The release of the United Nations’ 2009 Human Development Report is likely to start many much-needed conversations. The report, which is produced annually by the United Nations Development Programme or UNDP, is generally scrutinised for its “rankings” — in which countries’ relative positions in terms of how well they support individual development are ranked. Much will be made of India’s relative fall in the rankings — and, possibly, of China’s continued advance. Most such rankings are pointless exercises in self-referential data fetishism. But the Human Development Index is probably the best of its kind, the product of a refashioning of development studies that put people, not abstractions, first. And the conversation that India’s “fall” should start must focus on why it has fallen — and that is, according to the report’s lead author, because growth has been prioritised more by other countries.
The other conversation that the report intends to get moving is on migration. The HDR is subtitled “Overcoming barriers: Human mobility and development” and takes as its central thesis the convincing argument that barriers to the movement of workers prevent individuals and economies from achieving anything close to their full potential. This is an argument that the Indian government — which represents people willing and able to move as well as an economy that will benefit from being the source of such movement — should be making on a regular basis at international fora. Instead we have been presented in the past with shameful retreats, such as a former foreign secretary going to DC to say that the number of Indian engineers that the US allows in is not his business. This abdication of responsibility must change. It is in India’s interest to call for greater movement for workers, especially from the developing to the developed world, and facts unanswerably marshalled by the 2009 report — such as on how streamlined migration is crucial for developed-world economic recovery — should aid it in making that case.
The other vexed question, of course, is of migration within the developing world, and even within countries. Montek Singh Ahluwalia, while releasing the report, correctly pointed out that numbers on internal migration are not very reliable — especially when it comes to comparisons between India and China, which are not only the places with the most people in rural employment, but also represent radically different approaches to internal migration policy. That needs fixing. The big-picture point that the report makes is this: “rural” employment won’t help individuals achieve their aspirations. We have to be ahead of the curve in helping people move to where those aspirations are more likely to be fulfilled.
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