India ranks 131 out of 189 countries on the 2020 Human Development Index (HDI) — down by two slots from the 129th position in the previous count — according to the Human Development Report (HDR) released by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) last month.
HDI is a summary measure for assessing long-term progress in three basic dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life, access to knowledge, and a decent standard of living. Three socio-economic parameters - life expectancy at birth, years of schooling and per capita income are used to arrive at numerical values of these development dimensions.
India’s HDI value for 2019 is 0.645, which put it in the medium human development category. Life expectancy of Indians at birth in 2019 was estimated at 69.7 years compared to 69.4 years in the previous count. The mean period of schooling was 6.5 years in 2019 – same as in 2018. India’s gross national income per capita, however, fell to $ 6,681 in 2019 from $ 6,829 in 2018 on purchasing power parity (PPP) basis following a prolonged economic slowdown. Purchasing power parity or PPP is a measurement of prices in different countries that uses the prices of specific goods to compare the absolute purchasing power of the countries’ currencies.
There is a very strong correlation with richer countries having higher HDI ranks. This is partly because average income is itself one of the three dimensions measured by the HDI and partly because the other two dimensions – good education and good health are correlated with GDP per capita.
No wonder India’s HDI rank and coefficient values of parameters are historically low compared to those of developed countries, but what must be a lesson for New Delhi is that even our small neighbour, Sri Lanka has outdistanced us by miles. Sri Lanka was ranked 72 in 2019 with HDI value of 0.782. The average life expectancy at birth was 72 years and the mean period of schooling was 10.6 years. And the gross national income per capita of the island country at $ 12,707 in 2019 was nearly double that of India.
What is the Human Development Index?
With more and more countries going global in the 1980s, the comparison of their economic growth, standard of living and of basic human necessities became a policy issue. The question was: What parameter should be used to make this comparison? Before this question arose, the per capita GDP was used to compare the relative prosperity of economies. But economists found that comparison of per capita GDP explains only the economic side of the story.
“That the Gross Domestic Product, or GDP, is a very crude indicator of the economic achievements of a nation is not a secret. Mahbub ul Haq knew all about it when he was an undergraduate and as fellow students in Cambridge, we often talked about the misdirecting power of GDP as a popular measure,” writes Amartya Sen. (Human development and Mahbub ul Haq – Amartya Sen – Human Development Index Report 2020, UNDP)
Mahbub ul Haq, the Pakistani economist, went on with his quest for a better measure of comparing human prosperity of different countries. He considered more significant things regarding human life than just the market value of commodities bought and sold. The impacts of lower mortality, better health, more school education, and other elementary human concerns could be combined in some aggregate form and the HDI did just that.
The UNDP’s announcement in 1990 of the new Human Development Index, with concrete numbers for different countries’ achievements, measured with transparency and relevance, was widely welcomed. A country scores a higher HDI when the lifespan is higher, the education level is higher, and the gross national income GNI (PPP) per capita is higher.
The HDI was created to emphasise that people and their capabilities should be the ultimate criteria for assessing the development of a country, not economic growth alone. The HDI can also be used to question national policy choices, asking how two countries with the same level of GNI per capita can end up with different human development outcomes. These contrasts can stimulate debate about government policy priorities.
But the HDI simplifies and captures only part of what human development entails. It does not reflect on inequalities, poverty, human security, empowerment, etc. The HDRO offers the other composite indices as a broader proxy on some of the key issues of human development, inequality, gender disparity and poverty.
In addition to the standard HDI, there is also the Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index. The Inequality-adjusted HDI assesses the levels of human development with consideration of economic inequality. It is thought that the Inequality-adjusted HDI reveals the actual levels of human development in a country, while the HDI shows the theoretical levels of development if there was no inequality in a country. Of course, the HDI has its limitations as most other statistical measurements of subjective issues.
Despite limitations, the HDI in overall has the potential to provide a simple impression of development that can be unpacked to indicate progress with respect to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It can be used to complement alternative measures of development. And while factors such as conflict may not be reflected in the HDI, they may be captured in relation to their impact on wealth, access to education and life expectancy.
As the SDGs built upon the relatively static targets of the Millennium Development Goals to reflect a more nuanced understanding of development, the HDI could serve as a reference point for new indices as the world moves towards understanding human development in a more comprehensive way.
Human development is a dynamic process and its priorities change with time. So should metrics. That is why the human development measurement toolkit has constantly evolved. The past decade has seen the launch of a suite of new dashboards and composite indices dedicated to measuring gender inequalities and women’s empowerment. Since the 2010 Human Development Report, the Inequality-adjusted HDI has accounted for the distribution of human development within countries. A global Multidimensional Poverty Index was also introduced to shift our attention from traditional income-based poverty measures towards a more holistic view of lived poverty.
India ranked 131 among 189 countries on the Human Development Index (HDI) for 2019, slipping two places from the previous year. However, if the index were adjusted to assess the planetary pressures caused by each nation’s development, India would move up eight places in the ranking, according to the report.
For the first time, the UNDP introduced a new metric to reflect the impact caused by each country’s per-capita carbon emissions and its material footprint, which measures the amount of fossil fuels, metals and other resources used to make the goods and services it consumes.
India HDI rank and value
Source: Human Development Report 2020 - UNDP
Norway, which tops the HDI, falls 15 places if this metric is used, leaving Ireland at the top of the table. In fact, 50 countries would drop entirely out of the “very high human development group” category, using this new metric, called the Planetary Pressures-adjusted HDI or PHDI. Australia falls 72 places in the ranking, while the United States and Canada would fall 45 and 40 places respectively, reflecting their disproportionate impact on natural resources. The oil and gas-rich Gulf States will also fall steeply. China would drop 16 places from its current ranking of 85.
Source: Human Development Report 2020 - UNDP
What is significant is that although in the global comparison India was placed in the mid-range, it has been improving upon the HDI parameters steadily over the years. Between 1990 and 2019, India’s HDI value increased from 0.429 to 0.645 - an increase of 50.3%.
India’s life expectancy at birth increased during this period by 11.8 years, mean years of schooling increased by 3.5 years and expected years of schooling increased by 4.5 years. India’s gross national income per capita has increased by about 273.9% between 1990 and 2019.
HDI of SAARC countries
HDI 2020 Report
Exp yr of
Mean yr of
at birth (Yr)
Source: Human Development Report 2020 - UNDP
Life expectancy for Indians at birth was 69.7 years in 2019, slightly lower than the south Asian average of 69.9 years but higher than the average of medium human development index groupings in the world at 69.3 years. Bangladesh has a life expectancy of 72.6 years and Pakistan 67.3 years.
In terms of GNI per capita, India at $6,681 fared better than some others in 2019, despite a fall over the previous year. In South Asia, the average was $6,532 and among medium HDI countries it was $6,153. The expected years of schooling in India was 12.2 years, compared with 11.2 years in Bangladesh and 8.3 years in Pakistan. The report was upbeat about India’s green energy initiatives.
More people suffering from hunger
But while the report ranked the countries according to human development indices, it also brought forward a very disturbing issue. According to this survey, about 1.3 billion people across 107 developing countries — 22% of their population — lived in multidimensional poverty in 2018 and according to current estimates, about 690 million people — approximately 8.9% of the world’s population — are suffering from hunger.
The most recent survey data for India’s MPI (Multidimensional Poverty Index) estimation shows that 27.9% of the population are multi-dimensionally poor while an additional 19.3% are classified as vulnerable to multidimensional poverty.
This is reflected in India’s poor ranking in the Global Hunger Index (GHI). India ranked 94 among 107 countries in the GHI 2020 and continues to be in the “serious” hunger category, though it has made some progress since the enactment of the National Food Security Act. India was 102 out of 117 countries in 2019.
According to the report, 14% of India’s population is undernourished. It also showed the country recorded a 37.4% stunting rate among children under five and a wasting rate of 17.3%. The under-five mortality rate was 3.7%.
The neighbouring Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Pakistan too are in the ‘serious’ category but ranked higher than India in the 2020 hunger index. While Bangladesh ranked 75, Myanmar and Pakistan are in the 78th and 88th position. Nepal is in the 73rd and Sri Lanka in the 64th position is in the ‘moderate’ hunger category.
“Every person, everywhere in the world, has been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Amidst untold suffering the process of producing a Human Development Report often appeared less urgent over the course of 2020,” writes UNDP at the beginning of the HDI report 2020. Yet, it prepared to report to maintain the continuity. Although this year’s report covers 2019 only and does not account for the impact of Covid-19, it projected that in 2020, global HDI would fall below for the first time in the three decades since the index was introduced.
But more than the fall in HDI, what is bothering the policy makers across the globe is that the Covid-19 pandemic may have pushed some 100 million people into extreme poverty, the worst setback in a generation.
India seems to be at the top bracket of the Covid-19’s dreadful effect. Its GDP decline in the first half of 2020-21 was among the steepest in the world. An estimated 12.2 crore people have lost their jobs due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Employment in the micro, small and medium enterprises and unorganised sectors were the worst hit. This has left hundreds of thousands of migrant workers stranded across the country, affecting their income, health status, and the education of their children.