Indices of Misfortune

I Mean What I Say

by Shashi Tharoor

5 min read
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In a recent book, the journalist and former chief of Amnesty India, Aakar Patel, conducted an interesting survey of 58 global indices of performance, used internationally to rate various countries across crucial parameters. Analysing the government’s performance can easily become a political exercise, so Patel takes readers through the metrics of a performance evaluation as revealed by international ratings. These include the United Nations Development Program Human Development Index, Lowy Institute Asia Power Index, Brand Finance Global Soft Power Index, Freedom House’s Freedom in the World, Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, the UN’s Global Hunger Index, and so on. On 57 such indicators out of 58 – the only exception being the World Intellectual Property Organisation Global Innovation Index—India has performed poorly. On four dozen indicators, India has fallen sharply since 2014.

For instance, in 2015, India’s ranking on the Global Hunger Index – which tracks undernourishment, child stunting (low height for age), child wasting (low weight for age) and child mortality (number of children who die before the age of five) -- was 55th. In 2020, it fell by 39 places to 94th, well behind Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. In 2021, India fell another seven places to 101st, with the proportion of undernourished Indians going up from 14 per cent to 15.3 per cent. Only 15 nations like Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen and some sub-Saharan African countries are worse off than India. In all of South Asia, we are the lowest except for war-torn Afghanistan.

Patel points out that the Indian government’s own National Family Health Survey of 2019-20 says that malnourishment in India has become much worse. More than half the states surveyed reported that every third child below the age of five is suffering from chronic malnourishment. In fact, in Assam, Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra and West Bengal, a higher percentage of children were found wasted in 2019-20 compared to 2005-06. “This means,” says Patel, “that 15 years of progress has been ceded.” In ten major states analysed, anaemia among children was higher in all ten in 2019-20 compared to 2015-16, and in seven, a higher percentage of children were underweight (low weight for age) in 2019-20 compared to 2015-16.

Aakar Patel
Aakar Patel | Credit/Facebook

Figures for economic growth have plunged after demonetisation, and partly because of Covid, have never recovered. Unemployment is the worst ever recorded. Manufacturing and exports are down. Unofficial estimates for Covid deaths – since no one globally believes the government’s official figures, especially after the claim that no one died due to lack of oxygen during the deadly second wave of coronavirus – place India as the highest or the second-highest in the world in Covid deaths, with some 4 to 5 million having perished in the pandemic.

This is a crisis, but it’s not the only one. There are other measures, less easy to quantify, on which India has been slipping behind. The prestigious Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index downgraded India by 26 places from 27 to 53. Freedom House, whose annual ratings get worldwide attention, has demoted India from being “free” to “partly free” and Jammu and Kashmir from being “partly free” to “not free”. The United States Commission for International Religious Freedom marked India as one of the 15 nations globally as “countries of particular concern” because of attacks on religious minorities.

Political freedoms of Indian citizens are under siege, Patel points out. Dissenters and critics have not fared well under the present dispensation: Patel writes that in the first six months of 2020 “the Modi government sent Twitter 2,772 legal demands for removal of content or blocking accounts”. Raids against independent news websites, and arrests of human rights activists and the filing of sedition and UAPA cases confirm his point.

India did improve on the ‘Ease of Doing Business’ Index published by the World Bank. But that index has since been withdrawn by the World Bank amid controversy over its accuracy; independent studies revealed various irregularities and manipulated data that discredited its rankings. The Modi government was more skilled at gaming the rankings than at actually making it easier to do business.

Home Minister Amit Shah has claimed among BJP achievements an “increase in the value of the Indian passport”. The facts suggest otherwise. There’s actually an Index that measures the value of passports too, the Henley Passport Index, which measures travel freedom – how many countries your passport permits you to travel to, visa-free. On this Index, India has trended downward under BJP rule. In its latest rankings, the index ranked India an embarrassing 90th out of 116 countries ranked – tied with Burkina Faso and Tajikistan, and far below poverty-stricken African developing countries like Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone.

In his book, Patel writes that the Modi-led government has a habit of changing previously rolled-out schemes’ names and boasting about them as if they are new ones. I noticed this some years ago and called this a “name-changing government rather than a game-changing government”. At the time, I published a list of 23 such schemes on social media. Patel writes that I was right about 19 of them: we will have to quarrel about whether the PM’s “Jan Dhan” accounts are any different from the bank accounts Manmohan Singh got people to open to receive benefit transfers directly from the government.

Aakar Patel is right on the whole to cite these indices as constituting a damning indictment of the performance of the BJP government of Narendra Modi over the last seven-plus years. It is sometimes true that, in the classic phrase, there are “lies, damned lies and statistics”, but in general numbers don’t lie unless you make them up. These are rigorous global indices issued by reputable international agencies and broadly accepted around the world. India should wake up and try to genuinely improve its performance.

Instead, our government is in a state of denial, trying to discredit all the rankings as ill-conceived, based on inaccurate or insufficient data, or just plain biased against the Modi government. My good friend External Affairs Minister Jaishankar surprisingly framed the problem as a clash of civilisations, attributing India’s poor global standing to the resentment of “self-appointed custodians” of traditional power structures at India’s progress, since India won’t “play the game they want to be played.” Jaishankar has even indicated that MEA plans to issue its own index, which I sincerely hope was an impulsive comment he has since thought better of, since it will simply make us the laughing stock of the democratic world.

It would be far better for the government of India to collect and publish data openly and transparently, to learn lessons from what the data reveals, face up to such findings with humility and honesty, and revise its policies on the basis of evidence. Such responsiveness would be far worthier of our democracy than failing on a long list of indices and then claiming the game is rigged.

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