Accelerating India’s Development

What will India look like in 2047? Combining projections of economic growth with estimates of the elasticity of outcomes with respect to growth, Karthik Muralidharan in Accelerating India’s Development reports:

Even with a strong GDP per capita growth rate of 6 per cent, projections for 2047 paint a sobering picture if we maintain our current course. While India’s infant mortality is projected to halve from 27 per 1000 births to 13 in 2047, it will still be well above China’s current rate of 8. Child stunting will only decrease from 35.5 to 25 per cent, which is only a 10.5 percentage point or 30 per cent reduction in nearly 25 years. In rural India, 16 per cent of children in Class 5 will still not be able to read at a Class 2 level, and 55 per cent of them will still not be able to do division at the Class 3 level.

Bear in mind that this is assuming an optimistic 6% growth rate in GDP per capita. Even more telling is that if growth increased to 8%, infant mortality would only fall to 10 per 1000 (instead of 13). Growth is great. It’s the single most important factor but it’s not everything. If India can double the elasticity of infant mortality with respect to growth, for example, then at the same 6% growth rate infant mortality would fall to just 6 per 1000 by 2047–that’s millions of lives saved. The big argument of Muralidharan’s Accelerating India’s Development is that India can get more development from the same level of growth by increasing the total factor productivity of the state.

There are many “big think” books on growth–Landes’ Wealth and Poverty of Nations, Acemoglu and Robinson’s The Narrow Corridor, Koyama and Rubin’s How the World Became Rich–but these books are primarily historical and descriptive. The big think books don’t tell you how to develop. Create institutions to strike “a delicate and precarious balance between state and society” isn’t much of a guide to development. Accelerating India’s Development is different.

“Accelerating” opens with two excellent chapters on the political economy of politicians and bureaucrats, outlining the constraints any reforms must navigate. It concludes with two chapters on the future, including ideas like ranked choice voting, representing its aspirations. It’s in-between the constraints and the aspirations, however, that Accelerating India’s Development is unique. I know of no other book that offers such a detailed, analytical, and comprehensive examination and evaluation of a country’s institutions and processes.

Muralidharan’s recommendations are often based on his own twenty years of research, especially in education, health and welfare, and when not based on his own research Muralidharan has read everyone and everything. Yet, he offers not a laundry list but a well-thought out, analytic, set of recommendations that are grounded on political and economic realities.

To give just one example, India’s bureaucracy is far over-paid relative to India’s GDP per capita or wages in the private sector. With wages too high, the bureaucracy is too small–a  reflection of the concentrated benefits (wages to government workers), diffuse costs (delivering services to citizens) problem. Lowering wages for government workers is a non-starter but Muralidharan argues persuasively that it is possible to hire new workers from local communities at prevailing wages on renewable contracts. The Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), for example, is India’s main program for delivering early childhood education. There are 1.35 million anganwadi centers (AWCs) across India and typically a single anganwadi worker is responsible for both nutrition and pre-school education but they spend most of their time on paperwork!

A simple, scalable way to improve early childhood education is to add a second worker to AWCs to focus on preschool education….In a recent study, my co-authors and I found that adding an extra, locally hired, early-childhood care and education facilitators to anganwadis in Tamil Nadu doubled daily preschool instructional time…we found large gains in students’ maths, language and executive function skills. We also found a significant reduction in child stunting and malnutrition…We estimate the social return on this investment was around thirteen times the cost….the ECCE facilitators typically had only a Class 10 or Class 12 qualification and received only one week of training, and were still highly effective.

The example illustrates Muralidharan’s methods. First, the recommendation is based on a large, credible, multi-year study run in India with the cooperation of the government of Tamil Nadu. Second, the study is chosen for the book because it fits Muralidharan’s larger analysis of India’s problems, India has too few government workers which leads to high potential returns, yet the workers are paid too much so these returns are fiscally unachievable. But hiring more workers on the margin, at India’s-prevailing wages, is feasible. India has lots of modestly-educated workers so the program can scale–this is not a study about adding AI-driven computers to Delhi schools under the management of IIT trained educators, a program which would be subject to the heroes aren’t replicable problem. The program is also politically feasible because it leaves rents in place and by hiring lots of workers, even at low wages, it generates its own political support. Finally, note that India’s ICDS is the largest early childhood development program in the world so improving it has the potential to make millions of lives better. Which is why I have called Muralidharan the most important economist in the world.

One of the reasons state capacity in India is so low is premature load bearing. Imagine if the 19th-century U.S. government had attempted to handle everything today’s U.S. government does—this is the situation in India. When State Capacity/Tasks < 1, what should be done? In premature imitation, Rajagopalan and I advocate for reducing Tasks–an idea best represented by Ed Glaeser’s quip that “A country that cannot provide clean water for its citizens should not be in the business of regulating film dialogue.” Accelerating India’s Development focuses on increasing State Capacity but without being anti-market. In fact, Muralidharan proposes making the state more effective by leveraging markets more extensively.

Indian policy should place a very high priority on expanding the supply of high-quality service providers, regardless of whether they are in the public or private sector.

Hence, Muraldiharan wants to build on India’s remarkably vibrant private schools and private health care with ideas like vouchers and independent ratings. Free to choose but free to choose in an information-rich environment. My own inclinations would be to push markets and also infrastructure more–we still need to get to that 6% growth! But I have few quibbles with what is in the book.

Accelerating India’s Development is an exceptionally rich and insightful book. Its comprehensive analysis and innovative recommendations make it an invaluable resource. I will undoubtedly reference it in future discussions and writings. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding and improving life in the world’s largest democracy.

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