Amartya Sen: Quality of Life: India vs. China

In the New York Review of Books, Nobel Prize-winning Economist Amartya Sen looks at the rapid economic growth in India, which some say may surpass that of China, and discusses comparisons between India and China on basic statistics such as education, health, and life expectancy:

Some statistics about China and India, drawn mainly from the World Bank and the United Nations, are relevant here. Life expectancy at birth in China is 73.5 years; in India it is 64.4 years. The infant mortality rate is fifty per thousand in India, compared with just seventeen in China; the mortality rate for children under five is sixty-six per thousand for Indians and nineteen for the Chinese; and the maternal mortality rate is 230 per 100,000 live births in India and thirty-eight in China. The mean years of schooling in India were estimated to be 4.4 years, compared with 7.5 years in China. China’s adult literacy rate is 94 percent, compared with India’s 74 percent according to the preliminary tables of the 2011 census.

Sen then goes on to discuss less direct consequences of economic growth and argues that in some of those areas India may already be ahead of China:

When we consider the impact of economic growth on people’s lives, comparisons favor China over India. However, there are many fields in which a comparison between China and India is not related to economic growth in any obvious way. Most Indians are strongly appreciative of the democratic structure of the country, including its many political parties, systematic free elections, uncensored media, free speech, and the independent standing of the judiciary, among other characteristics of a lively democracy. Those Indians who are critical of serious flaws in these arrangements (and I am certainly one of them) can also take account of what India has already achieved in sustaining democracy, in contrast to many other countries, including China.

Not only is access to the Internet and world opinion uncensored and unrestricted in India, a multitude of media present widely different points of view, often very critical of the government in office. India has a larger circulation of newspapers each day than any other country in the world. And the newspapers reflect contrasting political perspectives. Economic growth has helped—and this has certainly been a substantial gain—to expand the availability of radios and televisions across the country, including in rural areas, which very often are shared among many users. There are at least 360 independent television stations (and many are being established right now, judging from the licenses already issued) and their broadcasts reflect a remarkable variety of points of view. More than two hundred of these TV stations concentrate substantially or mainly on news, many of them around the clock. There is a sharp contrast here with the monolithic system of newscasting permitted by the state in China, with little variation of political perspectives on different channels.

Freedom of expression has its own value as a potentially important instrument for democratic politics, but also as something that people enjoy and treasure. Even the poorest parts of the population want to participate in social and political life, and in India they can do so. There is a contrast as well in the use of trial and punishment, including capital punishment. China often executes more people in a week than India has executed since independence in 1947. If our focus is on a comprehensive comparison of the quality of life in India and China, we have to look well beyond the traditional social indicators, and many of these comparisons are not to China’s advantage.

Read more articles comparing India and China in various aspects via CDT.