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  • Medha Shukla

Book Review: “An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions” by Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen

Updated: Feb 2, 2022

In the recent past, India has gathered a lot of attention from scholars across the world. The biggest democracy, home to a sixth of the world’s population, and an emerging economic power with a dynamic political landscape, India is an emerging field of study. This work by Drèze and Sen is a perfect amalgamation of a heartfelt, urgent plea to rethink the basics of the country and a political analysis that identifies and highlights the fault lines within this economically progressive country. The authors not only identify the wide-ranging issues and the possible actors that suppress them but also suggest ways to fix what is ‘broken’.

At the onset of the book, the authors start by acknowledging the economic accomplishments of India and laud the determination with which the Indian democracy was established despite numerous challenges. The book provides a brief comparison of the pre-independence indexes of social life and the improvements achieved thereafter. One can view the book as an attempt to understanding the ‘growth’ patterns of the country by evaluating the number of ‘old’ problems that have been eradicated (existing since the time of independence) and the defence mechanism developed against the emerging issues (as result of modernization and development). For this, testaments of other authors and their works, along with various comparative social indices, comprising mostly of neighbouring South Asian/ Sub-Saharan countries, are used as rhetorical tools to persuade the reader.

The book promotes the idea of ‘participatory growth’ against economic, measured only in terms of GDP. This is elucidated in chapter two, ‘Integrating Growth and Development’— ‘The relation between growth and development- their differences, as well as their complementarity- is central to the theme of this book’ (pg. 34). Further, the chapter analyses the journey of India since independence with respect to other similar states. Comparisons are drawn on various levels throughout the text, usually with South Asian neighbours such as China, Bangladesh, Japan, and Nepal or with countries belonging to BRICS or likewise. Additionally, interstate comparisons are also made in order to highlight the progress and the efficiency of states like Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Himachal Pradesh as compared to the not-so-accomplished states, namely, Uttar Pradesh, Mumbai, and Bihar. All comparative statements and opinions are backed by evidence from National Summary Indexes, and the Economic and Social Indicators of South Asian countries, etc.

The authors cover many prevalent issues of the Indian society and dedicate full chapters to ensure detailed evaluation. Staying firm on their belief (as mentioned earlier), they present an argument that promotes the narrative that economic growth is futile unless accompanied by a fair distribution of gains, which in the case of India is far from being achieved. Concerns discussed in the book include education (comparisons drawn on various levels, namely: gender, class, and caste), healthcare (concerns regarding increased privatization and inadequate state support; a concern being highlighted greatly during the pandemic), poverty (criteria for the poverty line, worker empowerment through schemes and their effectiveness), corruption and a wide range of inequalities. All chapters follow a structured approach, making it easy for the reader to comprehend information, and is achieved through moderate chapter lengths and sub-divisions within chapters. On various occasions, real-life examples are used to explain the context, making it accessible to all, even the ones not familiar with Indian society. The comparative analytical approach works in the favour of the authors as it allows for an organic channel through which data and analysis are presented, in support of the claims made. It firmly establishes the claim made in the opening chapters: “India has been climbing the ladder of per capita income while slipping down the slope of social indicators.” The book has invisible lines of division, the first half aims at providing substantial evidence and convincing arguments (through methods of comparisons between different states and provinces) to highlight the importance of investment in public sector services (and the consequences of the lack of it in India) to move forward, whereas the concluding chapters are directed towards identifying possible actors and reasons for the lack of identification and implementation inefficiency.

India, unlike some of its neighbours, enjoys a strategic geographic position. This allows for a lot of flexibility in carrying out various missions. But within borders, we often fall prey to hindrances caused by the nature of our political economy and the state governed process of policymaking. The book looks at popular strategies, namely, Anganwadi programs, National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), and Public Distribution System (PDS) (Chapter 7: Poverty and Social Support). These policies were designed for the betterment of the economically marginalized population of the country. Inter-state comparison in this context helps in identifying the fault lines within the implementation process, largely identified as the middlemen. Practical examples highlight that, although late, the policy drafts often take into consideration the hindrances to implementation and are largely dependent on the state administration to ensure efficiency. Private influences, a prominent factor that tends to create a diversion from the intended goal, are also discussed through the example of the successful mid-day meal programme (and the constant efforts of biscuit manufacturing corporates to gain control). Aspects such as division of power, the procedure for resources, and grant allocation are amongst other discussed factors which often cause the delay in successful implementation.

Therefore, in a democracy like India, the authors partly blame, and I believe rightly so, the citizens of the country for their lack of responsibility towards fellow inhabitants. This is largely due to the demographic statistics of the country- “The dividing line of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ in India is more than just a rhetorical cliché.” Via the examples chosen, the book subtly indicates that the suggested approach is not only something achievable but is dependent on the culture or regime of a state. Comparisons show that although the communist rule of China failed to prevent famines like India, in terms of public service investment, they have outdone India big time. Meanwhile, parallels between Bangladesh (or Nepal) signify that achieving such goals is not reliant on big economic GDP. The countries in the later pool are similar to India in many regards such as multiparty democracies, messy state affairs, conservative religious affairs, and a history of colonial oppression. Therefore, the authors argue that regime type does not seem to be a substantial influencer. In fact, they opine that a democracy ideally must be more progressive as citizens, have a free voice, and the freedom to interrogate and investigate state plans.

As one nears the concluding chapters- “Democracy, Inequality and Public Reasoning” and “The Need for Impatience”- they explicate the faults within the society, which I would attribute as major influences in shaping the current scenario.

Criticism is targeted towards the ‘celebrated’ media houses which have in time and again failed to bring the poor to the center of the discussion. Instead, irrelevant topics like Bollywood gossip, cricket buzz, or haywire political debates occupy prime time slots.

Increasing dependence on advertisements is perceived as the primary hindrance, although the Indian media is not unique in this parameter, one must understand that the stakes are very high for us. Drèze and Sen enclose the essence of lack of “enlightened (bias-free) public reasoning” in the following- “What democracies achieve depends on what is brought to the political engagement.”

Upon completion, the book leaves the reader with a lot to reflect upon. The systematic progression and interrelation between chapters help create a strong foundation for further analysis. The impact of the text is greater due to the substantial evidence provided and successfully lures the reader towards the argument made. Although some might argue that the approach suggested is idealistic and focuses excessively on socialist agendas, in my view, the proposition made about parallel development is a goal we need to strive for. To me, the book continues to hold great relevance in the current context and the questions raised must hold priority. This is a well-articulated comparative text which enables the reader to recognize the importance of democracy and how to make efficient use of it. An important read for anyone interested in the social affairs of India.

Cover image: Source

About the author: Medha Shukla is a student of International Relations in JSIA. She likes to hold an opinion about things around her and beyond. She is open to conversations on any topic and is welcoming of different opinions. She loves to learn and explore new things and will always be ready to lend help in whatever capacity she can.

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