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Making local sense of food, urban growth, population and energy

India’s ‘growth’ and the lifting of showboats

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The doctrine of growthism as the best tonic for India has been given new impetus by Jagdish N Bhagwati, Senior Fellow for International Economics at the Council on Foreign Relations, an American think tank.

The CFR has reprinted an article written by Bhagwati titled ‘India’s Reform and Growth Have Lifted All Boats’, originally published by the Financial Times (available here if you have a subscription).

Bhagwati’s paean to an economy judged by whether it does 8% or 9% per quarter is the latest argument in a season of several, from economists and heads of industry, from policymakers and international finance experts.

What is different about Bhagwati’s short article is that it very quickly hits out at those he has called “the reform naysayers” in India. “Such voices present India with a double challenge: they misrepresent the successful way growth has cut India’s poverty, but more importantly their critiques stand in the way of a much needed new wave of reforms, which would further benefit India’s poorest.”

Bhagwati has said that India’s liberal reforms actually pulled 200 million out of poverty, that had these reforms only started earlier more would have been pulled out, that improvements are shared by nearly all underprivileged groups and that, most important for him, “being poor is now seen by India’s underprivileged as a removable condition”.

This trend, typified by Bhagwati’s recent article, of pointing to impressive quarterly growth rates and inferring their impacts on the poor and on wage labour by citing a few studies, needs to be understood and countered.

Writing in People’s Democracy (02 January 2011) C P Chandrasekhar pointed out that “India is a country still plagued by hunger with among the highest rates of malnutrition in the world” (‘Growth for Whom?’). Deprivation in other forms such as lack of access to clean drinking water, sanitation, basic health facilities and school education still afflict a large proportion of the population.

Chandrasekhar has said that the benefits of high growth for the best part of a decade must be accruing to a small minority, resulting in increased inequality. Unfortunately, data of a kind that helps us track inequality is difficult to come by. Surveys of consumption expenditure do not cover the rich and therefore tend to underestimate the extent of inequality.

It is such shortcomings in our ability to measure patterns of consumption that allow the trend, displayed by Bhagwati, to prosper. However, there are signs enough of increased inequality in India.

The first is that the high growth of the last few years has been accompanied by a sharp rise in the gross savings rate, Chandrasekhar has said, of 5.5 percentage points to 29.1 per cent between 2001-02 and 2004-05. The rate rose by another 4.2 percentage points between 2004-05 and 2007-08. “Since it is the richer sections that have incomes that are substantially in excess of their consumption needs which can be saved, this sharp rise in the savings rate points to an increase in incomes among the richer classes.”

This is but one among the many substantial realities whcih the proponents of growthism for India cannot reconcile with their arguments for more reform.

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