Slumdog Country?

A shining India may have created the world's cheapest car and the world's most successful cricket league but the images from the Oscar-winning movie Slumdog Millionaire are – doubtless to the great discomfort of the Tatas and Tendulkars – still the truer portrayals of reality.

Just look at the data from the UN's latest Human Development Report, a measure of educational, healthy, gender equality and income levels around the world. India's position is not only lowly but has persistently fallen whether measured on a six, 16 or 26 year basis between 1980 and 2006 despite the widely quoted figure of a middle class of 300,000 people. Although India is still slightly ahead of both Pakistan and Bangladesh it has done worse than either on the medium and long term perspectives. Indeed the only South Asian country with a worse record of improvement is Sri Lanka, which started and remains far ahead of the neighbors.

It is when it comes to comparisons with other regions except Africa that India's record looks most dire. Of Southeast Asian countries only Burma, Cambodia and Laos are in the same lowly league. In terms of rate of improvement it is no surprise that India lags China by a wide margin on the medium and long term measures. But perhaps more striking is that Indonesia's improvement rate on a 26-year time frame has been not far short of China's, and on the short term measures significantly better. Iran is in the same category of improvement despite 10 years of war and rule by mullahs.

Indeed, India's performance is particularly marred by its poor record in gender equality despite its secular constitution compared with various Muslim countries. Indonesia and Iran again stand out as having made huge progress by comparison. Even Pakistan and Bangladesh are not far behind.

Some might argue that India's relatively low per capita income was compensated by social factors. But that is not the case either. China, Indonesia, Iran Sri Lanka and many others rank far higher in overall human development terms than GDP per capita would suggest while India has a lower position that under the GDP measure.

Statistics on human development tell as many lies as other data. Some of the measures are doubtless subjective. The index ignores such intangibles as free speech, elections, independent courts, religious pluralism and other admirable aspects of India. It takes no account of areas of excellence, invention and originality in which India may, for example, be deemed well ahead of Indonesia. India's diversity and de-centralized system create much bigger state and regional differences than exist in any other large country, particularly on measures of literacy and gender equality.

But so long as India is one country it must deal with the average levels of attainment. And on that basis the winner is Slumdog Millionaire.