Large gains in life expectancy indicate inclusive impact of economic reforms

Oct 3, 2012, 12.00AM IST  TOI
rage life expectancy in India jumped up by 4.6 years in the decade up to 2008, according to the latest data released by the Registrar General of India. Since this was also the period when economic reforms had the maximum impact, it gives the lie to an idea that's pervasive in the political domain - that reforms benefited only a tiny elite, leaving the rest of India's population untouched (or even worse off than before, going by some highly excitable accounts). The steady improvement in life expectancy at birth of the average Indian to 66.1 years by 2008 highlights steady improvement in overall living conditions and the general success of reforms.
What makes these gains more impressive are their inclusive character, with women and the rural population making more substantial gains. While women's life expectancy improved faster to 67.7 years that of men rose more slowly to 64.6 years. This is especially significant given that life expectancy of women had lagged that of men till the early 1980s. While the overall gains indicate access to more nutritious food and health care and better hygiene, the larger improvements in the life expectancy of women indicate a faster dip in the mortality rates of the girl child. Similarly, greater life expectancy gains in the rural sector show that the benefits of higher growth were not restricted to urban areas, as many choose to believe.
 The life expectancy data goes against the grain of current political discourse, where anti-reform propaganda has been fuelled by imaginary worries about entry of foreign firms and greater competition in domestic markets. Political groups looking for populist causes have latched on to dubious ideas that fan suspicion about reform and place it in imagined opposition to ideals of inclusive growth.
 None of this is to deny that the government ought to design policies which make the benefits of reform percolate faster and deeper. The focus has to be on easing the ways of doing business and pushing up investments to enable growth to pick up. Only a substantial enlargement of the manufacturing sector base, by ushering in more flexible labour regulations and improving the supply of a skilled and trained workforce, land and quality infrastructure, can provide employment to the millions who join the workforce each year. The solution, therefore, is more reforms, not less. But the big question remains - will the political class acquiesce?


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