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Insights into Editorial: Plotting social progress

Insights into Editorial: Plotting social progress


The accomplishments of modern India are recognised around the world. A country that was a symbol of hunger and poverty at the time of Independence has now transformed itself into one of the fastest growing major economies.

Today we judge thee success of the countries based on GDP. GDP has defined and shaped our lives for the last 80 years. GDP is a tool to help us measure the economic performance; it’s not a measure of our well-being.

The societal reach of this economic growth and well-being still remains unquantified. A common measure to quantify the social progress of Indian States that can pinpoint the achievements and the challenges is still missing.

Computing development and well-being is an on-going project. Introducing the Social Progress Index at the sub-national level can be a game changer

GDP: a brief history

Out of the bloodshed of the Great Depression and World War II rose the idea of gross domestic product, or GDP: the ultimate measure of a country’s overall welfare.

  • In January 1934, Simon Kuznets prepared a report titled ‘National Income, 1929-32’ and presented it to the U.S. government.
  • It laid the foundation of how we judge the economic success of countries today.
  • Its use spread rapidly, becoming the defining indicator of the last century. Today, almost every country maintains GDP statistics.

But in today’s globalized world, it’s increasingly apparent that this metric is too narrow for these troubled economic times. 


  • GDP growth over time enables central banks and policymakers to evaluate whether the economy is in recession or inflation.
  • GDP has held significance as a universal metric over the years.


  • With rapid globalization and technology-oriented integration among countries, this metric has become out-dated
  • Does not accurately take into consideration other aspects like the wellbeing of the residents of a country.
  • Fails to account for productive non-market activities, like a mother taking care of her child, a homemaker doing household chores.
  • GDP also ignores important factors like environment, happiness, community, fairness and justice.

To be fair, GDP was not intended to measure wellbeing and happiness. But these are important aspects of development.

GDP is a measurement tool invented in 20th century to address the challenges of the 20th century.

In the 21st century, we face new challenges: aging, obesity, climate change and so on. To face those challenges we need new tools of measurement, new ways of valuing progress.

Some of the recent approaches that have tried to go beyond GDP

  • GINI coefficient which was introduced in 1912 by Corrado Gini and adopted by World Bank, and measures the income inequality among a country’s citizens — but it fails to measure social benefits or interventions that reduce the gap or inequality between rich and poor.
  • GNH (Gross National Happiness) , which was introduced in the 1970s by the king of Bhutan, similarly measures the happiness levels of the citizens in a country while it ignores other important elements like gender equality, quality education and good infrastructure.
  • HDI(Human Development Indicators) , devised and launched in 1990 by Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq, is computed and published by the United Nations Development Programme. Many prospects of a healthy society, such as environmental sustainability and personal rights, are not included in HDI.
  • The National University of Educational Planning and Administration and the Government of India (Ministry of Human Resource Development, Department of School Education and Literacy) compute an Educational Development Index for primary and upper primary levels of education that compare States on different aspects on education universalization.
  • NITI Aayog has rolled out the health, education and water index.

However, common measure to quantify the social progress of Indian States that can pinpoint the achievements and the challenges is still missing.

Social Progress Index (SPI) as complementary index 

The next stage in the measurement of well-being went into creating what is termed as the Social Progress Index (SPI). It goes beyond the traditional measure of GDP and has most parameters that are required to fulfil SDGs. 

Social Progress Index:

It is a measure of wellbeing of our society completely separate from GDP. It is a whole new way of looking at the world.

The SPI begins by defining what it means to be a good society based around three dimensions.

  1. Basic Human needs (Nutrition and Basic Medical care, Water and Sanitation, Shelter, Personal Safety)
  2. Foundation of wellbeing (Access to basic knowledge, Access to info and Communication, Health and Wellness, Ecosystem sustainability)
  3. Opportunity (Personal Rights, Personal freedom and choice, Tolerance and inclusion, Access to Advanced education)

Together these 12 components form Social Progress framework.

  • It does not measure how much a country spends on health care; it measures the length and quality of people’s lives.
  • SPI focuses on outcomes rather than inputs that are used in GDP.
  • It does not measure whether governments pass laws against discrimination; it measures whether people experience discrimination.

SPI can best be described as a complementary index to GDP and can be used along with GDP to achieve social progress.

Highlights of Social Progress Index – 2017

The study released by Institute for Competitiveness, India in collaboration with Social Progress Imperative is the first edition of a sub-national Social Progress Index for India.

The global Social Progress Index ranks India at the 93rd position. However, the country-level insights are not sufficient to devise a plan of action as the conditions vary significantly within the country.

Therefore, a regional study is conducted. States are ranked using social and environmental indicators on the basis of

  • Their capability to provide for basic needs such as shelter, water, and sanitation; a foundation for well-being with education, health, and communication facilities;
  • the prejudices that prevail in a region prohibiting people from making their personal decisions;
  • Evaluating whether citizens have personal rights and freedom or whether they are susceptible to child labour, human trafficking, corruption, etc.


  • The overall social progress score for the country now stands at 57.03 (on a 0-100 scale), approximately eight points higher than in 2005. The country performs better in the provision of basic human needs rather than opportunities for its citizens. 
  • Kerala emerges as the top performer by making remarkable progress across social indicators.
  • Other states that demonstrate strong social progress performance include –Tamil Nadu, Uttarakhand, and Goa.
  • The top performers on social progress reveal that there are several ways to achieve world-class social progress,economic growth being one of them.
  • The state scores range from low 40s to high 60s on a scale of 0-100, exemplifying the immense scope of improvement for even the best performing states.
  • Inclusion of high – income states, like Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, in the tier of Middle Social Progress reflects that social progress not only depends on the economic development but also on the use of revenues generated by economic expansion.
  • Social progress over the period of eleven years has improved in every state. The group of states that have registered the highest improvement are the ones that were categorized as Very Low Social Progress States in 2005.
  • This demonstrates that states at a relatively low level of social progress may be able to improve more rapidly since they have both more opportunities for improvement and can also draw on lessons and approaches that have been implemented elsewhere. 

Way Forward

  • Countries need to prioritize social progress in its development plan and see that it’s not just growth alone, its growth with social progress.
  • SPI reframes the debate about development, not just about GDP alone, but inclusive and sustainable growth that brings real improvements in people’s lives.
  • Social progress needs to be stimulated by focussing on policies directly targeting social issues.
  • We need a cohesive measure of social progress in individual States.


SPI can bring substantial betterment in the policy discourse on development.

With the move to getting it introduced at a sub-national level, the index is expected to help development practitioners and other stakeholders in analysing well-being in a better manner.