How Far Behind is South Asia?

South Asia is considered a developing region; in earlier times it would have been called an under-developed one.

So, the question is: How under-developed is South Asia and what is the nature of its under-development?

We have been interested in this question for some time and have not found it easy to answer given that development is such a multi-dimensioned concept and South Asia such a diverse region.

A limited but still interesting exercise is to take some standard indicators (like literacy, infant mortality, and life expectancy) and find out how long ago the now developed countries were at the same stage as South Asian countries are today. That would provide a starting point for discussion based on objective measures.

It turns out even this is not a simple task as there are no readily available data to look up. Our enquiries led us to a paper in economic history yielding a broad generalization that the India of 1990 could be considered comparable to the Germany of 1870 based on the average values of the type of indicators mentioned above.

In this perspective, India is 120 years behind Germany. And since Pakistan lags India on all these indicators we can suggest that Pakistan is now where Germany must have been about a century and a half ago.

In looking at the statistics in this way, one would have to be conscious of the variations across space. We doubt that the variations in Germany 150 years ago could have been as large as they are in South Asia today. Thus while the average literacy in Pakistan may be 50 percent, it is a whole lot less in Balochistan or in the tribal areas of India. In fact, some parts of South Asia do not seem to have advanced much beyond the 17th or 18th centuries in Europe.

So, could one argue that some small islands in South Asia are as developed as Europe is toady, the vast majority is about 150 years behind, and peripheral marginalized areas lag by about three centuries?

And does this extraordinary variation, quite unlike what must have been the case when Europe was developing, constitute a problem in itself?

Of course, we have not said anything in this discussion about social indicators (gender equality, for example) or about attitudes (towards hierarchy, for example). These are issues we had raised earlier in the posts on modernity in South Asia. 

Does this way of looking at under-development come across as useful to readers? If not, could you offer an alternative perspective for discussion?

Economic historians have used the Human Development Index as an index of historical living standards. Readers interested in this subject would find the following paper useful:

The Human Development Index, 1870-1999: Some revised estimates by Nicholas Crafts (European Review of Economic History, 6, 395-405, 2002).

The HDI has three components: education, income, and life expectancy. For our purposes it would be better to compare only education and life expectancy but the paper is adequate to initiate questions along lines that interest South Asians.

The reference to the paper is courtesy of Karin Astrid Siegmann at the Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands.     

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