I have been travelling in India for the past week. Although it faces numerous challenges – a huge population, rising unemployment, growing environmental vulnerabilities – almost everyone I spoke to agreed that, despite many odds, democracy has not only survived but is now firmly entrenched in the social and political fabric of the country.
Scholars have long enjoyed comparing the two Asian giants, China and India, which have both experienced substantial reduction in poverty in the past 25 years. Despite starting their development process at similar points of time (1947 for India and 1949 for China), China is far ahead of India on most indicators of development, including per capita income, literacy rates, and access to healthcare. A couple of weeks ago, I discussed in this column some of the reasons behind China’s success, including the country’s consistent priority of the agricultural sector. Despite such success, there is greater unevenness and variability of poverty reduction trends across Chinese provinces than in Indian states. Indeed, while several coastal provinces in China have achieved high levels of economic development, many provinces in the central and western parts of the country lag behind. In contrast, growth appears more evenly spread out in India.
However, even within India there are considerable differences. The state of Kerala, in the southern part of the country, has become widely known all over the world for promoting the so-called “social justice model” of development. The emphasis here has been on universal literacy, meaningful land reforms, easy access to primary health care, rural electrification, a decentralised form of governance and high level of civic organisation. These achievements have facilitated effective public dialogue and powerful social movements that have strengthened the rights of people living in poverty.
But the greatest success India has experienced in relation to China has been its ability to prevent famines. The Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has famously claimed that no famine has ever occurred in a democratic country. In contrast to China, which experienced the worst famine in recorded history in 1958-61, India has successfully prevented famine since independence in 1947. This success, Sen argues, is primarily due to India’s democratic political structure, which allows for a free press, opposition parties and the freedom for civil society to organise and advocate.
Indeed, India’s achievement is all the more impressive when one considers that famines were prevented despite large-scale poverty, undernutrition and the production of less food per capita than the famine-hit countries of Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. And together with impressive economic growth, the country has also made substantial progress in promoting “human development” in the past five decades – life expectancy has doubled, child mortality has fallen by more than fifty percent, and fertility has declined by more than two-fifths. This success in preventing famine has, however, not been replicated in the field of chronic hunger, which remains a major concern and affects large groups in the population.
The relationship between democracy and development, although not clear-cut, is attracting renewed interest all over the world. Several studies conclude that democracies are not the best nor the worst performers in relation to development. Poverty reduction in democracies has been steady, albeit slow. However, the general lesson is that although democracies have not always been pro-poor, authoritarian systems can be viciously anti-poor.