Opinions Column: Social Progress

By Annavajhula J C Bose, PhD; Department of Economics, SRCC (University of Delhi)

What is the point of economic progress without social progress? 

A ‘good society’ is not discerned from economic progress as measured by GDP as if it were “handed down from God on tablets of stone” but by key values and principles governing social progress in terms of equal dignity, basic rights, democracy, the rule of law, pluralism, well-being, freedom, non-alienation, solidarity, esteem and recognition, cultural goods and services, environmental value, distributive justice, transparency and accountability. This understanding was conveyed meticulously in 7 volumes in 2018 by the International Panel for Social Progress constituted by 300 social scientists from all over the world, under the chairmanship of the Indian-origin Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. And the Social Progress Imperative, headed by the Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter,  has been computing Global Social Progress Index for the last few years as an average across scores for three broad dimensions, namely Basic Human Needs (food, water, shelter, safety), Foundation of Well-Being (basic education, information, health, sustainable environment) and Opportunity (freedom of choice, freedom from disease and access to higher education).  By this index, an economically developed country such as the US or the recently fast growing nations such as China and India have a very poor ranking of social progress. 

Jean Dreze, a Belgian-born Indian barefoot economist, stands for social progress and has been its most enthusiastic crusader in India. He can indeed be taken as the social self of a humanitarian and just India. This posting is a brief recap of his book on Indian social progress—Sense and Solidarity–when there is every chance  of social progress withering away in business-led neo-liberal societies governed by ‘exodus constitutionalism’—the devaluation of citizenship of the vast majority of ordinary people—as has been witnessed, for example,  in the Indian Covid-19 context.

Social progress in India, according to Dreze,  must entail abolition of caste, patriarchy and other forms of power, and violence including armed conflict; and progress of ethics and social norms like the spread of civic sense and public-spiritedness in preventing corruption, crime, exploitation, and environmental vandalism among other anti-social activities; expansion of democracy; and stopping the destructive power of modern technology (for instance, through nuclear war or climate change), which has reached frightening proportions and keeps growing. Child health, elementary education, gender inequality, social security, elimination of chronic hunger, community development based on self-management and self-governance, and removal of greater inequity, irrationality and concentration of power are also social progress concerns.

In India, we have massive undernourishment and starvation and the associated mortality in the shadow of ballooning foodstocks that are rotting and eaten by bandicoots. Health and living conditions in most villages are appalling and have the character of a humanitarian emergency. Health inequity is higher in India than in most other countries. Public health in terms of epidemiological surveillance, immunity, waste management, water supply and sanitation is dismal. Health indicators are among the worst in the world. The health care system is highly privatized and very ineffective. Bangladesh is doing much better than India in terms of health indicators despite being poorer than India, with a percapita GDP that is twice lower than India’s. India also lags behind Bangladesh in terms of child vaccination rates, breastfeeding practices, the incidence of open defecation, access to safe water. The official poverty line of India is very low but even with this low benchmark a full 30 percent of the population—more than 350 million people—were below it in 2009-10. The situation with respect to elementary education and child nutrition is shameful. Infant mortality is much lower in Bangladesh! Again, Bangladesh is closer to universal primary education than India. Universal elementary education is given low priority in India despite the directive principles of the Indian Constitution urging the state to provide “free and compulsory education for all the children until they complete the age of 14 years” within the span of a decade. The needs of children under six are ignored, the situation being worse in North India than elsewhere.  Emphasis is on promoting private schooling which defeats the purpose of universal elementary education. Accountability of the state to protecting rural households from poverty and hunger through guaranteed employment and universal public distribution system is found wanting even as the corporate sector and its sponsored media have been virulently against provisioning of employment and food security as social responsibility. While the launch of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is exemplary in light of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pledge to clean the “filthiness all around us”, the ground realities continue to be a shame on India as the filthiest nation in the world.

Public spending on health and education is just 4.4 percent of GDP in India, much lower than in sub-Saharan Africa, ‘least developed countries’,  East Asia, Latin America, and in OECD countries. India’s social security spending is only 1.7 percent of GDP, way far behind that in in Asia’s lower middle-income countries, China, Asia’s high-income countries and in Japan. If anything, India is among the world champions of social under-spending! Public health expenditure is only about one percent of GDP. Little wonder that India is grossly ill-equipped to deal with contagious diseases such as Covid-19, pig influenza and pestilence.

The central government in India is progressively washing its hands off social policy and leaving it to the states to pick up the pieces. The primary role of the state now is to promote business interests and nothingelse. The corporates on their part are against the expansion of social programmes because it means higher taxes or higher interest rates or fewer handouts (“incentives” as they are called) for business. What is certainly excessive in India, though, is the extent of state support for the privileged, whether in the form of regressive subsidies or tax exemptions or lucrative contracts or license to plunder the natural environment or bullet trains.

In this milieu, Dreze evaluates the pros and cons of the various social programmes that are already in place in our country, and deals with the question of how to continue with them by making them more effective.  There is urgent need for expanding social security arrangements of a permanent nature involving guaranteed slack-season employment combined with direct transfers to those unable to work. The critical importance of old-age pensions as a tool of social security in rural India must be accepted. And the country’s massive foodgrain stocks present a unique opportunity to put such arrangements in place.  Well-devised school meals have much to contribute to the advancement of elementary education, child nutrition and social equity. The experiences of Tamil Nadu and Chattisgarh are exemplary in this regard. Well-functioning health services as found in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Himachal Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Odisha and even Bihar are noteworthy. Elementary education as a top priority of public policy in Kerala and Himachal Pradesh and child nutrition as a priority in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra and Odisha and the public distribution system’s implementation in Tamil Nadu and Chattisgarh are role models. Whether the state governments will sooner or later follow the central government’s progressive withdrawl from social sector, caving into business pressures is worrisome. 

I earnestly invite you to read this book and dispassionately see India from the lens of the marginalized. This is another best book on Indian realities that you must not ignore. You must have public-spiritedness and love for India like the Belgian-origin Jean Dreze exudes. Adios!


Jean Dreze. 2017. Sense and Solidarity: Jholawala Economics for Everyone. Oxford University Press.

Parameswaran Iyer. ed. 2019. The Swachh Bharat Revolution: Four Pillars of India’s Behavioural Transformation. HarperCollins Publishers India.

Pritha Chatterjee. 2018. Swachh Bharat has made little difference, govt should factor in criticism. ThePrint. August 11.

Ravichandran Bathran. 2018. What Swachh Bharat Abhiyan Ignores. The Hindu. August 21.

Upendra Baxi. 2020. Exodus Constitutionalism: Mass Migration in Covid Lockdown Times. The India Forum. July 3.

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