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August 4, 1998


E-Mail this column to a friend Dilip D'Souza

Requiem For A True Human

I write today to mourn the death, some weeks ago, of a man I never knew.

Apart from a few tributes in the papers, his moving on seems to have caused barely a few ripples. That's not much of a surprise, considering that his views and suggestions are so dramatically different from what goes on in this corner of the globe, so different that they probably embarrassed a number of people. I wish I had known Mahbub-Ul-Haq.

Even one less man of his thinking is a huge, sad loss. If even a few more thought along the lines he frequented, this corner of the globe would be a far better place than the miasma the rest of us have made of it.

Mahbub-Ul-Haq was a loud, tireless voice on behalf of sanity, a commodity not liberally sprinkled among Indian and Pakistani politicians and policy-makers. ("Political vision is one of the most scarce commodities in the world today," Haq wrote in his 1976 book The Poverty Curtain). But it was hardly a routine moral stand Haq took on sanity. His constant argument was that the sanity he advocated was the path to prosperity and strength, peace and dignity, for countries to take. Not just any path either, but in many ways the only path, the real path. Haq was one development economist who came to believe that countries develop when they invest, first and always, in their people. That made him a near-unique development economist, a rare economist, an unusual South Asian -- and he must have been a remarkable human being.

Yes, I would have liked to have known him.

Haq was the driving force behind the UNDP's Human Development Reports that have been published since 1990, as well as the yearly South Asia Development reports he published from Islamabad. He came up with the now well-known Human Development Index, a numerical gauge of how well countries are doing in providing reasonable lives to their citizens. It proved to be a startlingly accurate measure. Who might argue with a 1996 ranking in which Canada, the USA and Japan took places 1, 2 and 3? In which Somalia, Sierra Leone and Niger were at the bottom: 172, 173 and 174? Where countries like Brazil, Belize and Botswana made up the mid-ranks? Haq's home, Pakistan, and India languished in the 130s: not the worst countries, but not so far off the bottom either.

The HDI is based on three simple indicators. First, life expectancy, as a measure of health. Second, educational attainment, represented by a combination of adult literacy and school enrollment. Third, the real GDP per capita, as a measure of the standard of living. A country's achievements in these three basic variables are measured and averaged to arrive at the HDI, expressed as a number ranging between 0 and 1. The interesting thing about the index is that it is useful in two ways: it allows comparisons between countries, and it shows just how far each country must go to maximise its human potential.

Compare Canada's 1996 HDI of 0.951 to Pakistan's 0.442, India's 0.436, or bottom-dweller Niger's 0.204.

These figures, and many more that support the HDI story, underpin Haq's persistent appeal to the countries of the world, and to India and Pakistan in particular. If you want to improve the quality of your residents' lives -- and correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't that every nation's signal concern? -- you must invest in education, health and social development. In fact, those must be a country's highest priorities.

That much you might hear from any of a myriad social scientists, writers and activists. What distinguished Haq's argument was this: he showed convincingly that concentrating on human development also increases human capital. That is, human development is not merely a national goal in itself, one that nuclear aficionados, for example, can pooh-pooh easily with glib talk of national security. More than that, it is an instrument, a vehicle, for growth and development. In other words, if you want to build an economically strong, robust nation, the best way by far is to invest in your people. All your people.

This was not economic thinking as it has gone for much of, say, the last century. Economists, and policymakers in their wake, have been fervent worshippers at the altar of growth. Growth, for its own sake, on its own terms. Yes, they said, such growth would produce inequalities and widen the rich-poor divide. But that's only in the short term. Over time, wealth will "trickle down" to the lowest strata and the "rising tide will lift all boats." (Ronald Reagan was a famous spouter of these vague, platitudinous promises).

"Development" -- a mindless, thought-free development, was the mantra. We all learned to chant it with a practiced ease. Thus, to take one example, it was OK to build dams for electricity. But it was not OK to wonder why villages a few hundred metres from those very dams must remain without that very electricity; why those villagers must "sacrifice" -- another of those mindless words -- for "development," for the "national interest."

Haq's HDRs showed that the national interest was most effectively served -- could only be served -- by tending to the people's interest. While the HDI may not be perfect, countries like Canada, the USA, Norway and others that top the rankings have indeed followed that path. Nearly everyone in those countries has access to education, health care, justice. That's why they have generally flourishing economies. That's why they top the HDI rankings. In contrast, the world is strewn with countries that have chanted the mindless mantra, ignored their people, all the way to the lower reaches of the HDI rankings. India and Pakistan are two.

So much for Haq's HDRs. What are his lessons for India and Pakistan, for their citizens, some of whom are reading these lines? One simple lesson, as far as I can tell: we must rethink some priorities. What's more, it's you readers who must stimulate that rethinking, for we have a political class in both countries unwilling and incapable of it. Writing in the Sunday Times of India recently, S Venkitramanan, ex-governor of the Reserve Bank of India, told a story to demonstrate just how unwilling and incapable.

At a 1986 meeting between officials of our two countries, Haq -- then Pakistan's finance and commerce minister -- was set on opening up trade across the border as a way to build bridges. Overcoming much "sullen" resistance, he drew up a list of 30 commodities Pakistan would import from India and a similar list that India would import from Pakistan. A measly 60 items -- hardly an enormous step towards peace between two nutty neighbours, but a step nevertheless.

Haq paid for his peaceful intentions almost before the ink on the agreement dried. President Zia sacked him from his ministership. Haq learned that politicians mistrust trust. His idea of trade for peace remains locked behind that mistrust, behind the prejudice ordinary Indians and Pakistanis willingly choose to swallow. The very prejudice, may I submit, that led to the worst desecration yet of Haq's hopes: the nuclear explosions last May.

Prospects for a prosperous, peaceful, South Asia were further smashed then by the misguided egos of Vajpayee, Sharief and those around them. Knowing Haq from what he has always proposed, I feel sure he was deeply distressed by those explosions. They were more evidence that the governments in both countries care nothing for their people, and so for a real national strength in either country. I feel sure, too, that he was as deeply distressed by the reaction to the explosions: the euphoria that demonstrated just how successful politicians have been in persuading us that their egos are the national interest.

Sadly, the real tragedy is that the few times India has chosen to invest in its people, the results have been a resounding affirmation of Haq's ideas. Bangalore is the obvious example. An investment in computer skills has turned that city into a world centre for software, turned India into the world's second-largest exporter of software. While there are problems, India badly needs to imitate and replicate that example all over the country. "[India's] takeoff," Haq wrote in the 1997 South Asian Development Report, "desperately requires massive investment in human development."

Instead, and I feel faintly slimy writing this, we opted for a nuclear bomb. We chose deliberately to let our people remain malnourished and illiterate, to keep our country weak. And we applauded that choice with gusto.

Yes, I never knew Mahbub-Ul-Haq. But now that he is gone, I'm going to try chanting a different mantra, one that I found in his 1996 Human Development Report. It's not particularly poetic, it doesn't even rhyme, but it will do fine nevertheless. You can chant along too. All together now, nice and easy, this is the way it goes:

"Human development and poverty reduction must be moved to the top of the agenda for political and economic policy making."


The latest we hear on the Srikrishna report on the 1992-93 Bombay riots is that it will be placed in the Maharashtra assembly on August 6. Here are some excerpts from news about the report over the past week or so.

"The ruling Shiv Sena-BJP regime plans to reject the recommendations of the Srikrishna Commission. The saffron combine's strategy is to present the much-awaited report to the state legislature on August 6, reject it outright and announce a new panel to look afresh into the communal flare-up that engulfed Mumbai in 1992-93. This was indicated by Shiv Sena leader Raj Thackeray in an informal conversation with newspersons at Vidhan Bhavan on Thursday."
Times of India, July 31 1998

"The BJP bigwigs in New Delhi, it was learnt, had advised the Sena-BJP government to release the report only after the monsoon session of Parliament concluded."
Times of India, July 31 1998

"Mr Bhujbal wanted to know what had prompted Mr Thackeray to describe the report as the work of a 'biased' mind. ... The Sena chief had uttered certain derogatory words against the commission. ... [RR Patil, Congress MLA] wanted to know how Mr Thackeray had read the report before it was placed before the house. ... [Maharashtra Assembly Speaker Datta Nalavade] said the report of the commission was confidential and hence it was not possible for anyone to know its contents."
Times of India, July 28 1998

"Thackeray had also said on television that if action has been recommended against him in the report, 'people will reply.' "
Mid-Day, August 3 1998

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