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Mainsteam, Vol XLIX, No 12, March 12, 2011

MDGs: India Has A Long Way To Go

Wednesday 16 March 2011, by Suranjita Ray


The recent Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) Review Summit in New York, the G-20 Summit in Seoul and the United Nations Human Development Report 2010 serve as reminders for the urgent need to narrow the inequalities and disparities within and between countries to foster balanced development. Ten years on from the MDGs’ declaration to halve poverty and hunger, achieve universal primary education, promote gender equality and empowerment of women, reduce child mortality and improve maternal health, the ground reality shows that despite high economic growth and development on several fronts, the divides that afflict our country between the rich and the poor, urban and rural, upper class and caste, and the SCs, STs, OBCs, marginalised sections have become more sharp than in the past.

It is important to note also that in several regions of India a new class of beneficiaries (the middlemen, traders, contractors, money lenders in nexus with the powerful, mostly from the upper caste) has emerged, and they corner the benefits from the anti-poverty programmes and development schemes in terms of monetary gains, resulting in further deprivation, margina-lisation and exclusion of the majority from the mainstream development. The latter situation is not a given but inequalities and exclusions are created further alongside high economic growth and one can see the gaps not just at the bottom but also between the haves and the few at the top. Reducing inequalities and preventing exclusion is one of the most serious challenges to bring down poverty and hunger which are the greatest human tragedies in the country.

The Paradox: High Growth and Low Development

DESPITE emerging as a powerful nation in South Asia, with an economy growing at eight per cent, India ranks much low in terms of the development indicators. The HDR 2010 places India at 119 in the Human Development Index out of 169 countries by adding the Multi-dimensional Poverty Index (MPI), the Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index (IHDI) and the Gender generations. The study by the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative using a Multi-dimensional Poverty Index, identifying serious simultaneous deprivations in health, education and income at the household level shows that 421 million poor live under the MPI in eight States of India such as Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. This is higher than the 410 million poor living in 26 poorest African Nations. (OPHI and UNDP, HDR 2010)

In the Global Hunger Index 2010 Report, released by the International Food Policy Research Institute, India has gone down from the 65th position last year to 67 this year and is placed in the category of ‘alarming’ situations due to high levels of hunger.1 It is home to 42 per cent underweight children and 31 per cent stunted children of the world. However, these figures do not take us by surprise due to widespread disparities and inequalities across the country. It reports 38.9 per cent poor as undernourished due to severe deprivations …cooking fuel—52.2 per cent, drinking water—12 per cent and sanitation—49.3 per cent. (Also see Ram, 2010a: 10) The Report points out that India alone accounts for a large share of the world’s undernourished children.2 It stresses that the economic performance and hunger levels are inversely co-related as countries have higher levels of hunger than their per capita gross national income.

Therefore the need for a self-critical look at the policies to plug the loopholes in the implemen-tation of several programmes and schemes and rework strategies to spread the benefit of growth equitably is the most daunting task before the policy-makers.

Lessons from Grassroots Experiences

ONE of the reasons stated for India’s low ranking compared to others is its low investment in health, water, sanitation, education and women’s social status. Lessons learned from the grassroots experiences tell us that an outcome in terms of an increased financial investment on develop-ment schemes does not necessarily lead to an increased number of its beneficiaries nor a decrease in inequalities. Increase in rural employment under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), more enrolment in schools under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), improved conditions in health under the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM), improved nutrition under the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) and Mid-Day Meals (MDMs), ensured drinking water under the Rajiv Gandhi Drinking Water Mission, better sanitation under the Total Sanitation Programme and major achievements under the Bharat Nirman Programme do not tell us the real situation in many interiors of rural India. (Also see Jacob, 2010: 12)

The important role of the social activists and the protest movements led by them resulted in several legislations to reduce the divides in various dimensions and meet the needs of the deprived and impoverished mostly belonging to the STs, SCs, OBCs, landless, small and marginal farmers, children, women, senior citizens, differently able, homeless, the old and sick. The last decade has seen the Right to Information Act, Right to Protection against Domestic Violence Act, Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, The Forest Rights Act, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, and the proposed legislation on Food Security. While these Acts are important steps to protect the rights of citizens which provide legitimacy to the state, it is critical to address structural conditions which deny freedom to exercise rights to certain sections of society despite significant legislations. Discriminations on the basis of class, caste, gender and ethnicity is widespread in India alongside the violation of human rights.

One of the most obnoxious and inhuman practice that continues in India is ‘manual scavenging’. Despite being banned 17 years ago through the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act 1993, its practice continues by certain Dalit sub-castes, and particularly their women, and no legal action has been taken against the violators. It is equally important that the Dalit sub-castes feel strongly about objecting to such violence. It is also difficult for most women who get beaten up, to accept that they are subject to domestic violence. This is precisely because of the hierarchical caste system and patriarchal structure which legitimises inequality and injustice done to certain castes ranked lower in the hierarchy and women across all castes. The prevalence of bonded labour and child labour are reported from different parts of India. One of the biggest challenges is to empower the marginalised to realise their exploitation, oppression and violation of rights by addressing the structural conditions which create and perpetuate oppression, deprivation and exclusion.

The shift from normative to the rights-based approach has failed to do away with the disparities and inequalities deeply ingrained in our society. This is reflected in indicators like sex ratios, literacy levels of boys and girls, Maternal Mortality Rates (MMR), malnourishment and hunger, employment rates, minimum wages, participation in development and in decision-making. Despite a few success stories of the Public Distribution System (PDS), Indira Awaas Yojana (IAY), Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), emergency feeding programmes such as Mid-Day Meals (MDMs), Self-Help Groups (SHGs) and Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), in a majority of the States these schemes, which aimed to keep out the middlemen/contractors/traders, practically operate through them. The report from the fields on increasing corruption and leakages are common. The marginalised and assetless are further impoverished widening the divides.

The notification of January 2009 delinking the MGNREGS wages from the Minimum Wages Act, 1948 and putting a cap on the MGNREGS wages at Rs 100 not only deprives the helpless workers in several States of the statutory minimum wages if it is more than Rs 100, but also increases the scope of corruption and exploitation betraying the very objective of the Employment Guarantee Act. The MGNREGS workers are paid less than the minimum wages in Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka, Maharastra, Bihar, Odisha, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and now Rajasthan.3 The minimum wages have not been linked to the Consumer Price Index. It is important to note that social activists like Aruna Roy, Nikhil Dey and others have been successful in fighting against injustice done to the workers in Rajasthan and there are successful protests in parts of Andhra Pradesh, but in major parts of rural India in addition to being paid less than the minimum wages, discrimination in wages based on gender, and discrimination in allocating work based on castes are common. This is also confirmed in our field survey in 2008-09 in the three districts of Kalahandi in Odisha, Bhojpur in Bihar and Chittoor in Andhra Pradesh (Mohanty, Ray, Trivedi, Sukumar 2010).4 We found involvement of contractors in the works provided, which is a violation of the Act. Our findings suggest that in a majority of the villages, job cards have not been issued to the villagers and even if they are issued no work has been provided despite demands by villagers. Wherever work is provided it is not more than 15 to 20 days. The provisions to provide facilities for aaya, drinking water, shelter, shade, crèche, and first-aid are not implemented. There are cases of open flouting of rules under the MGNREGA, fudging of purchase records, Sarpanches opposing social auditing and no compensation paid for delayed payment of wages and for unemployment. The survey conducted by the Centre for Environment and Food Security during May-June 2007 in the Kalahandi, Bolangir and Koraput (KBK) districts in Odisha and during December 2007-January 2008 in Madhya Pradesh shows financial bungling, participatory loot, fake muster rolls, fake job card entries and fake wage payments. There have been no social audits whatsoever in any of the villages and there is zero accountability and total absence of transparency. Similar findings such as financial irregularities, leakages of funds due to fake attendance, role of contractors, lack of transparency, delay in payment and violation of basic norms (availability of muster rolls at work sites and job cards to all registered workers) are common in studies on the NREGA in the North-East, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and elsewhere.

Despite several steps to plug the loopholes, there are no changes at the local level due to the nexus between the powerful and their mani-pulation. The local villagers have to bribe the middlemen/officials to avail loans for the IAY. We see large scale inclusion and exclusion errors in the BPL lists which deprive the eligible from benefits of poverty alleviation programmes. There are reports that women are being lured to form SHGs and the micro-finance institutions charge high rates of interests and use forcible means for loan recovery which compels them to suicide. The last few years have seen increasing numbers of farmers’ suicide due to their inability to repay the loans/debts. Increasing alienation of land and landlessness has resulted in increasing migration which has added to further impove-rishment, deprivation and marginalisation.

Acknowledging regional backwardness and its problems as the result of visible failures of the state apparatus to ensure good governance, the 11th Plan focused on the Right to Information Act which empowers the people to demand improved governance. Action plans to curb leakages, corruptions and monitor implementation of programmes and schemes are all important steps to ensure the benefits of development to the needy. Despite such plans, the intensification of hunger, malnutrition and distress with an excess of buffer stocks of foodgrains in the Food Corporation of India and the rotting of tonnes of foodgrains not only illustrates the worst form of paradox but is also the most inhumane and unethical experience. Tonnes of damaged foodgrains had to be destroyed despite millions of starving population. It is important to argue that the faulty implementation of the PDS in a majority of the States has facilitated the emergence of a new class comprising of traders, contractors, private retailers, big landowners and money lenders, who benefit from the PDS. The draft of the Food Security Bill has failed to address several contradictions that exist within the bill as well as with the existing schemes and programmes.

Though the ICDS schemes are of immense help to the malnourished children and pregnant women, several loopholes exist in their imple-mentation. Absence of co-ordination among different government functionaries and Anganwadi workers is a major hindrance in successful implementation of the ICDS. Maternal health is important but limiting women’s health to maternal and child care reflects the narrow perception of the importance of women’s health (only to give birth to healthy children). The MDM is a help to the children but our field experiences suggest that the gruel mixture (primarily consisting of rice and dal) is insufficient in terms of quantity and extremely poor in quality. There are reports that the MDMs also discriminate children on the basis of caste while serving cooked food. The Primary Health Centres (PHCs) are not only few in number but located at the outskirts of villages and lack of communication, medical facilities and doctors reflect the backwardness and underdevelopment of several regions.

In a majority of the States such as Odisha, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Maharashtra violation of the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act, 1996 is common and the Gram Sabhas do not play any role in deciding the use of natural resources. After two-and-a-half years of its implementation, the Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006, which aimed at compensating the historic injustice done to the forest dwellers, Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dependent communities, has in practice empowered the forest officials and the Forest Departments. In most States, the Gram Sabhas take places at the panchayat level rather than at the level of actual settlement hamlet or the village. This prevents analysing the actual situation and participation of the adivasis. The nexus between the corrupt officials, the middlemen/contractors and traders results in huge monetary gains while the adivasis continue to remain deprived of their right to forests despite the Act. The forest officials harass, humiliate and exploit the tribals. (Campaign on Right to Forests) The Joint Forest Management Committees (JFMCs) are dominated by local vested interest groups and the officials of the Forest Department which deprives the rights of the local communities to manage the forests.

Development projects have mounted protests on questions of survival, displacement, alienation and right to life and livelihood. Despite people’s protests the ‘developmental state’ has ignored their concerns and continues to threaten people with illegal eviction to implement big develop-ment projects. Violation of people’s rights has led to increasing opposition to the state policies by the Maoists/Naxals in the tribal areas. (Ray, 2010: 25-34) Development policies have not only failed to benefit the marginalised and deprived sections in rural areas, but have also increasingly threatened their sources of livelihood. The state has handed over vast areas of natural resources such as mining, fertile land, water and forest reserves to the corporate sector and international finance capital to secure industrial and economic growth. The state’s new mantra to ensure develop-ment by handing over the productive resources to the national, transnational and multinational corporations is based on the underlying philosophy of economic liberalisation and globalisation of trade.

The role of the non-state agencies in carrying the benefits of development to the more backward sections of rural areas has become significant and a more active supervision by the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) and broader involvement of the Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) and voluntary sector in development policies is encouraged. But the power and autonomy given to the Panchayats is misused. While they aim at transferring power and authority to the local people at the grassroots to involve them in planning and implementing socio-economic development programmes, they are still being manipulated by the men of the dominant land owning class and upper castes that have an enormous hold on the socio-economic and political structure. Reservations for women in the PRIs will only alter the gender relations when the structures of power relations are challenged and changed. Though the NGOs have largely come to play the role of development agencies, their activities do not change the overall character of the socio-economic and political process and shrinking space for the majority.

It is significant to understand development from the vantage point of the underdeveloped communities and powerless citizens in many interior regions, rather than only the human development indices that are determined by the state and non-state institutions. Policies to improve health, nutrition and education are focused as they are important for generating economic growth. Thus reducing poverty and inequality has been focused in the international development debates. But development will remain a distant dream for the majority who are marginalised and excluded unless the process of development which marginalises and excludes certain sections of society, particularly the landless, assetess, STs, SCs and women, is addressed. While it is pertinent to protect the latter from being excluded from the mainstream development, the measures to promote inclusive growth and the poverty reduction strategies have reinforced the processes of marginalisation and exclusion of the poor and deprived. The ‘freedom to exercise freedom’ is denied to the vast majority of society which undermines equal citizenship.


THE increasing socio-economic paradoxes resulted in growing social turbulence during the last decade. Therefore the policies of development should be assessed on the basis of entitlements and empowerments. Economic growth can ensure social justice when the deprived sections parti-cipate in the development process. It is pertinent to address issues related to land, livelihood and displacement, exploitation of mineral resources, forest and water reserves, increasing farmers suicides, unemployment, poverty, poor health care, lack of education, hunger, malnutrition, famishment and starvation deaths, distress migration and the very right of the communities to life and existence. Based on the past experiences and lessons learned this analysis underlines that assertion of people’s rights can contribute to moving India on the road to the Millennium Development Goals and progress.


Global Hunger Index Report (2010), launched by the International Food Policy Research Institute, visited online on November 25,

Human Development Report (2010), UNDP, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.
Jacob, K.S. (2010), ‘Millennium Development Goals and India’ in The Hindu, October 20.

Millennium Development Goals Review Summit (2010) visited online on November 25,

Ram, N. (2010a), “Fighting Hunger” in The Hindu October 18.

Ram, N. (2010b), “Assessing Development” in The Hindu, November 17.

Ray, Suranjita (2010), “The Developmental State and People’s Struggle for Land Rights” in Mainstream, 48 (29), July 10: 25-34.

Towards Faster and More Inclusive Growth; An Approach to 11th Five Year Plan (2006), Planning Commission, Government of India.

Mohanty, Manoranjan, Suranjita Ray, G.N. Trivedi, N. Sukumar (2010), “Landlessness and Marginalisation: A Study of Kalahandi, Bhojpur and Chittoor” in India Social Development Report.


1. Though it is at the centre of the global economic recovery along with China it ranks much lower than China which is at the ninth position. It ranks lower than the neighbouring countries such as Sri Lanka at 39, Myanmar at 50, Pakistan at 52, and Nepal at 56.

2. The Global Hunger Index rates 84 countries on the basis of three leading indicators such as prevalence of child malnutrition under five, rate of child mortality and proportion of children who are calorie deficient.

3. It was reported that 99 NREGA workers of Gudlia Gaon under Rupbas Panchayat of Tonk district in Rajasthan were paid wage at Rs 1 a day.

4. For details see India Social Development Report, 2010; The Land Question and the Marginalised, Centre for Social Development, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Suranjita Ray teaches Political Science at Daulat Ram College, University of Delhi. She can be contacted at

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