The gap between the human-development rankings of India and China is well known. According to the latest data-set compiled by the UNDP[i], India’s rank is 131 whereas that of China is 90. This difference is not merely due to the per-capita income.

Men and women, on an average, live 8 years longer in China. On an average, a woman in China has 7.2 years of schooling whereas that figure is only 4.8 in India. Regarding per-capita income, what is striking is the contribution of women between India and China. On an average, the contribution of a Chinese woman to the monetised economy is 5 times that of an Indian woman. The difference between the males of India and China is not that substantial (and it is less than 2 times.) An Indian woman on an average contributes only less than one-fourth of that of an Indian man to the economy. (Yes, women contribute a lot to the non-monetised part of the economy but such a contribution is there in China too).

These highlight the role of the under-achievements in education and the lower rate of work-participation of females in India in making its human development indicators significantly inferior to those of China.

India and China are comparable

Historically, China and India had, what can be called `intense’ patriarchy. There were forces that prevented the education and employment of women in China. Feudalism was strong, and the majority survived as tenants with small sizes of land or as agricultural workers. Given this situation in the past, it is interesting to see the current difference between India and China, especially when the latter could overcome some of these constraints over time.

What has contributed to the improvement of human-development in China?

An immediate response would be that China had followed a socialist model of development and that could have made the difference. Rather than accepting this fully, we may try to unpack this argument.

Have those economic policies followed in China during the period of central planning (until 1970s) contributed to a higher level of welfare in China? There is no clear evidence. Economic development and the growth of employment in industrial sector were not remarkable during that period. China has changed these economic policies afterwards and adopted a market economy. For all these reasons, it may be incorrect to argue that the economic policies of the socialist state have created a substantial difference between India and China.

In order to accelerate economic and human development, economists and political scientists may prescribe the adoption of the type of governance and institutions of the western developed world. Though this may be a plausible argument in other cases, it is not valid in the comparison between India and China. India has relatively more open and transparent institutions which are closer to those in the western developed world but that has not helped in enhancing the welfare of its people compared to that in China.

A similar situation can be seen in the role of the private sector. Despite the prevalence of different levels of control by the government until 1980s, India had allowed private enterprises throughout its modern history. That was helpful in developing a culture of private entrepreneurship and a set of professional business people. Moreover, there has been a reasonable distance between the state and capitalists (despite instances of crony capitalism now and then) in the post-independent period of India. None of these is valid in the case of China, but that has not prevented it from achieving higher levels of human development compared to that in India.

It is somewhat obvious that the social policies of China have enabled the schooling of boys and girls, and the employment of women in industrial or modern economy. The state was willing to work against those social norms which discouraged the education and employment of girls. There was an opposition to the participation of women in literacy classes and to the enrolment of girls in schools immediately after the socialist revolution. However, the communist party played an important role in persuading and sometimes coercing people to accept the importance of education and paid employment for women.

This experience may encourage some people to infer the following: China could do these since it was a totalitarian state, and India could not afford to follow such an approach as it was a budding democracy after its independence. It is true that almost all countries which have had a socialist state in the past could improve its HDI compared to that in India. However, the argument that India has failed in this regard because of its democracy seems to be incorrect empirically.

If we take a look at the list of developing countries which have higher levels of human development than that in India, one can see countries which have been both democratic and those which have experienced different levels and types of dictatorship. South Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand, and Singapore, which were poorer or under-developed like India and China in 1950s, could achieve higher levels of HDI than that of both India and China, through different degrees of democracy (and dictatorships). The cases of Sri Lanka (HDI rank: 73) and Costa Rica (HDI rank: 66) which have experienced democratic competition for longer periods, and have been successful in enhancing the human development to a level higher than that of China, are well known. Relatively less developed Latin American countries like Peru, Ecuador and Uruguay have achieved HDI ranks which are higher than that of China (and India).

Indonesia and Philippines (in Asia), Botswana (Africa) and Paraguay, Nicaragua, Guyana and others (in Latin America) could enhance HDI to a level better than that of India (with different levels of democracy). This achievement is notable since they too face other issues of underdevelopment.

Hence the argument that China could improve its human development compared to that of India primarily because the former was a socialist totalitarian state, would be incorrect. Though the need to preserve democracy and the integrity of the state may have encouraged post-independent governments in India to avoid certain strategies (like the taxation of farmers), I don’t see this as a strong reason for not encouraging the education and industrial employment of girls.

What do all these indicate?  

India’s situation would have been much better, if it were following a `minimal’ set of social policies that enable the schooling for all, especially girls, and their participation in jobs in industrial and service sectors. China and East Asian countries had followed different approaches to achieve these outcomes since the social norms in these countries were also not that conducive for the education and employment of females.    India could have followed these social policies. That does not require a totalitarian state.

India had followed certain approaches of the socialist state, especially that of an import-substituting industrialisation, until 1980s. However these did not contribute much to the economic development of the country and hence were discarded afterwards.  However the country had not used the social policies of either socialist-countries or social-democratic regimes in different parts of the world. In my view, India’s embrace of (limited) socialism was least useful.  It did not aid either economic or social/human development. This fact is overlooked by those left-of-centre commentators who are still nostalgic about `Nehru’vian socialism.

There may be factors somewhat unique to India and these may have encouraged the liberal socialists and centrists of the country to neglect the importance of education and employment of girls. The caste system could be an issue, as noted by Myron Weiner while explaining the persistence of child labour in the country. India’s `liberal’ policies in education[ii] – which provide schooling to those who demand it and neglect others – may have roots in its caste fragmentation.

Mahatma Gandhi’s idea of providing a different kind of education was not well received by elites and non-elites. Elites and the middle-class or upper castes wanted modern education, and non-elites did not want to use formal schools, if the purpose of schooling was to keep them engaged in the same kind of livelihoods which they were familiar with[iii]. Though the liberals of India, saw the problems in the approach of Gandhi, they did not do much to spread the formal schooling to the majority.

This failure is not due to the interests of capitalism, as some Marxist educationists think. On the other hand, the interest of capitalists to get industrial workers, have enabled the schooling and employment of girls in a number of countries. It was those pre-capitalist and pre-modern forces which were disabling the spread of education, and the liberal modernists of India have failed to work against such forces. It could be that India’s liberalism is rooted in its pre-modern social structure. This is reflected in the psyche and attitude of intellectuals, policy-makers, academics and so on.

It is in this regard that we can see differences in other societies. May be due to the interest of socialist parties or of capitalist-friendly rulers and dictators, or due to the endogenous demand of people at large, governments have worked towards spreading formal schooling to the majority, and enabling industrial employment.  That has not happened yet in India, and how fast we can catch up with others in this regard is unpredictable.


[ii] This is discussed in Santhakumar, V., et al (2016), Schooling For All: Can We Neglect the Demand, Oxford University Press, Delhi

[iii] For details of this argument, see