A quick look at facts shows that there has never been a time before where we have had more prosperity in terms of health, wealth and education.
Former US President Barack Obama famously stated during the election season of 2016 that, “The greatest time to be alive would be now.” Given the current gloom and doom on everything from the economy and the fractured political environment, to corruption and violence against women, it would seem anything but. However, by almost every measure of human progress — income, literacy, life expectancy, people in extreme poverty — the world is a better place. The answer to whether the world is making broad-based progress, is no longer the domain of opinion but of facts based on immense evidence. And the answer is a resounding yes.
Two recent books, Factfulness by the late Hans Rosling, a brilliant Swedish statistician and Enlightenment Now, by Steven Pinker, the celebrated Harvard cognitive psychologist, make the case that the world has made tremendous progress when you look at the indicators that track income, health, wealth and violence. Extreme poverty in the world has more than halved in the past 30 years, average world life expectancy has increased from 52 years to 72 years in less than half a century, the average income level too has tripled since 1960 and the world is currently witnessing its most peaceful era in its long history marked by the absence of any major war in the last 75 years.
However, the pace at which the world is becoming a better place has not kept up with the number of people who are aware of it. Rosling, cheekily tests people from a plethora of countries on their knowledge of these basic facts on human progress and his respondents scored worse than they would if chimpanzees had picked answers randomly (which is less than 33% of the time).
Steven Pinker says that the reason why we are getting these trends wrong is not because we are uninformed but actually, misinformed. Our brains evolved in a world of experience, not data and hence are built to grossly overestimate risk based on experiences and anecdotes. Given our constant exposure to the news — which is predisposed to report what’s wrong with the world — coupled with the way we are wired to overestimate negative events, it is not surprising that we are missing out on important long term trends.
It isn’t hard to see validation to Pinker’s argument in everyday life. A recent perception survey of experts from around the world termed India as the most dangerous country for women. A massive claim was laid on the basis of perceptions – which are usually held ransom to a person’s biases, experiences and anecdotes (even those of experts). Forming a perception of safety through the constant stream of news regarding rapes, lynchings, and other such horrible travesties has its shortcomings in assessing the actual situation. To say anything about a situation, progress or long term trends, we need to look at hard data and evidence.
So is India becoming a better place to live? I decided to apply Rosling’s methodology to analyse the trends and long-term progress of India’s development. I broadly define ‘progress’ using measures that are used to calculate the Human Development Index (health, education and income) for which data is available from the time of Independence. The data shows that India has made tremendous progress, with the country moving towards a better future for both men and women.
Income and Extreme Poverty
The first indicator of progress that I track is per capita income. India’s per capita income has risen from a mere $304 (in constant terms) in 1960 to $1964 (in constant terms) in 2017 with the country now being classified as lower middle income (see Figure 1). There are enough economic studies to prove that as a country experiences economic growth and the average income increases, people are pulled out of poverty. This is the indicator that we turn to next.
India is currently witnessing the fastest reduction in extreme poverty over its seventy year-old history. The number of people living in extreme poverty (people living on less than 1.90 international dollars a day in purchasing power parity terms) is estimated at 73 million as of 2018. This translates to 5% of the population. To put things in perspective, according to World Poverty Clock data, around 305 million or 25% of the population lived in extreme poverty in 2011, which is less than a decade ago. If this trend plays out, it is estimated that by early 2021, India will soon reach a watershed moment of less than 3% of the population living in extreme poverty (Figure 2).
The education component of the HDI Index looks at mean and expected years of schooling, but since data over a long time frame is unavailable for this, we look at the literacy rate and gross enrollment ratios for schools, which was used to calculate the old HDI Index. The literacy rate has accelerated from a dismal 18.3% in 1951 to 73% in 2011 for the whole country. (see Figure 3)
The gross enrollment ratio for boys (11-13 years) into middle school (standard VII-VIII) has progressed from 20.6% in 1950 to 87.5% in 2011. The same ratio for girls remarkably jumps up from a meagre 4.6% in 1950 to 82.9% in 2011. (see Figure 4) While education outcomes remain a debatable topic, it would be good to acknowledge the first step of having enrolled children in schools.
In terms of health indicators, people are living longer and leading healthier lives than a couple of decades ago. India’s average life expectancy in 1960 was 41 years compared to 68.5 years in 2011, which is now almost in line with the world average of 72 years (see Figure 5).
The infant mortality rate (number of deaths of children under the age of one per 1000 live births) has come down to 32 deaths in 2017 from 161 deaths in 1960 (see Figure 6). As our income and educations levels have gone up, the total fertility rate for women too has come down from the average 5.9 children per woman to 2.3 children per woman in 2016. India’s full immunisation coverage (children aged between 12-23 months fully immunised for BCG, measles, and 3 doses each of polio and DPT) has improved from 35.4% in 1992-93 to 62% in 2015-16 (NFHS). We could argue about the rate of progress but can’t deny that progress is being made. In 2014, India reached a significant milestone when it was declared polio-free, with the last case of polio being reported in West Bengal in 2011. As recently as 1995, the disease used to cripple more than 50,000 children in the country every year.
The point of looking at these trends is not to state that every possible indicator of progress has only shown betterment — there are sufficient indicators to convey that progress has come at a certain price. The issues range from greater inequality in distribution of income, the threat of climate change from rising carbon emissions to a more heavily skewed sex ratio given the greater access to technology (especially for India). One can however, safely conclude, that it would not be wise to yearn for a bygone era or to believe the world is falling apart. The fact that we have now moved on to solving issues of the second order such as focusing on education outcomes than just school enrollment, inequality in income distribution than just absolute poverty, is itself a sign of progress.
There has never been a time before where we have had more prosperity in terms of health, wealth and education. Even for the more contentious issues of casualties of war, homicide rates, rights of women and attitudes towards homosexuals, discrimination against religious minorities and rise of democratic traditions, the data from Rosling’s book charts out a steady line of advancement for the world as a whole.
Hans Rosling stated that his book was his last battle in his lifelong mission to fight devastating ignorance about the world we inhabit. So before we completely bemoan the state of the world based on provocative newspaper headlines, Hans Rosling would like the onus to be on us to educate ourselves about the wonderful world we inhabit and the progress it is making based on data and evidence. We owe him that much.