Defining human development

Print edition : November 22, 2002

Of liberty, equality, solidarity and also security.

At a rally to protest against female foeticide, in Lucknow on September 25, 2002.-PAWAN KUMAR/AFP

THE continued elaboration of the idea of human development and human freedom by Amartya Sen and others following his lead has made it clear that these ideas are closely related to the slogans of the French Revolution and the ideas that Karl Marx and Frederick Engels put forward as requirements to end the alienation of human beings. A real-life political revolution does not lead at once to the realisation of all the ideals that its participants start with. The French Revolution, for example, denied the women the same political rights as the men. Women were to be only citoyens passif, along with beggars, vagrants and propertyless men. Again, the ideal of equality was realised as far as the civil status of all citoyens was concerned, but since not everybody could be a full citizen, it did not really grant equality to all human beings living under French jurisdiction. Moreover, the French Revolution almost at once sanctified private property rights, and this sacral treatment was fully legalised by the Napoleonic Code.

The slogan of fraternity had a denial of equality built into it since again women were by definition denied the bonding that was demanded for all men as brothers. The actual record of most biradaris all over the world also shows that they have been among the most oppressive structures as far as women connected with them are concerned. That is why the word `solidarity' has been used here rather than `fraternity', as a modern version of the slogan. However, this word may also have some negative associations in the minds of many students of the human condition. (Any suggestions for improvement are welcome.)

However, the more important point to note is that no single objective by itself, especially if it is narrowly interpreted, can satisfy fully even that particular feature of the desirable aspect of human freedom that the particular objective is supposed to capture. All the political ideals mentioned are closely connected with one another. I know that the objective of liberty can be interpreted in such a fashion as to cover all the others under its umbrella: if we agree to club together the requirements of both negative and positive freedom, then `liberty' may cover every requirement for creating a global society of free human beings. But the proponents of `negative freedom' as the highest goal would deny that you can coerce either by law or persuasion or a feeling of shame and make a person free when he may simply want to be left alone, maybe live in squalor, and die a lonely and premature death.

So it makes it easier to think of the three objectives separately but search continually for interconnections and possible contradictions or trade-offs among them. This writer had argued in a paper (in Bangla) which was written in 1994 and published in 1995 that we should add another objective to the trinity of the French Revolution, namely, human security as a component of human freedom. How can an insecure woman be free? If, for example, she knows that the only respectable status for her is the status of a wife, and that as a respectable Hindu woman, the only thing she can look forward to if her husband dies before her is to remain celibate and dependent on her sons or any other relatives who are prepared to give her a roof over her head or be thrown out to die of starvation or heat or exposure, in what way can she act as a free agent, unless, of course, she becomes a rebel like Pandita Ramabai and faces the ostracism of society? Here lack of freedom is connected both to the prevalence of inequality between men and women, and to the lack of security.

Similar interconnections can be found between lack of solidarity and lack of liberty. In a male-dominated society, if a woman is thrown out unjustly by her husband or by her parents, she can have no recourse even to elementary justice. The probability of a woman facing such situations can be estimated by taking account of the incidence of widowhood, desertion of wives, domestic violence and dowry deaths and divorce rates.

The United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Report (HDR) of 1994 treated `new dimensions of human security' in a separate chapter. In 1995, on the occasion of the World Social Summit held in Copenhagen, the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development published its `States of Disarray'. Again, in 1999 the HDR had a section in its opening chapter, with the heading `Social fragmentation Reversals in progress and threats to human security'. But in between and extending to HDR 2001, HDRs paid only peripheral attention to issues of human security. And the concept of human security used by it not only leaves out several aspects of human security and its opposite, human vulnerability, but also obscures the causal connections between the working of particular institutions and human insecurity.

The National Human Development Report (NHDR) that has been produced under the auspices of the Planning Commission (Frontline, May 24, 2002) not only uses data widely differing in their level of reliability without always signposting the huge margins of error and non-comparability among States caused by the differences in the provenance of data and margins of error involved, but completely miss out significant aspects of human security that must be taken into account in mapping the state of human development in the States and in India as a whole.

HDR 1994 distinguished several kinds of security, namely, economic security, food security, health security, environmental security, personal security, community security and political security. It recognised that economic insecurity was threatening the life and liberty of hundreds of millions of people in developing countries. But it failed to bring out clearly that the one potent cause of that was precisely an engine of enrichment that was being celebrated by the proponents of globalisation, namely, the spread of mechanisms of exchange whose controlling levers were operated by transnational companies and international organisations basically carrying out policies favouring them. It grasped the paradox of starvation among plentiful global supplies of food. But it did not show the same sensitivity to the contradictory nature of the global order. For example, the proliferation of arms facilitated by advances in the technology of production and communication was accompanied by advances in technologies of and not only by states singled out for criticism but in the very heartland of global capitalism. The United States was also breaching the requirement of personal and political security among major ethnic minorities by discriminating against them and rolling back the affirmative action measures that had eroded discriminatory treatment against them until the end of the 1970s.

Here are some examples of omissions of security issues in HDRs. The HDR 1994 rightly cites the huge difference in rates of violent crimes in the U.S. as against those of other industrial countries as an indicator of the lower level of security of human life in that country compared with, say, Australia or Japan. But it does not discuss the rate of imprisonment of the civilian population. The U.S. has been called the `great incarcerator' by Vivien Stern in her book on imprisonment all around the world. It is not only that because of various social reasons, the U.S. is nearly at the top of the world with regard to rates of violent crime: it has increasingly criminalised trivial offences against property, and put an increasing proportion of its population in jail. A disproportionately large fraction of these inmates are Afro-Americans and Hispanics. The latter are also disproportionately represented among the poor, the ill-educated and unemployed, and have only meagre access to health care of any kind. So ethnic minorities, especially among Afro-Americans and Hispanics, suffer many kinds and degrees of insecurity.

Take another indicator of insecurity insecurity in respect of livelihood. As a result of several compulsions on companies, including downsizing as a strategy of competition, dishonest dealings for fear of losing out in stock market stakes, and finally bankruptcy as a result of defeat despite dishonesty or being worsted by competitors, hundreds of thousands of employees have been laid off around the world. Moreover, according to a recent estimate, an average American company has now a 4.4 per cent chance of default, nearly four times the figure in the turbulent 1990s. Even The Economist, that bellwether of rich man's globalisation under U.S. domination, has had to admit in its issue of July 27, 2002 that ``not a single American industry group has become sounder over a five-year period'. Mind you, this threat has come up in a country which has no unemployment insurance worth speaking of, and in which many pension funds are broke because of disasters in the stock market, compounded often by the dishonesty of the fund managers. Such uncomfortable facts have not been factored in by the HDRs of the UNDP in judging the U.S. to have a higher human Human Development Index, for example, than Denmark, which has full social insurance and where people, including women young and old, are not afraid to travel anywhere at any time of the day or night.

Causality is, of course, not a strongpoint of the analysis of the HDRs. To take one example of that genre of omission, we can cite the case of military expenditures. The HDRs now routinely give figures of military expenditures of developing countries as a percentage of gross domestic product or national income and compare them with expenditures on social sectors. Such comparisons are important indicators of the criminal wastage of resources by the typical rulers of developing countries, including those of India and Pakistan. But this does not touch the heart of the problem. Virtually all the major members of the G-8 are arms merchants on a large scale, and the U.S. is by far the biggest merchant of death. Should we not have figures of major powers to big purchasers in the developing countries? Should we also not have figures of military expenditure by the U.S.? The U.S. has emerged as the global agent provocateur by bombing any country it considers an actual or potential threat to the paranoid sense of security of its rulers, without any heed to international law or even international public opinion. By supplying arms to belligerent neighbours, and by taking in most cases a belligerent stance on dispute settlements, it has also kept alive the roaring trade of its arms dealers. The current U.S. President has ordered the biggest escalation of the military budget since the Vietnam War. The U.S. alone accounts for something like 40 per cent or more of the total military expenditures of the bigger countries. How can we understand the criminal waste of resources in military expenditures without putting in our accounts the arms trade and military expenditures of the major powers? Can the world afford the scale of preparedness of the U.S. for unlimited aggression against peoples and the global environment (the U.S. has refused to ratify virtually every convention for the protection of the environment, labour and global health).

NOW to turn to some of the issues of human security in India, most of which have been left out in the Planning Commission's NHDR 2002. Calling it NHDR 2002 is a misnomer because all the important population data with any reasonable degree of reliability relate to the year 1991, and these figures have been indiscriminately clubbed with figures of literacy and infant mortality pertaining to any later year of the 1990s.

An unborn foetus faces discrimination in India if it is going to be a female child. If it is unlucky enough to be born a girl, neglect of its nutrition and health requirements will result in a higher probability of death in early childhood than if it is born as a boy. Female foeticide and differentially high mortality among girls are much more rampant among the so-called economically advanced States such as Punjab, Haryana and Gujarat than among most States of the South and the East. Does this difference find any reflection in the HDI of the NHDR or in the fetching radar diagrams in the first chapter? It does not. Neither does the fact that the incidence of violent crimes which endanger the personal security of people differs greatly among States.

Take a State like Gujarat. It has a high ranking in terms of computations of HDI by the NHDR. It ranks fourth among the major Indian States, higher than Karnataka and West Bengal in the HDI. Yet, look at Gujarat's record. Economically dynamic Gujarat, a State in which the share of agriculture in the net state domestic product had declined from a little below 40 per cent in 1980-81 to just above 25 per cent in 1998-99, still had 56 per cent of the population dependent on agriculture in 1991. This agriculture has been highly unstable: between 1980-81 and 1997-98, that is, over a span of 18 years, the value of output at constant prices actually declined on eight occasions between one year and the next and disastrously between 1986-87 and 1987-88. In fact, the northeastern region of Gujarat, primarily populated by Adivasis, has witnessed near-famine conditions almost as frequently as the districts of Bolangir and Kalahandi in Orissa. In a State with a scanty public distribution system and a long history of Kali Paraj (that is, black complexioned) groups by the self-styled Ujli Paraj (bright complexioned) groups, the Adivasis have had a very bad time. According to statistics cited by the NHDR, the incidence of crimes against Adivasis in Gujarat is far higher than in Karnataka and West Bengal.

ONE kind of crime that breaches virtually all requirements of human security is communal violence. According to statistics compiled by Ashutosh Varshney, Gujarat ranked far higher than other major States in respect of the number of fatalities per million people, even before Narendra Modi's government embarked on the recent spate of genocide of Muslims. In the most recent state-inspired communal rampage, not only have perhaps 2,000 people been killed after elaborate planning, not only have the houses and means of livelihood of thousands of people been wantonly destroyed, but the survivors have been provided with scant relief, few cases have been registered against the real culprits (which, of course, extend up to the highest echelons of the government and its bureaucracy). Naturally, the survivors are unwilling to return to their localities for fear that they may be raped, hacked to death or burnt alive.

The Election Commission's refusal to certify that the conditions are propitious to hold free and fair elections in Gujarat demonstrates, if indeed any further demonstration was needed, how insecure every aspect of life is for a member of a minority community in Gujarat. Yet, Gujarat ranks far higher than Karnataka or West Bengal in the NHDR ranking. The Planning Commission team can plead that they were not privy to the genocidal plans of Narendra Modi. But they cannot plead ignorance of the earlier record of the upper class Hindus in respect of deliberate organisation of communal violence, their deplorable record in respect of treatment of women (as indicated by continually declining sex ratios) and Adivasis, and the price of enrichment of the Shethjis and the Patidars that the poor villagers in Gujarat have paid in the form of greater food insecurity, the latter was partly caused by a large shift from food crops to cash crops and an excessive use of ground water under the dispensation of unregulated competition for money and resources that makes Gujarat such a dreamland for India's cheerleaders for the rich man's globalisation.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor