Yet India continues to fare poorly in comparison with global averages. On the broad social indicator scale, India is ranked
a mediocre 119 out of 169 countries on the United Nations Development Program's (UNDP) Global Human Development Index 2010.
In fact, if India is compared against other emerging countries, it is way behind China. Government expenditure on healthcare
in China is nearly five times that in India. Though China has a larger population and a higher per capita income than India,
the Chinese government spends nearly 2 percent of GDP on healthcare, while in India it is only slightly above 1 percent.
In a report on "Quality of Life" between the two Asian nations, Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize winner in Economics in 1998,
cited the 2011 census data in noting that life expectancy at birth in China is 73.5 years, while in India it is 64.4 years.
Infant mortality rate is 50 per 1,000 births in India, as compared with just 17 in 1,000 births in China. The mortality rate
for children under five years of age is 66 per 1,000 for Indians and 19 in 1,000 for the Chinese. Sen also noted that only
66 percent of Indian children are immunized with triple vaccine (diphtheria/pertussis/tetanus), as opposed to 97% percent
Though more than a third of the population in India is still too poor to be able to afford an adequate diet, the overall poverty
rate has been cut by around 10 percentage points since 2000, largely as a consequence of an underlying GDP growth rate that
averaged more than 7 percent a year during this same period.
What is also new is data covering household amenities and assets, as a surrogate way of tracing advances in living standards,
in addition to income. With specific reference to employment, a new category was brought in to identify those who have worked
for less than three months in the past year. This will provide the government with more accurate information on the actual
level of underemployment.
Many Small Positives
As part of the census exercise, the government is launching its first national health survey in which information on blood
pressure, blood grouping, sugar levels and other basic primary care indicators are to be collected, to help identify predisposing
disease factors. This data will be collected directly at the community and even neighborhood level, with the aim of close
targeting of healthcare policies relevant to affected populations as well as gaining guidance in deciding Union Budget priorities.
Pharmaceutical companies should watch this exercise closely as it will shape the coming debate on expanding government investments
in a basic healthcare system linked to a commitment to universal coverage.
India Invests in Identity Cards for All Citizens
There were other positives as well. Literacy has jumped, with the effective literacy rate rising to 74.04 percent, up from
64.83 percent in 2001. The male literacy rate, at 82.14 percent was ahead of the female literacy rate of 65.46 percent. India's
Planning Commission has set up a target to further reduce this gap to 10 percentage points by 2012.
Progress has also been posted in basic health indicators such as sanitation. An interesting tidbit revealed at the last census
was that India had more households owning television sets than those with bathrooms. Likewise, while the 2001 census found
that 68 percent of the population had access to clean drinking water, today 94 percent of rural dwellers and 91 percent of
urban residents have it.
Nevertheless, some 37.7 million Indians are affected by waterborne diseases annually, 1.5 million children are estimated to
die of diarrhea, and 73 million working days are lost due to waterborne disease each year. Treating these diseases costs the
strained public health system in excess of $600 million per year, which could be ameliorated by new investments in health
The census exercise has been useful in helping drive awareness that India needs to invest more in health. Whether it will
do this successfully depends on political factors that are hard to assess at the present time.
India-based reporter Mangesh Sai can be reached at email@example.com