What will save lives?

Amartya Sen wants to estimate the number of deaths caused by the delay in passing the Food Security Bill. He thinks this may shame Opposition politicians into ceasing disruption of proceedings in the Lok Sabha. “To capture people’s attention, you have to have a number,” he says. 

Fine, but let’s hope Sen will also estimate deaths caused by faulty policies that historically kept India’s GDP growth slow, and have once again slowed growth today. He loves to emphasise that for any given GDP growth, better social investment will improve outcomes. Why not equally emphasise that, for any given level of social investment, faster growth will also improve outcomes and reduce deaths?...

What about poverty? Delayed reform and slower growth kept an additional 109 million people below the poverty line. This calculation used the old Lakdawala poverty line — the more recent Tendulkar poverty line would yield a far larger number. Insum, delayed reform, resulting in slower economic growth, led to a huge social disaster — 14.5 million “missing children” , 261 million “missing literates” and 109 million “missing non-poor”. 

Critics can say these calculations are simplistic: social indicators are affected by many factors other than growth. Yes, but exactly the same criticism was made of Sen’s calculation of “missing women,” yet this did not affect the relevance or importance of his paper. 

I invite Sen and others to rework my calculations. Maybe some critic will estimate, for instance, that Nehru-Indira socialism killed only say 10 million children and not 14.5 million. That will not change the fact that it was a monumental social tragedy. 

The proportion of people saying they are hungry in any month fell from 15 per cent in 1983 to 2% in 2004. The 2011-12 survey will probably show it at just 1%. This has been achieved by faster growth, and it eclipses anything the Food Security Bill will achieve.

- S A Aiyer, 'Fast growth will save lives not the Food Security Bill.'


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