The United Nations Human Development Index (HDI) assesses the health, education and income performance of 189 countries and ranks them accordingly.

Overall, the story of human development is a broadly positive one. But there are still considerable disparities between those at the top of the index and those at the bottom.

Perhaps the most tangible difference is life expectancy rates. The right to life is one of the fundamental human rights – enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Yet big differences persist between rich and poor nations.

 Life expectancy at birth from 2006 to 2016
Image: World Bank/Statista

Children born in Norway, which has the highest HDI, are likely to live to be 82-years-old. By comparison, a child in lowest-placed Niger, has a life expectancy of just 60 years - a stark reminder of how the development gap impacts the lives of ordinary citizens.

But in a positive example of how the effects of improvement can be felt, the people of India have seen their life expectancy grow by 11 years since 1990.

Rising up the ranks

In 2010, out of the 189 countries included, 46 were in the UN’s very high human development category and 49 were in the low group. By 2018, the picture had improved across the globe, as shown by the 59 in the very high bracket and just 38 in the low one.

Between 1990 and 2017, India’s HDI value rose from 0.427 to 0.640, an increase of nearly 50%, and its gross national income per capita grew by an astonishing 266%.

In addition to improved longevity, Indian children can now expect to spend longer in full-time education – an extra 4.7 years on average, as the country continues to develop a high-skilled workforce.

Yet India sits at just 130 in the HDI rankings.

A schoolgirl reads from a textbook at an open-air school in New Delhi November 20, 2014. Picture taken November 20. To match story INDIA-RELIGION/EDUCATION       REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee  (INDIA - Tags: POLITICS EDUCATION RELIGION) - GM1EABL12DD01
More education is on the cards for India’s youth
Image: REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee

Not all equal

While there is a clear correlation between wealth and other positive indicators, that alone is not enough to guarantee a high place on the HDI list.

India loses points when it comes to an analysis of inequality. According to the UN, low and medium human development countries lose respectively 31% and 25% of their human development level from inequality. The corresponding loss from inequality in the highest HDI countries averages 11%.

For the South Asian region, an average of 26.1% of HDI value is lost because of inequality. But for India that stands at 26.8%.

This is due in the main to the role women play in society, politics, and the economy. Women make up just 11.6% of Members of Parliament, and only 39% of women reach secondary education. For men, that figure is 64%. Women also lag behind in the Indian workforce, where the split is 78.8% male, 27.2% female.

Francine Pickup, Country Director, UN Development Programme India, said: “The success of India’s national development schemes... and initiatives aimed at universalizing school education and health care, will be crucial in ensuring that the upward trend on human development accelerates and also achieves the Prime Minister’s vision of development for all and the key principle of the Sustainable Development Goals – to leave no one behind.”

More work to be done

Despite this overall positive assessment, there is no room for complacency. According to World Bank data, women made up around 35% of the labour force in 1990, but this had dropped to 27% by 2014.

Female participation in the Indian labour market is in decline.
Image: World Bank

There are other clear indicators of inequality in the labour market, particularly where pay is concerned. The gender wage gap in India averaged 27% in 2016.

Well-paid, white collar jobs in sectors such as banking, finance, and insurance had a lower gender pay gap – 17.7%. At the opposite end of the job spectrum, low-paid jobs had a 34.9% gender pay gap.

There is a clear challenge facing India where gender equality is concerned, but that challenge is amplified with lower-income workers - women from poorer backgrounds in lower-status jobs are being disproportionately affected by gender inequality.

Closing those gaps, and addressing other aspects of inequality, will raise more people out of poverty and has the potential to unlock considerable amounts of latent productivity and economic activity.

One of the mechanisms for helping address this will be the provision of more and better education for all, which is a key reason that average of 4.7 more years schooling Indian children are set to benefit from is a welcome gain.