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Human Development Is The Victim In The Clash Between Government And Governance In India

“The focus should be on Minimum Government but Maximum Governance.”Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India

Of late, the terms ‘governance’ and ‘good governance’ are increasingly used in the development debate. Bad governance is being increasingly regarded as one of the root causes of all evil within our societies. While India is a prosperous country, people have been deprived of its benefits due to poor governance.

The post seeks an answer to the question of what ‘good governance’ is and what its relationship with human development (HD) is.

‘Government’ and ‘governance’ are two very similar words – and people are often confused about the differences between the two.

Government is a group of people who rule or run the administration of a country. On the other hand, governance is the act of governing or exercising authority. ‘Good governance’ is an indeterminate term used in international development circles to describe how public institutions conduct public affairs and manage public resources. It involves the process of decision-making and the process through which decisions are implemented or not.

Good governance has some major characteristics. It is participatory, accountable, transparent, efficient, effective and follows the rule of law. It assures that corruption is minimised, and the voices of the vulnerable are heard in decision-making. It is also responsive to the present and the future needs of society. Actually, the term ‘good governance’ has become synonymous to ‘effective management’.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and scholars connect human development very closely with good governance. Al Haq, together with Amartya Sen, went on to develop the Human Development Index (HDI) to measure human development. In the introduction of the first Human Development Report, HD was defined as: “[…] a process of enlarging people’s choices […] most critical of these wide ranging choices are to live a long and healthy life, to be educated and to have access to resources needed for a decent standard of living.”

The Human Development Report 2016 does not speak very high about India’s achievements in enlarging people’s capabilities and improving their well-being. India ranks 131 out of 188 countries in the HDI – in the ‘medium’ category. The HDI combines a country’s average achievements in health, education and income. India’s HDI, at 0.624, makes it the third SAARC country on the list, behind Sri Lanka and Maldives (both of which fall in the ‘high’ HDI category) – even though that one can argue that they are small countries, and that a comparison should only be made between equals.

India, China And Human Development:

Historically, calculations of HDI scores indicate that, from the same starting point in 1950, China’s HDI score became 12% higher than India’s in 1979, and 20% higher in 2015. This raises the question – how was China able to promote human development (according to the levels of education, health, and material well-being)?

This question has been analysed by Mattias Ottervik of Lund University, Sweden, in a paper titled “Good Governance and Human Development: The Case of China and India”. According to Ottervik, the relationship between good governance and human development is strong, but it is the minimalist aspect of governance, ‘effectiveness’, that has the largest impact on human development in China (as compared to India). “China was able to realize a comparatively high level of human development through effective governance which could autonomously formulate and implement policies. Though well-intended, India’s leadership seems to not have had the same ability to formulate or implement policies without influence of social forces,” writes Ottervik.

As a result, from the same starting position in 1950, China and India’s human development scene quickly diverged after the 80s. By 2015, China’s adult literacy rate was almost one-third more that of India’s and life expectancy was almost 10 years longer. A similar trend can be noticed in the case of the infant mortality rate and other indicators of human development. As a result, the HDI value was 0.738 in China while it was 0.624 in India in 2015. The World Bank data also shows that China’s per capita income is more than five times that of India’s.

Handshakes aside, when will India learn the relevant human development lessons from China?

Human development has always been an important priority for China in its quest for economic development. Available research studies show that investments in HD fundamentals like education, health, sanitation and water as well as population stabilisation account for China’s phenomenal growth since the late 1980s.

“And, as India charts its course for the future, the productivity and skill level of its workforce is becoming even more critical,” writes Bill Gates, a well-wisher of India. India can learn a lot from the Chinese experiences – for instance, on how one can manage human development with the right type of implementation strategies based on good governance.

Health And Education – A Case Study

According to the Economic Survey 2017-18, which was presented in the Parliament in January 2018, India has not given due importance to the management issues of human development in the past. The public investment in social infrastructure like education and health and their effective management is critical in the development of an economy, the 2016-17 Survey had noted.

While India has had a target of increasing public spending in health and education, in reality, the expenditure has remained stagnant (as a percentage of GDP) for years – and in some cases, it’s even reduced. “As a percentage of GDP, the expenditure on education which remained stagnant around 3.1% during the period 2009-10 to 2013-14, however, declined to 2.8% in 2014-15,” the 2016-17 Survey had mentioned. India can realise a comparatively high level of economic development (like China’s) within a generation only through the effective management of healthcare and education (among other human development inputs).


The public healthcare system in India is in shambles – and it is not just due to institutions being woefully underfunded. It’s also a very good example of ineffective or poor governance.

For instance, more than 70 children lost their lives in a tragic incident of medical mismanagement at the BRD Government Medical College Hospital in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, in August 2017. Most of the deaths were reported from the neonatal and the encephalitis wards. These deaths were reportedly caused due to the non-availability of liquid oxygen, since its supply was stopped due to the non-payment of accumulated, outstanding dues worth ₹6.8 million that the hospital owed to Pushpa Sales, the sole supplier of liquid oxygen to the hospital.

The management of the hospital has been so abysmal in the last few years that tragedies like this have been a daily occurrence. According to official records, from 2012 to 2017, more than 3,000 children died at the BRD Hospital. Most of the deaths were attributed to acute encephalitis syndrome (AES) caused by the Japanese encephalitis. According to the institution’s former principal and head of pediatrics department, KP Kushwaha, these numbers are actually understated. Other medical practitioners have blamed the hospital’s negligence as a major factor behind the high number of child deaths.

The tragedy in 2017 had ignited outrage across the country and abroad. The Nobel Peace Laureate Kailash Satyarthi termed the tragedy a ‘massacre’. It also led to a political firestorm over allegations of administrative lapses, especially in light of the fact that Gorakhpur has been UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s constituency for almost 20 years.

State governments in India often take ‘immediate actions’ in the aftermath of such tragedies. In this case, in the name of action, the UP government suspended (not terminated) the head of the BRD Medical College. It also ordered an investigation into the oxygen-supply contracts – which is a routine action in each and every incident of mismanagement in the country in the name of ‘good governance’.

Kailash Satyarthi termed the Gorakhpur hospital incident not as a tragedy, but a massacre. (Image Source: Deepak Gupta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

This pathetic state of the healthcare system is not unique to the public hospitals alone. The functioning of private hospitals must also be improved. Several high-profile cases have been reported in the media with the blame being generously ‘meted out’. The fragile but extremely essential component of trust is virtually gone. On the other hand, government-run or public hospitals are theoretically free for everyone, but quality is poor and corruption is endemic. This is a sorry state of affairs of India’s health services, and it must be resolved.

Not surprisingly, the Economic Survey 2017-18 noted that India is in desperate need of universal healthcare. Even if the government were to increase government spending on healthcare from the current below 1.5% level to the UN-recommended 2.5% level, it will not improve the health condition of millions of Indians unless ‘good governance’ is simultaneously brought in.

Activists and experts have been screaming for better healthcare reforms for years. That could be the reason why the editor of one of the world’s most revered medical journal, The Lancet, said that failing to combat non-communicable and communicable diseases will cost India’s health system and social care systems enormously, making India collapse. And yet, despite all the warnings, despite all the preventable deaths, the healthcare system in India continues to remain in shambles.


Is India’s education system sufficiently geared up to meet the challenges of low productivity? Considering India’s poor education system (from top to bottom), one cannot be too optimistic about it. To improve the quality of education, school education is the first step in that direction. In the HDPlus framework, therefore, education is a significant input to empower people.

With enrollment levels reaching at least 97% since 2009, and girls making up 56% of the new students between 2007 and 2015, it is evident that the many problems of access to schooling have seemingly been addressed. The problem is now of quality, not quantity. “My biggest disappointment is the education system (in India). I do want to create higher expectations about it,” Bill Gates said.

For a country that aims to be a global growth hub, the latest Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) for rural India makes for a dismal reading. The survey for the report carried out across 24 states in 2017 paints a sorry picture of school education. Focussing on 14- to 18-year-old students who generally comprise the first batch to pass class 8 (after the implementation of the Right to Education Act), the report found out that one-fourth of the students were unable to read their own language fluently, while 57% of them struggled to solve a simple sum of division.

These findings clearly show that school education in India suffers from serious systemic lacunae. These cannot be addressed through legislation alone without improving the management of the schools. “While enrollment rates in schools have gone up significantly, learning outcomes appear to have stagnated. For a large section of secondary and higher secondary students in this country, it hardly matters whether they are in school or not,” a Times of India editorial noted.

This massive shortfall in skilling, which cannot be made up for with “Skill India” programmes, has serious repercussions for India’s economy and society. With more than a million youths joining the workforce every month, poor education standards mean that many of them won’t be employable. “That in turn could see unemployed youngsters channel their energies towards destructive ends, turning India’s demographic dividend into a demographic time bomb,” the ToI editorial mentioned.

The only solution is to focus on improving the quality of education in schools through measures such as hiring and assessing teachers on merit, or rigorous mapping of learning outcomes by involving the community, as noted in my paper, “Managing School Education in India”.

What really explains the pathetic state of education in India’s primary schools? (Representative image. Photo by Pankaj Tiwari/The India Today Group/Getty Images)

Also, the higher education and research sector is not in a good shape due to over-regulation and under-funding. The Times Higher Education World University Rankings, founded in 2004, provides the definitive list of the world’s best universities, evaluated across teaching, research, international outlook, reputation and more such parameters. Their data is trusted by governments and universities and are a vital resource for students in helping them choose where to study.

According to the rankings, not a single Indian university/institute was able to get a place in the top 200 universities during 2015-2016. The rankings reveal that IISc lies between 251 and 300 and IIT-B is ranked between 351 and 400. The IITs in Delhi, Kharagpur, Madras, Guwahati, Kanpur, Roorkee (among others) have only made it to the top 600 universities in the world.

On the other hand, in 2016-2017, 63 universities in the US made it to the top 200, while the UK claimed 32 places, two shy of the previous year’s sum. Although Western universities continued to dominate the highest spots, Asian institutions had gained significant ground – 19 of which reached the top 200 in 2016 – up from 15 the previous year. The region’s best performing university – the National University of Singapore – reached a new high that year. It made it to the 24th place, a jump of two positions from its ranking in the previous year.

Mainland Chinese institutions took four places in the top 200, up from two the previous year. Its leader, the Peking University, joined the top 30, in the 29th place (up from 42nd in 2015), while its regional rival Tsinghua University made its debut in the top 40 – in the 35th place (up from joint 47th in 2015).

Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s universities claimed five top-200 positions – up from three in 2015, thereby making it the most-represented Asian region in the top 200. It was led by the University of Hong Kong in the joint 43rd place – a modest hop-up from joint 44th in 2015. Hong Kong’s improved performance is largely owing to increased institutional and research incomes and greater research productivity, according to Times.

Meanwhile, India’s leading university/institute – the Indian Institute of Sciences (IISc) – edged closer to the top 200, by claiming a spot in the 201-250 band in 2016 – its highest ever position. In my opinion, there is little possibility of Indian universities/institutions making international strides in near future. We have a very different idea about education and a different way of going about it, than in other places.

Indian universities/institutions create a much pressured environment, which often requires a lot of learning by rote. There’s also not much discussion in classes. In addition, the leadership of most of the universities is debatable.

The higher education scene in India doesn’t seem to be very bright either. (Representative image)

Universities are considered the nurseries of young intellect – and I witnessed this as a student at Harvard and the Australian National University in the 70s. For the past few years, however, most of the Indian universities and colleges have been in the limelight for the wrong reasons. “The horror stories that regularly come out of various campuses, colleges and even schools indicate that many of India’s hallowed teaching institutions like Banaras Hindu University, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Osmania University among others are fast losing the tag of ‘temples of learning’ and are being transformed into houses of infamy,” Prabhu Chawla, a renowned journalist, states.

Criminal incidents within the precincts of universities and institutions are being whitewashed with hollow definitions of ideology. For instance, if a student(s) commits suicide in Hyderabad, mysteriously disappears from JNU or is assaulted in the BHU campus, there are always people or organisations looking for an opportunity to turn the incident into a controversy to score brownie points.

Discussion And Conclusion

The Modi government has been doing the heavy-lifting to empower the people through various human-development schemes Recently, Narendra Modi promised ₹10,000 crores and autonomy to 20 universities (10 public and 10 private) in the country so that they can compete globally and be counted among the world’s best institutions.

In addition to funding, rigorous research capacity should be at the heart of developing these institutions so that they are able to engage with the real problems of India and the developing world. However, it remains to be seen whether our decision-makers are willing to accept the advice that this doesn’t simply mean producing more PhDs. There ought to be a focus upon creating ‘elite’ institutions that serve as exemplars.

Similarly, healthcare emerged as the buzzword of the 2018-19 Budget, because it offers 10 crore families (about 500 million people) up to ₹5 lakh of medical insurance coverage each year. That sum, while small by Western standards, would probably be enough to cover the equivalent of five heart surgeries in India.

However, some public health experts have noted that the government’s proposals do little to improve poor health and hygiene standards in the first place. India is plagued by increasing levels of water and air pollution. Malnutrition, poor sanitation and lack of proper housing also remain major problems.

What should be the agenda for enhancing capabilities or human development? Addressing the World Economic Forum at Davos, Modi emphasised that red tape would be replaced by a red carpet for business. The same is urgently required for the human development efforts. Just throwing money at the problem will not suffice – governments must also improve their administration of public services like healthcare, education, sanitation and water, so that they deliver better outcomes. So, good governance must get the priority – that is, an administration accountable to its public.

The elephant in the room is that India’s growth is not really leading to the burgeoning middle class in the absence of robust and comprehensive human development strategy, as it happened in China and East Asia. The IMF projects India’s GDP growth during 2018-19 at 7.4%, which will surpass China’s (6.8%). However, a more disturbing statistic is that the total increase in wealth earned by the Indians who make up the poorer half of the population was a mere 1% of the total last year. This suggests that wealth is not trickling down to the poorer half of the population.

How can India boast of doing well in human development as long as scenes like this still exist? (Representative image. Photo by Soumitra Ghosh/The India Today Group via Getty Images)

Governments at all levels are aware of the challenges ahead – and there have been haphazard attempts to solve them. This now requires a more coherent approach which fits into the overall reform package that brings in more scientific methods into human development and simultaneously fixes the malfunctioning system with good governance.

On the assumption of office, Modi had emphasised the governance mantra – maximum governance with minimum government. For this, one has to reduce the size of ministry and bureaucracy to build a strong and enabling system for good governance.

For example, several ministries have more than one minister of state. The Cabinet has expanded in number – to the level of the UPA’s Cabinet. And the ministers seem more interested in controlling what people eat than being preoccupied with good governance. A few others are obsessed with interfering in education by rewriting textbooks and controlling how students answer their roll calls.

Furthermore, in order to achieve development (in general) – and human development in particular – a dynamic and vibrant bureaucracy is needed. “Though we need vision-based bureaucrats with far-sighted planning and strong will to implement it, but Indian bureaucracy seems to be conservative, less visionary and short sighted, also lacking aptitude and attitude which does not want to assimilate with society and changing political and economic environment and the world,” Raghavan Biju states in his book “Good governance and administrative practices”. There is an urgent need to rethink about the bureaucratic setup. In other words, we need to reconsider the current size of the bureaucracy and the nature of restructuring required to make it efficient, by involving experts to help bureaucrats.

Also, local governments need to be empowered and a culture needs to be created that promotes direct citizen participation and engagement in the planning and development processes. In Madhya Pradesh, for example, decentralised governance has increased the probability of a child completing class 5 by 21%, between 1992 and 1999. In addition, technology can bring greater efficiency into government systems, processes and interactions. Benefits to citizens include increased convenience and transparency in access to services, greater accountability, and avenues to expand the voices of citizens.

At the moment, India is on the edge – and it can take two routes.

1. It can take a route of investing in its people and creating a thriving and flourishing future for India which will have a part to play in world affairs.

2. Or, it can do what it is doing now and ignore human development – in which case it will see increasing level of deteriorating law and order situations sweep across the country, thereby creating an unsustainable future and destroying national efforts to develop an inclusive and vibrant economy.

Above all, India needs good governance, not governments to empower people unnecessarily.

It is hoped this post will deepen the discussion and accelerate the search for a better solution for human development and governance.

A version of this post was first published on the author’s blog.

The author is a Population and Development Analyst at the Forum for Population Action.


Featured image used for representative purposes only.

Featured image sources: Deepak Gupta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images, Soumitra Ghosh/The India Today Group via Getty Images