Friday, May 13, 2011

India’s Democracy and China’s Central Planning: Which Works Best?

Some time ago I reported on an article in The Economist that predicted India would eventually outstrip China because its democratic form of government would prove more efficient than China’s. I was somewhat dubious. It seemed too pat a call by an economically conservative publication. To call China’s economy “largely state-directed” does not do justice to it, and the past is not always prelude to the future.

Amartya Sen has an article in The New York Review of Books, Quality of Life: India vs. China, that asks a broader question: “If you are generating strong economic growth, are you doing something appropriate with that wealth?” He compares data on quality of life for India with China, a wealthier nation, and with Bangladesh, a poorer nation.

“ is surely rather silly to be obsessed about India’s overtaking China in the rate of growth of GNP, while not comparing India with China in other respects, like education, basic health, or life expectancy. Economic growth can, of course, be enormously helpful in advancing living standards and in battling poverty. But there is little cause for taking the growth of GNP to be an end in itself, rather than seeing it as an important means for achieving things we value.”

“Life expectancy at birth in China is 73.5 years; in India it is 64.4 years. The infant mortality rate is fifty per thousand in India, compared with just seventeen in China; the mortality rate for children under five is sixty-six per thousand for Indians and nineteen for the Chinese; and the maternal mortality rate is 230 per 100,000 live births in India and thirty-eight in China. The mean years of schooling in India were estimated to be 4.4 years, compared with 7.5 years in China. China’s adult literacy rate is 94 percent, compared with India’s 74 percent according to the preliminary tables of the 2011 census.”

“One of the serious failures of India is that a very substantial proportion of Indian children are, to varying degrees, undernourished (depending on the criteria used, the proportion can come close to half of all children), compared with a very small proportion in China. Only 66 percent of Indian children are immunized with triple vaccine (diphtheria/pertussis/tetanus), as opposed to 97 percent in China.”

Compared to China, India begins to appear more like a third world nation rather than a major player in the world’s economy. Some of those figures are more like what you might expect from the poorer countries of Africa.

Sen admits that since China is far richer than India, it might be unfair to compare to two head-to-head. India has twice the GDP per capita as Bangladesh so surely a comparison between the two should put India in a better light.

“Life expectancy in Bangladesh is 66.9 years compared with India’s 64.4. The proportion of underweight children in Bangladesh (41.3 percent) is lower than in India (43.5), and its fertility rate (2.3) is also lower than India’s (2.7). Mean years of schooling amount to 4.8 years in Bangladesh compared with India’s 4.4 years. While India is ahead of Bangladesh in the male literacy rate for the age group between fifteen and twenty-four, the female rate in Bangladesh is higher than in India. Interestingly, the female literacy rate among young Bangladeshis is actually higher than the male rate, whereas young women still have substantially lower rates than young males in India. There is much evidence to suggest that Bangladesh’s current progress has a great deal to do with the role that liberated Bangladeshi women are beginning to play in the country.”

“The mortality rate of children under five is sixty-six per thousand in India compared with fifty-two in Bangladesh. In infant mortality, Bangladesh has a similar advantage: it is fifty per thousand in India and forty-one in Bangladesh. While 94 percent of Bangladeshi children are immunized with DPT vaccine, only 66 percent of Indian children are. In each of these respects, Bangladesh does better than India, despite having only half of India’s per capita income.”

India may ultimately settle in to a faster growth rate than China, but what good is economic growth if it does not contribute to a better society for its population? Sen’s point in writing this article is that while a democracy can be efficient at addressing problems, there is no guarantee that it will focus on the important problems. Thus far China, with its “planned” economy, and Bangladesh are both doing better than Democratic India in caring for the needs of their people.

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