerned. Various reports have already revealed the pathetic condition of state-run schools that often have no roofs, no blackboards and no teachers. The same goes for our primary health centres, which are stuck in a limbo due to the unwillingness of doctors to be posted at villages and small towns, primitive infrastructure and acute shortage of medicines. It has been pointed out that due to corruption and mismanagement, 85 per cent of the government’s social spending does not reach the people it is meant for.
One suggestion that is often put forth is for the government to exit from the social sector and throw it open to privatisation. But is the private sector untainted and entirely dependable? The remedy lies in better transparency and accountability, sharper implementation and the creation of fail-proof monitoring systems that can provide an antidote to all-pervasive corruption. The government can join hands with enlightened corporates and credible NGOs. Upright and purposeful administrators have also shown us how government projects can be powered to serve the interests of the weak and the poor.
Corporates can certainly partner the government in making a difference in these crucial areas of education and public health. However, we should be clear about the limits of corporate involvement. Neither can the corporates match the resources of the government, nor are these supposed to be their key result areas. Corporates can help by bringing in ideas, resources and methodologies to focus and monitor the various schemes in the education and health spheres. Such partnerships can improve the reach and effectiveness of these schemes and save them from meeting the unfortunate fate of earlier government projects.
It would help if the rich and the privileged desist from competing with one another on ostentation, wasteful splurges and social oneupmanship. Instead they can channelise their energy and use their networks to reach out to the deprived and the marginalised. In the bargain, they would gain peace of mind and serenity—a win-win for all of us. Mahatma Gandhi’s simple but poignant words have never been more relevant and urgent: "Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed."
(Anu Aga is director, Thermax Limited.)