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India’s Good Fortune: How the Country Is Tackling Energy Poverty, Increasing Growth, and Building the Future

Blog Post | Economic Growth

India’s Good Fortune: How the Country Is Tackling Energy Poverty, Increasing Growth, and Building the Future

Energy poverty and many other problems will soon be things of the past for India.

Summary: Over the past two decades, India has made remarkable strides in multidimensional poverty reduction. This comprehensive measure, which considers factors like education and infrastructure alongside income, paints a more accurate picture of poverty. Additionally, India has achieved significant progress in areas such as child mortality, sanitation, access to clean water, and electricity, signaling a positive trajectory for improved living standards and environmental outcomes in the country.

Just two decades ago, life in India looked bleak. Between 2005 and 2006, 55.1 percent of the Indian population—the equivalent of 645 million people—suffered from multidimensional poverty, and in 2004, 39.9 percent of Indians lived in extreme poverty.

Multidimensional poverty measures the percentage of households in a country deprived along three factors: monetary poverty, access to education, and basic infrastructure services. That captures a more thorough picture of poverty.

Multidimensional poverty dropped from over half of the population to 27.7 percent (370 million people) in 2014. In 2019–21, the proportion of people suffering from multidimensional poverty declined further to only 16.4 percent of the total population, or 230 million people. Although the pandemic slowed some aspects of poverty alleviation, the percentage of people in multidimensional poverty has continued to drop significantly year on year in India.

It’s also worth considering extreme poverty, which is defined as living below the international poverty line of $2.15 per day. Using this measure, the number of people living in extreme poverty in India declined from more than half of the population (63.1 percent) in 1977 to only 10 percent in 2019.

Moreover, child mortality declined from 43.4 percent in 1918 to only 3.1 percent in 2021. The number of people without adequate sanitation has dropped from 50.4 percent to 11.3 percent, and the proportion of people without adequate drinking water has fallen from 16.4 percent to just 2.7 percent. As well, more people in the country have access to clean cooking fuels than ever before, from 22.3 percent of people in 2000 to 67.9 percent in 2020.

India has also been tackling environmental concerns. The population of the greater one-horned rhino, which has a “vulnerable” conservation status, has increased from 40 in 1966 to over 4,000 in 2021. Air pollution is one of the world’s largest health and environmental problems, and in low-income countries, it is often the leading risk factor for death. Although there is still work to do, the death rate in India from air pollution decreased from 1990 to 2019 by 42 percent, from 280.5 deaths per 100,000 people to 164.1 deaths per 100,000.

In 2017, Indian Prime Minister Modi launched a plan to electrify more households, targeting over 40 million families in rural and urban India, or roughly a quarter of the population. The plan was called “Saubhagya”—literally, “good fortune” or “auspiciousness.” Although the country did not meet its target as quickly as planned, access to electricity in India has been increasing.

The term “access to electricity” does not have a universally accepted definition, but general usage takes into account the availability of electricity, safe cooking facilities, and a minimum level of consumption. According to the International Energy Agency, “access to electricity” involves more than just connecting a household to the grid; it also requires households to consume a certain minimum amount of electricity, which varies based on whether it is a rural or urban household.

According to the UNDP report, 97.9 percent of Indians had access to electricity between 2019 and 2021. Only 50.9 percent of Indians had access to electricity in 1993. The country has achieved immense progress. In 2018, Prime Minister Modi stated that every village in India had access to electricity.

Climate change is likely to be costly to the Indian subcontinent. Heatwaves have already led to an increase in deaths in India, particularly since a large share of the population is employed in outdoor labor like farming and construction.

India aims to reach net-zero emissions by 2070 and for 50 percent of the power-generation capacity to come from clean energy sources by 2030. The energy transition for India will take time, and the country will need fossil fuels to meet its energy needs for many years yet, but the future is looking promising.

Last year, for example, India brought an indigenous reactor design online at the Kakrapar Atomic Power Project Unit 4. India has 22 working nuclear reactors, which produce about 3 percent of the country’s electricity. India has ambitious plans to build more reactors—aiming to commission a new reactor every year.

The fact that a large country can more than halve multidimensional poverty in only 15 years is a cause for celebration, but India’s foresight of meeting future increasing energy needs is also something to be applauded. Energy poverty will soon be a thing of the past for India. Increased electricity will lead to further poverty alleviation, economic growth, and improved living standards, which in turn will lead to better air quality and environmental outcomes. These are good fortunes that we can all celebrate.

BusinessMirror | Poverty Rates

PHL Could Hit Single-Digit Poverty Years Ahead of Schedule

“Better labor market conditions and slower inflation in the country could turn the administration’s single-digit poverty incidence aspirations into a reality two years ahead of schedule.

This was according to the latest Macro Poverty Outlook for the Philippines, released by the World Bank on Monday. It estimated that poverty incidence in the country could decrease to 9.3 percent in 2026 from 12.2 percent this year and 17.8 percent in 2021.”

From BusinessMirror.

Blog Post | Economic Growth

Measuring Freedom and Flourishing | Podcast Highlights

Chelsea Follett interviews Leandro Prados de la Escosura about the long term trends in wellbeing, inequality, and freedom.

Listen to the podcast or read the full transcript here.

Let’s discuss your latest book, Human Development and the Path to Freedom.

I have spent many years working on economic performance in the long run, and while I don’t have anything against GDP, I was always uneasy with the idea of using GDP per head as a shortcut for wellbeing. GDP is a good indicator of output but a very deficient indicator of wellbeing.

Most economists say, “This is true, but it’s highly correlated with non-economic dimensions of wellbeing.” There is also a tendency to produce a dashboard of indicators, basically GDP and some additional measures that create a more nuanced picture.

I was unhappy with that. Then I realized that, since the beginning of modern national accounts in the 1950s, there have been attempts to produce alternative measures. More than 30 years ago, the United Nations Development Programme produced the Human Development Index. I was very interested, but at the same time, I was frustrated when I saw that countries with no freedom at all ranked very highly in the index.

For example, in the first report in 1990, they had a retrospect going back to 1975, and I found that Spain, under Franco’s dictatorship, ranked very highly in human development. How come? It wasn’t satisfactory to rank a nasty dictatorship so highly. And then I read the literature accompanying the report and found this very candid assertion: “The purpose of human development is to increase people’s range of choices. If they are not free to make those choices, the entire process becomes a mockery.”

This is an important philosophical point: Human development is not just about living longer or having a higher material standard of living. You can get that in a high-security prison in Norway. Choosing between alternative ways of life is what makes the difference.

To make a long story short, they have tried time and again to introduce freedom, but they never managed to do so because of strong political opposition from country members of the program. So, as an independent scholar, I thought, “Look, nobody is going to read it, but I have the freedom to introduce the freedom dimension.”

Tell me about what you found.

Perhaps what makes sense is to compare what I found to what you would get on the basis of per capita income. If you look at the average increase from 1870 to 2020, the growth in income and wellbeing is very similar.

But if you look closer, you realize there are large differences across different periods. During first globalization before 1913 and between 1970 and 2000, they are relatively close. During the last two decades, the difference is huge in favor of material living standards measured by per capita income. The first part of the 20th century is just the opposite.

What next? Well, try to provide an explanation.

I went in two steps. One was asking, “Why has this growth in human wellbeing happened? What is the intuition?” The intuition is that if you get richer, you’re going to become better fed, healthier, better educated, and freer. But you can also have different levels of wellbeing at the same income level, and the most important finding from a historical perspective is that at any point of income, you have higher wellbeing today than in the past.

If you compare 1870 to 1913, you see that for most of the income levels, you get the same association between health and income, but at high levels of income, you get higher levels of health. Improvements in health techniques and medical knowledge were restricted to the most advanced countries. But if you look at the 1950s, at any income level, you get higher levels of health than in 1913 or 1870. You also find this for education and freedom. If you move to 2000, there is another upward shift.

Of course, there are reversals. There have been four moments in time in which the progression, the positive progression of human development stopped or declined. One was the Great Depression. The second one was during Mao’s Great Leap Forward. Then there were the oil shocks in the early ’70s, but the most damaging one has been COVID. COVID is the first period in which wellbeing measured in terms of augmented human development has declined

However, over the long run, for any income level, whether you are rich or poor, nowadays you have higher wellbeing than in the past.

Those findings are fascinating. What would you say is the biggest implication of your work?

The first thing is that wellbeing, broadly defined, has expanded worldwide more steadily than per capita income.

Secondly, the phases in which we conventionally associate improvements in wellbeing are not necessarily the same as those in which actual wellbeing improved. For instance, there was an important improvement in the so-called interwar period, even though economic growth stagnated. In 20th-century India, before independence, there was a stagnation in real average income but a remarkable improvement in health. This was because of the discovery of the germ theory of disease, which brought simple hygienic practices like washing your hands before eating and not sleeping near animals.

We also tend to forget that the association between wellbeing and income is not fixed. There are movements along the function: if you are richer, other things being equal, you’re going to be healthier, more educated, and freer. But this is not the whole story. There are also upward and downward shifts.

For instance, you could say that in terms of freedom in 2020, we are worse off than we were 20 years ago. This doesn’t mean that people were richer 20 years ago—we’re richer now—but at the same income level, 20 years ago, people were freer than we are today.

So, it’s a nuanced picture. Overall, things are improving, but there are also worrying declines in freedom.


Can you talk about inequality?

In 1870, in the case of wellbeing, inequality was high, and it increased up to the end of the century, then went down. Then, because of World War I, it increased again. But from the late 1920s to the present, with the exception of a reversal because of World War II, there has been a steady decline in inequality of wellbeing.

In the case of per capita income, inequality increased until the end of the 20th century, around 1980, and only began declining after 1990.

Here, I’m referring to relative inequality. If we increase wealth by 10 percent everywhere, inequality in relative terms doesn’t change. Some people are a bit pickier and think, “If my income increases 10 percent and my income is 100, I get 110. If your income is 1000, you now get 1100.” This is absolute inequality.

Relative inequality in per capita income increased until 1980 and has declined since 1990. But absolute inequality in per capita income, the distance between rich and poor, continues growing.

Absolute inequality in wellbeing has declined since 1960. Today, it is similar to what you would find in 1938, 1913, or 1900, but higher than in 1870.

It’s also important to look at what happens to different parts of the distribution. Who are the winners and losers? Broadly speaking, the middle class of the world gained the most, and the lower classes and those at the top won relatively less. If you look at absolute gains, those who were at a higher level of wellbeing got more. But that changes for different dimensions. Those at the bottom, for example, were the main winners in terms of education, while those in the middle were the main winners in terms of health.

I know that your current focus is on freedom. Could you tell me a little bit about that?

I became interested in human development after reading Amartya Sen, who emphasizes what Isaiah Berlin would call positive freedom. Freedom to. But he also emphasizes negative freedom, the absence of coercion and interference. And I think this is interesting because many people think there is a trade-off between negative and positive freedom.

At the end of the day, everybody wants to have negative freedom, but there are those who think negative freedom has nothing to do with income, that would be Hayek, and those who think negative freedom can only be reached as a second stage once you provide for those who don’t have access. For some, positive freedom is a socialist lie to reduce negative freedom. For others, they are two faces of the same coin.

As an economic historian, I find this is an interesting topic for research. If you look at the world, and you can see this in the Human Freedom Index that Cato publishes, you see the countries at the top in terms of negative freedom are also at the top in terms of positive freedom. For instance, Denmark is at the top of the list in terms of economic freedom, but also in terms of education and health.

My question was, well, maybe this trade-off is only a short-run phenomenon. Maybe if you look at the long run, the trade-off doesn’t hold or only holds for a certain period. So why not construct two alternative sets of estimates, one for positive freedom and the other for negative freedom? And this is what I’m trying to do now.

My main discrepancy with the Fraser Institute economic freedom index is that I don’t take into account the size of government. I know this is a contentious issue. People say, “the larger the government, the less room for private initiative.” At a point in time, this is true. And if you look at similarly developed countries, this is true.

But if you take a cross-section at a point in time, you can see that there are countries in which the size of government is much, much smaller, that are not necessarily freer, in terms of absence of coercion and interference, than countries with larger governments. Look at, for instance, Latin American and Sub-Saharan African countries. Think of Somalia. Or think of my own country under Franco. It was a right-wing, but, in many aspects, very socialist dictatorship in which the government was everywhere. But the size of government was very small.

In 1980, do you know what percentage the income tax contributed to the revenues of the central government in Spain? Give me a figure. You would say 40 percent?

Sure, 40 percent.

2 percent.


Nobody paid income tax. So, there was no redistribution.

My point is that the size of government matters less than the nature of government. Perhaps Denmark would have more economic freedom with a smaller government, but if you compare Denmark to other countries, you can see that even though the Danish government is larger, Denmark’s degree of economic freedom is higher. Why? Because the nature of government action is different. It doesn’t interfere as much as another government that is less intrusive in quantitative terms but more intrusive in qualitative terms.

So, if you are looking at a point in time, it makes sense to say, “mutatis mutandis, if a rich country nowadays has a smaller government, this country is going to be freer.” That is true. But the action of government varies from one case to another.

Get Leandro Prados de la Escosura’s book, Human Development and the Path to Freedom: 1870 to the Present, here.

The Human Progress Podcast | Ep. 48

Leandro Prados de la Escosura: Measuring Freedom and Flourishing

Leandro Prados de la Escosura, an emeritus professor of economic history at Carlos III University in Spain, joins Chelsea Follett to discuss long term trends in wellbeing, inequality, and freedom. To see the slides that accompany the interview, watch the video on YouTube.

Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System | Economic Growth

Income Growth Over Five Generations of Americans

“We find that each of the past four generations of Americans was better off than the previous one, using a post-tax, post-transfer income measure constructed annually from 1963-2022 based on the Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement.”

From Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.