Whilst the Indian state has done a remarkable job in delivering physical infrastructure such as roads, power, airports, etc and digital infrastructure over the past decade, there is still much to do on the social infrastructure aspects of healthcare and education.

“The annual survey on the state of Indian education that civil society group Pratham releases with metronomic regularity every January inevitably makes for grim reading. The latest edition revealed that a quarter of school children between the ages of 14 and 18 struggle to read a Standard II level text in their regional language. More than half in this cohort is unable to do the simple division of a three-digit number with a one-digit number. Three out of four children who can read English fail to explain the meaning of the sentence they read.”

In this piece for the Mint, Niranjan Rajadhyaksha reviews a book that might have some pointers to how the Indian state can do better in terms of service delivery on basic infrastructure such as education and healthcare among other things.

The book in question – “Accelerating India’s Development: A State-Led Roadmap for Effective Governance by Karthik Muralidharan, a professor of economics at the University of California San Diego.”

The author’s credentials:

“Besides authoring a string of influential academic papers, Muralidharan has also worked closely with several state governments to understand how their programmes work on the ground, and what can be done to make them more effective. He has been part of what is called “the credibility revolution” in development economics, or more specifically the use of tools such as randomised control trials to better understand how specific government policies impact outcomes on the ground to establish causality rather than mere correlation.”

Rajadhyaksha’s take on the book:

“Muralidharan argues that increasing public spending without improving the efficiency of the Indian state is akin to spending more money on fuel for an antiquated car that needs to be replaced. His twin roles as an academic scholar and a policy advisor ensures that the book offers not just analysis but also specific reform suggestions over a wide range of public policy fronts. The result is a masterclass in development economics. Its multiple insights are accessible to a broader audience because it is not written clannishly for a select few.”

The review highlights a couple of misconceptions that the book points at. One, the perception that the Indian state is overstaffed:

“A comparable country such as Brazil has seven times more public employees for every thousand citizens. Or: China is much more decentralised than India. More than 65% of all government employees in China work for local governments; only 10% do so in India. Chinese budgets are 17 times more decentralised than the ones in India. Another common belief is that all government employees have too little work. In reality, people staffing key positions — from judges across the judicial hierarchy to frontline health workers — are overwhelmed by tasks, meetings, paperwork.”
Another perception that the trickle-down effect of economic growth will resolve these problems:

“Muralidharan shows that if average incomes continue to increase at 6% a year till the centenary of our liberation from colonial rule, infant mortality in India can be expected to fall from 27 per 1000 births today to 13 in 2047. That would still be above China’s current infant mortality rate of 8 per thousand births. Even an acceleration of economic growth will not bring our infant mortality in 2047 below current Chinese levels today. It is much the same with other indicators such as stunting, reading capabilities and numerical skills.”

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