This updated piece was originally published by the Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy.

India's election season has seen a lot of talk about “development." The Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) Narendra Modi, now Prime Minister of India, is touted as a hero of development policy because of his record in promoting economic growth in Gujarat. Too seldom, however, are questions asked about what the most pertinent measure of development is, when it is the lives of people that we are considering. So it’s time to rehearse again the arguments that have led leading development thinkers all over the world, from the United Nations Development Programme to the World Bank, and including the influential report on development and quality of life by a commission convened by President Sarkozy of France, to reject growth as an adequate measure of development and to prefer, in its place, what is now known as the “Human Development” paradigm. First, I’ll discuss the issues in a general way. Then I’ll turn to Gujarat, showing that, although the growth-based paradigm does indeed give Narendra Modi high marks, the Human Development paradigm, by contrast, shows his record as only middling, far worse than that of states such as Tamil Nadu and Kerala, which have been preoccupied, rightly, with the distribution of health care and education. Given the high economic status of Gujarat, one might conclude that Modi’s record is not just middling but downright bad.

• • •

As the distinguished economist Mahbub Ul Haq wrote in 1990, in the first of the “Human Development Reports” of the United Nations Development Programme: “The real wealth of a nation is its people. And the purpose of development is to create an enabling environment for people to enjoy long, healthy, and creative lives. This simple but powerful truth is too often forgotten in the pursuit of material and financial wealth.” This is not a partisan political statement, it is an evident truth of human life. Development is about people and their lives. Rightly understood, it is a normative concept: it means that those lives are getting better. So how would one accurately measure that important concept?

The growth-based model of development measures development simply by looking to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita. First of all, even if we want an average measure that is a single number, a strategy I’ll shortly call into question—it’s far from obvious that average GDP is the right number. The Sarkozy Commission report argues that average household income would get us closer to seeing how people are really doing. The GDP doesn’t as adequately capture the daily perspective, because the profits of foreign investment can be repatriated by the foreign country in ways that don’t necessarily change the lives of the people in the nation in which they invest.

Furthermore, a crude measure like average GDP is a measure of the stuff that is around. It does not tell us who has it or what it is doing. Above all, it tells us nothing about distribution. It can thus give high marks to nations or States that contain alarming inequalities. For example, South Africa under apartheid used to shoot to the top of the development tables, despite the fact that a large majority of its people were unable to enjoy the fruits of the nation’s overall prosperity. So too with States within nations: a high average GDP is compatible with enormous inequalities, and attention to average GDP positively distracts attention from those inequalities.

GDP tells us nothing about distribution, so it can give high marks to nations with alarming inequalities.

Another shortcoming of approaches based on economic growth is that, even when distribution is factored in, they fail to examine aspects of the quality of a human life that are not very well correlated with growth. Research and real-life experimentation show clearly that promoting growth does not automatically improve people’s health, their education, their opportunities for political participation, or the opportunities of women to protect their bodily integrity from rape and domestic violence. And since we are talking of growth in the world’s largest democracy, we might well ask for yet more: the cultivation of informed and critical citizenship, the ability to engage in public debate with active curiosity and trained critical capacities, not merely some dogmas learned by rote.

For such reasons, development thinkers all over the world have increasingly gravitated to what is known as the Human Development Paradigm, which measures development achievements by looking at “capabilities,” or substantial opportunities, that people have only when public policy has put them in a position of effective freedom of choice in crucial areas of their lives.

That’s vague and abstract. Nor is the Human Development Index, which is typically the first table in the annual Human Development Reports, the true alternative proposal. The HDI, an aggregate measure that includes education, GDP, and longevity in accordance with a complex formula, was always simply an attention-getting device. By placing the accent on education and health, the HDI shows that new rankings emerge, different from those produced by attention to GDP alone. But the HDI was always supposed to be an appetizer, so to speak, not the entire meal. Piqued by the appetizer, one should then read on, and several hundred pages of tables would then report many other “human capabilities”—and their absence.

Amartya Sen has preferred not to enumerate the capabilities that ought to be most central for planning, although in practice, by choice of examples, and by his lengthy discussion of India’s achievements and failures, he does reveal his view that the equal distribution of education and health care and the amelioration of inequalities between male and female, rich and poor, ought to take centre stage in planning, along with the cultivation of a truly free press and trained capacities for public debate. I myself have done things a bit differently, though in a similar spirit. I have proposed a tentative working list of the “Central Human Capabilities” that can serve as a template for international public discussion. The capabilities on my list should, I argue, be protected somehow in national constitutions, up to some reasonable threshold level. Here is the working list I have proposed, in my books Women and Human DevelopmentFrontiers of Justice, and, most recently, Creating Capabilities:

The Central Human Capabilities

1. Life. Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length; not dying prematurely, or before one's life is so reduced as to be not worth living.

2. Bodily Health. Being able to have good health, including reproductive health; to be adequately nourished; to have adequate shelter.

3. Bodily Integrity. Being able to move freely from place to place; to be secure against violent assault, including sexual assault and domestic violence; having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction.

4. Senses, Imagination, and Thought. Being able to use the senses, to imagine, think, and reason—and to do these things in a “truly human” way, a way informed and cultivated by an adequate education, including, but by no means limited to, literacy and basic mathematical and scientific training. Being able to use imagination and thought in connection with experiencing and producing works and events of one’s own choice, religious, literary, musical, and so forth. Being able to use one’s mind in ways protected by guarantees of freedom of expression with respect to both political and artistic speech, and freedom of religious exercise. Being able to have pleasurable experiences and to avoid non-beneficial pain.

5. Emotions. Being able to have attachments to things and people outside ourselves; to love those who love and care for us, to grieve at their absence; in general, to love, to grieve, to experience longing, gratitude, and justified anger. Not having one’s emotional development blighted by fear and anxiety. (Supporting this capability means supporting forms of human association that can be shown to be crucial in their development.)

6. Practical Reason. Being able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one’s life. (This entails protection for the liberty of conscience and religious observance.)

7. Affiliation.

a). Being able to live with and toward others, to recognise and show concern for other human beings, to engage in various forms of social interaction; to be able to imagine the situation of another. (Protecting this capability means protecting institutions that constitute and nourish such forms of affiliation, and also protecting the freedom of assembly and political speech.)

b.) Having the social bases of self-respect and non-humiliation; being able to be treated as a dignified being whose worth is equal to that of others. This entails provisions of non-discrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, caste, religion, national origin.

8. Other Species. Being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature.

9. Play. Being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities.

10. Control over one’s Environment.

a). Political. Being able to participate effectively in political choices that govern one’s life; having the right of political participation, protections of free speech and association.

b.) Material. Being able to hold property (both land and movable goods), and having property rights on an equal basis with others; having the right to seek employment on an equal basis with others; having the freedom from unwarranted search and seizure. In work, being able to work as a human being, exercising practical reason and entering into meaningful relationships of mutual recognition with other workers.

Among people who favour the Human Development framework, there are many current discussions about whether a list is important, about what should be on it, about what an adequate threshold level of each capability is, and so forth. The impressive book Disadvantage, by Jonathan Wolff and Avner De-Shalit, has used my list as a measure of disadvantage for new immigrant groups, and the authors conclude that the list performs well, though they suggest some additions. These are in a sense matters of detail. What is important is to shift the space of comparison from growth alone to the framework of human opportunity, with a strong focus on distribution and social equality.

• • •

Now let us return to Narendra Modi’s Gujarat. Measured by the growth paradigm, its achievements are strong indeed. The growth rate of per capita SDP (State Domestic Prodct) between 2000 and 2011 averages 8.2 percent, higher than any other State excepting Uttarakhand (10.0). Other high performers, close behind Gujarat, are Tamil Nadu (7.5), Kerala (7.0), and Maharashtra (7.5).1

Given its wealth, why is Gujarat's performance in health and education so low? And what has Modi done to address it?

If, however, we begin to examine distribution, things immediately look very different. Gujarat’s rate of rural poverty is 26.7 percent, of urban poverty 17.9 percent; the combined poverty rate is 23.0 percent. Of the high economic performers, Maharashtra does worse, but Uttarakhand, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala do much better, with combined rates of poverty of 18 percent, 17.1 percent and 12.0 percent respectively.2 Moreover, the following States, not such stellar economic performers, have lower combined rates of poverty than Gujarat: Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, and Punjab.

Let’s now look more closely. Gujarat has life expectancy at birth of 64.9 years for males, 69.0 years for females. The figures for Tamil Nadu are 70.9 (female) and 67.1 (male), for Kerala 76.9 (female) and 71.5 (male).3 Lest we ascribe these differences to climate or genes, quite a few other States also outperform Gujarat: these include Maharashtra, Haryana, Punjab, Karnataka, and West Bengal. In infant mortality and maternal mortality, Gujarat also lags well behind the two southern States and quite a few others. In maternal mortality, indeed, Gujarat has the high rate of 148 deaths per 100,000 live births, as compared with just 81 for Kerala and 97 for Tamil Nadu.4 So: comparable growth achievements, utterly disparate health outcomes.

The health data for Gujarat are distressing in general, particularly given the State’s wealth; but signs of discrimination against females in the data I have cited are equally disturbing. The same discrepancy registers in the sex ratio. Roughly speaking, demographers estimate that when equal nutrition and health care are present, and when sex-selective abortion is absent, we should expect 102 females to 100 males. Alone in India, Kerala comes close to this balanced ratio, at 1,084 women to 1,000 males: it’s the only State where females outnumber males. But in Gujarat the figure is unusually low: 918 to 1,000. Only a few States do worse: Bihar, Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, and Uttar Pradesh. That’s it. Even Rajasthan, with its long history of discrimination against females, performs better, with 926 females to 1,000 males. And most States are way above that, though below Kerala: in Tamil Nadu, for example, the figure is 995, in Odisha 978, in Andhra Pradesh 992.5 This is not a problem that originates with government: its roots are complex and cultural. But what has the Gujarat State government done to address it? We may search for an answer, but we will not find one.

Turning to education, it’s the same story, only more so. The literacy rate (of people above age 7) in Gujarat is 70.7 percent for females, 87.2 percent for males; in Kerala the figures are 92 and 96 percent respectively, in Tamil Nadu, 73.9 and 86.8 (showing a relative failure of that State in comparison with Kerala). Once again, the aggregate achievement of Gujarat is weak, but the gender discrepancy is particularly striking. The proportion of non-literate persons in the age group 15-19 is, in Gujarat, 16.3 for females, 7.4 for males; in Kerala, 0.9 for females, 0.8 for males; in Tamil Nadu, 2.5 for females, 1.3 for males (so the shortfall in earlier years is made up later on). The following States also have higher female adolescent literacy than Gujarat: Assam, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Punjab, Uttarakhand, and West Bengal. Turning to the proportion of the population who have had at least eight years of schooling: in Gujarat, it is 52.6 percent for women, 61.2 per ent for men; in Kerala, 93.6 percent for women, 87.1 percent for men, in Tamil Nadu 74.4 percent for women, 73.6 percent for men.6 Other high performers are Andhra Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Punjab, and Uttarakhand.

That’s just the bare bones of education. If we want to know how well students are equipped by their education to take part in public debate, we will find much to distress us all over India, with the infamous and continued dominance of rote learning. But Gujarat’s schools have a special tradition of encouraging groupthink and docility, while discouraging critical thinking. Is this reputation unearned? If not, what steps are being taken to promote the active and critical use of the mind? Even if we should decide to ignore citizenship, as we should not, the skill of critical thinking is essential for a healthy business culture, as China and Singapore have understood, and they have both undertaken recent reforms to inject much more critical thinking into their curricula. What does Gujarat say? Quite apart from the fact that Modi has not even apologised for the depiction of Adolf Hitler as a hero in State textbooks, despite years of national and international protest, he has not even come forward to describe the steps his allegedly forward-looking State has taken or is planning to emulate those business models and, at the same time, to foster active citizenship. We can surely forgive underperformance, since correcting such deficiencies takes time. But if the leader does not confront and acknowledge the deficiencies and formulate a constructive plan to address them, things are unlikely to change for the better.

What is the explanation for Gujarat’s low performance in health and education, in contrast with Tamil Nadu and Kerala, which have comparable rates of economic growth? Clearly, it is the superior quality of public services, particularly in health care and education, in those two States. This is a story often told, and the remarkable fact that Kerala has achieved a life expectancy comparable to that of inner-city New York is by now world-famous (shameful for the United States, glorious for Kerala). Kerala’s stellar achievements in literacy and in gender equality are also discussed everywhere, and Tamil Nadu comes very close. The history of the south is different from that of Gujarat, and many aspects of culture and tradition are different, so one is comparing against a different baseline. But one thing that surely helps is that the south has resolutely refused the politics of religious division, which surely distracts attention from other matters.

Modi should admit failure. . . . India will not shine without great strides in education and public health.

Nobody could expect Narendra Modi to replicate immediately the impressive systems of public education and public health (for example Tamil Nadu’s Primary Health Centres) that have taken years to emerge in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Some achievements, such as the midday meal, which originated in Tamil Nadu, can be quickly adopted by other States; but the larger infrastructure in both health and education takes time to create. But then Modi should admit failure, not proclaim success, and he should acknowledge the work that remains to be done. One would expect to hear a constructive plan for addressing Gujarat’s development failures to date, and this has not been forthcoming. One would also expect praise for organisations such as SEWA in Ahmedabad, founded by the path-breaking activist Ela Bhatt, an organisation that has done so much to address problems of poverty and gender inequality. But Modi praises only business entrepreneurs and not those who, with vision and considerable courage, are addressing some of Gujarat’s most urgent problems of poverty and inequality. Bhatt has won the Padma Bhushan and many other awards (including the Benton Medal for public service from my own university, The University of Chicago); she has been honoured all over the world, but not by the Chief Minister of her own State, who evinces in his neglect—not just of a person but of the issues she represents—an indifference to the struggles of Gujarat’s poorest and its women.

India will not shine without great strides in education and public health. More or less everyone knows this, even when they talk only about growth most of the time. A nation needs a healthy and educated work force if it is to do well into the future. But of course health and education are more than tools for business: they are also essential tools of democratic self-governance. A leadership with a bad record on these issues—and, what’s more, with no shame about this record or public resolve to improve things—is likely to prove disastrous for India’s future.

This updated piece was originally published by the Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy. Image: Narendra Modi.


1.This information is available at Also see Drèze, Jean, and Amartya Sen’s book An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions, Princeton University Press, 2013. The book contains a comprehensive statistical appendix that draws on the World Development Indicators and other Indian government sources.

2. See Table A.3 in the Statistical Appendix in Drèze, Jean, and Amartya Sen, . 2013. An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions,: Princeton University Press, 2013. Drèze and Sen have used poverty estimates from 2009-10 made available by the Planning Commission. There are competing estimates of poverty in India. The Planning Commission has used the Tendulkar Method of estimating poverty by using a Mixed Reference Period. Data for 2011-12, using the Tendulkar Method can be found online. The Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative has released its own data, which can be found here. In addition to this, the Reserve Bank of India also releases poverty indicators that can be found online at

3. Life expectancy at birth data are calculated from the Sample Registration System data for 2012 by Drèze and Sen. The details can be found in their co-authored book, An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions,: Princeton University Press, 2013.

4. Other related indicators for Indian States from 2012 can be found here. For more recent indicators please visit the website of the Indian Census. Based on the Sample Registration System data for 2011. Also see the table on Mortality and Fertility in the Statistical Appendix contained in Drèze and Sen’s An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions, Princeton University Press, 2013.

5. Sex ratio figures are from provisional population totals furnished by the Census of India 2011. A detailed Excel file titled “Population and Sex Ratio by Residence” that contains data on rural, urban and State-wise sex ratios can be found here.

6. See the table on Literacy and Education in the Statistical Appendix in Drèze and Sen's An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions, Princeton University Press, 2013. The figures are based on latest data from the Census of India’s provisional population totals, 2011.