In his NYRB article on Quality of Life: India vs. China, Prof. Amartya Sen makes the obvious point that the pursuit of GNP and its growth has a larger purpose: increasing people's welfare.
Realizing, probably, that a direct comparison with China would allow his critics to counter him with China's longer experience with economic reforms (and, consequently, its higher GNP), he uses two different lines of argument. The first one is a comparison with Bangladesh, a country with half the per capita GNP as India's:
GNP per capita is, however, not invariably a good predictor of valuable features of our lives, for those features depend also on other things that we do—or fail to do. Compare India with Bangladesh. In income, India has a huge lead over Bangladesh, with a GNP per capita of $1,170, compared with $590 in Bangladesh, in comparable units of purchasing power. This difference has expanded rapidly because of India’s faster rate of recent economic growth, and that, of course, is a point in India’s favor. India’s substantially higher rank than Bangladesh in the UN Human Development Index (HDI) is largely due to this particular achievement. But we must ask how well India’s income advantage is reflected in other things that also matter. I fear the answer is: not well at all.
Life expectancy in Bangladesh is 66.9 years compared with India’s 64.4. The proportion of underweight children in Bangladesh (41.3 percent) is lower than in India (43.5), and its fertility rate (2.3) is also lower than India’s (2.7). Mean years of schooling amount to 4.8 years in Bangladesh compared with India’s 4.4 years. While India is ahead of Bangladesh in the male literacy rate for the age group between fifteen and twenty-four, the female rate in Bangladesh is higher than in India. Interestingly, the female literacy rate among young Bangladeshis is actually higher than the male rate, whereas young women still have substantially lower rates than young males in India. There is much evidence to suggest that Bangladesh’s current progress has a great deal to do with the role that liberated Bangladeshi women are beginning to play in the country.
What about health? The mortality rate of children under five is sixty-six per thousand in India compared with fifty-two in Bangladesh. In infant mortality, Bangladesh has a similar advantage: it is fifty per thousand in India and forty-one in Bangladesh. While 94 percent of Bangladeshi children are immunized with DPT vaccine, only 66 percent of Indian children are. In each of these respects, Bangladesh does better than India, despite having only half of India’s per capita income.
A second argument is about some of the bad policy choices made by China, especially in healthcare:
... the economic reforms of 1979 greatly improved the working and efficiency of Chinese agriculture and industry; but the Chinese government also eliminated, at the same time, the entitlement of all to public medical care (which was often administered through the communes). Most people were then required to buy their own health insurance, drastically reducing the proportion of the population with guaranteed health care. [...] The change sharply reduced the progress of longevity in China. Its large lead over India in life expectancy dwindled during the following two decades—falling from a fourteen-year lead to one of just seven years.
The Chinese authorities, however, eventually realized what had been lost, and from 2004 they rapidly started reintroducing the right to medical care. China now has a considerably higher proportion of people with guaranteed health care than does India. The gap in life expectancy in China’s favor has been rising again, and it is now around nine years; and the degree of coverage is clearly central to the difference.
Sen has a more detailed version of this argument in this Lancet article.
* * *
See also Sen's guest editorial in ET in December 2006 urging Indian states to learn from the experience of the other states that have done well on different social indicators.