UnEqual: Why India Lags Behind Its Neighbours by Swati Narayan

Swati Narayan
21 May 2024 10 min read  Share

But the real puzzle that foxed me for weeks was why so many toilets in Bangladesh had toilet rolls, like in Western countries. Every small village corner shop sold these locally manufactured, extremely cheap toilet rolls for as little as Raka 15 (about Rs 11).

Swati Narayan's UnEqual urges readers to ponder why India is falling behind its Asian counterparts in terms of human development, despite its potential. Through a comparison of  India’s social development indicators with those of its South Asian neighbours, Narayan examines the reasons for better welfare indicators in some countries just across the border. 

Narayan considers caste, class and gender inequalities, arguing that these factors significantly impede progress in specific regions. To do this, she draws on field work and empirical data alongside anecdotal evidence regarding education, health, nutrition and sanitation. 

She focuses her research on the contrasting advancements of India's neighbouring countries including Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. 

Narayan, an academician and activist, conducted research including a primary survey of 80 villages, including 40 in Bihar, 20 in Nepal and 20 in Bangladesh and found inequality to be a key reason for India’s consistent poor performance on many indices produced by different organisations.

Only in March 2024, a paper by the World Inequality Lab, co-authored by renowned French economist Thomas Piketty, said India’s recent growth had produced soaring income and wealth inequality, among the highest in the world, the spoils of growth less egalitarian than even in colonial times. The paper’s lead author Nitin Kumar Bharti told Article 14 that Indian society’s deep structural inequalities were now also reflected in monetary terms. 

Narayan’s narrative investigates those structural inequities more closely, and uses data on social indicators to expose how their persistence affects overall progress. 

Narayan contends that unless India addresses the deep-seated divisions, its vast population will continue to face subjugation, hindering any hopes of prosperity or global leadership.


Bangladeshi preschool teacher Shaheen was only twenty-six, but she was a dynamo, brimming with energy. Married at the age of fifteen, despite all odds, she’d completed her studies. Her preschool students were able to read better than even second-grade students we had met in nearby schools. Shaheen employed a range of innovative teaching aids, including picture cards and abacuses. She showed her students multiple picture cards and combined different words phonetically making it easier for them to grasp. Most importantly, her students understood the meaning of every word they read, not only in Bengali but in English too. She was using a learning method called the Kajoli Early Childhood Education Model.

This asbestos-roofed classroom with bamboo walls, virtually no ventilation and little sunlight, was buzzing with activity and joy. In Bangladesh, the government does not run pre-primary schools. Across the country, there are numerous such learning centres operated largely by NGOs, including BRAC (earlier called the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee). Most of them use different techniques of joyful learning. The Kajoli model is based on play and peer learning.

Shaheen’s inspiring early childhood education centre was financed collectively. The mothers’ committee of the village pooled money to pay her a modest honorarium. The school ran for only three hours a day, and the mothers brought ‘khichuri’ (a mixture of rice and lentils cooked together, often called ‘hotchpotch’ in Dhaka) by rotation for all the children to eat together.

The young teacher was ambitious about the future of her young students: ‘You can’t expect all five fingers of the hand to be the same. But I do hope that for some children who are intelligent, I am able to show them the right way. And for those who are laggards, it is my job to bring them ahead. A few days ago, I asked the children what their aspirations were. One girl wanted to be a female police officer and did dishum dushum [boxing moves]. Another wanted to be a doctor, the third a teacher. My students are so smart that the primary school teacher had to conduct a lottery to decide whom to give the most marks to, as she was flummoxed with their calibre.’

Most people are equally astonished when they see my survey results. Almost 90 per cent of the students in grade 5 whom we tested across twenty villages in Panchagarh were able to read at least a grade 2 level paragraph in Bengali. Even in Nepal, nearly two-thirds of the students we tested in grade 5 were equally competent. But in the two Bihar districts, less than half the students could read as fluently. These results for Bihar were nearly identical to those in the Annual Status of Education Report that the NGO Pratham has been preparing for the last decade in India. For the first time, with the same ASER tools, my survey tested children’s learning levels across borders. The results were crystal clear—Bangladeshi children were strikingly ahead.

In Bihar, amongst the children we tested, those from more affluent families scored markedly better than those from poorer ones. Poorer children had less than half the learning competencies. This inequality is largely due to the additional money that wealthier families spend on private schools and private tuition. In contrast, family income did not influence learning levels in Nepal. Even better, the Bangladesh district had a high progressive ratio, with pupils from the poorest families turning out to be better learners than the wealthiest. Competent and dedicated teachers trained in joyful learning techniques, timely availability of textbooks, scholarships for poor and female students as well as the Bengali cultural emphasis on education are all important factors in Bangladesh’s educational successes.

In contrast, the repeated complaint of the parents we met in Bihar was that despite good intentions, chief minister Nitish Kumar’s ‘Degree Lao, Naukri Pao’ (Get a Degree, Get a Job) scheme to recruit local teachers en masse had boomeranged and worsened the quality of education. Many upper caste teachers with fake degrees had usurped these plum jobs but were obviously unable to teach in the classrooms.

In school after school in Bihar, we noticed clear signs of decay. In one government school, we saw two teachers in crisp saris sitting behind wooden desks, side-by-side, in the same classroom. They were apparently trying to simultaneously teach two different grades of students who sat on the floor in rows in front of them. In another dimly lit classroom, possibly due to our presence, the teacher pretended to make the children ‘read’ in the darkness. Many students across schools also confided in us that their teachers beat them mercilessly, even though corporal punishment is strictly against the law. 

In Bihar, we noticed that many children were officially enrolled in government schools, but did not attend classes. A recent 2023 post-pandemic survey by the Jan Jagran Shakti Sanghatan found that, in government primary schools in north Bihar, ‘only 23% of children enrolled were present’ and dismally concludes that ‘schools in Bihar seem to be in danger of mass displacement by private coaching centres’. My survey also confirmed that 82 per cent of students enrolled in private schools and 44 per cent in government schools also went for several hours of private tuition. 

On the other hand, in Bangladesh, on an average only 35 per cent and, in Nepal, only 29 per cent of students paid for extra tuitions. In fact, the draft Bangladeshi Education Act, that has been under debate for the last decade, proposes an absolute ban on all private coaching centres, private tuition and even on the publication of guidebooks.

The ‘human development index’ that I created with my survey data also measured basic knowledge of healthcare. We asked village women simple questions such as whether milk was good for pregnant women, colostrum for infants and fluids for children with diarrhoea. On an average, 82 per cent of the women we interviewed in Bangladesh answered correctly compared to 66 per cent in Nepal. In Bihar, the level of awareness amongst the women we interviewed was 61 per cent, and their knowledge of ORS was the lowest. 

Similarly, to indirectly measure nutrition, we asked women whether anyone in their family had slept hungry in the last three months. In Bangladesh and Nepal, they were truly puzzled by this question. More than 90 per cent of women we spoke to were positive that no one in their family had faced hunger. But in both the Bihar districts, women hesitated while answering this question. Their downcast eyes and silences spoke volumes of their own haunting deprivation.

We also asked women what they had eaten the previous night. They invariably giggled as they tried to jog their memories. Using their responses, we calculated a slightly modified version of the Women’s Dietary Diversity Scores.

As expected, Bangladesh scored the highest, with almost 91 per cent of the women telling us they’d eaten animal protein (mostly fish) the previous night. Nepal followed suit, even though only 30 per cent of the women had eaten meat (along with 20 per cent fish and 14 per cent eggs). Expectedly, women in the Bihar districts scored the least.

The availability of toilets across borders was the biggest contrast. Almost 99 per cent of homes we visited in Bangladesh and 96 per cent in Nepal already had a toilet that they used regularly. In Bihar, at the time of my survey in mid-2016, only 14 per cent of households had a latrine. Despite the hype around SBA, toilets were few and far between. Often, only the homes of local politicians had toilets as this was a mandatory eligibility criterion if they wished to stand for elections. But the demand for latrines that we encountered among women was overwhelming. Around 97 per cent of the women who had to regularly defecate in the open complained to us of their discomfort, especially when they were unwell or menstruating. Almost 91 per cent of these interviewees also confirmed that they would certainly construct a toilet and regularly use it if the government provided adequate subsidy. Tellingly, 71 per cent of women who had used a toilet before gushed about how much they loved them. If only more women in Bihar earned an income or had more influence in household decisions how different the statistics would look.

Since 2008, on the other hand, Nepal has worked towards becoming open defecation-free (ODF). Every district has chalked out its sanitation plan. In Bangladesh, too, the levels of sanitation were very high. Islam is highly prescriptive about toilet hygiene and has its own set of rules known as Qadaa’ al-Haajah. Even in India, before SBA, 65 per cent of Muslim homes had a toilet, compared to only 47 per cent of Hindu homes.

But the real puzzle that foxed me for weeks was why so many toilets in Bangladesh had toilet rolls, like in Western countries. Every small village corner shop sold these locally manufactured, extremely cheap toilet rolls for as little as Tk 15 (about Rs 11). One roll even had the brand name ‘Bangla’ with a bar code. I wondered who bought these rolls in remote villages.

I had been chewing on this mundane puzzle for weeks, when Rehnuma, a local villager, helped me solve this mystery. She had her hands full, taking care of her infant twins, as we asked her a routine survey question about sanitation. Rehnuma suddenly beamed with pride and blurted out, ‘I am a good Muslim mother as I wipe my children’s bottom thrice with tissue paper and then use water as mandated by Islam.’ Only then did I become aware that the Quran instructs utmost hygiene after ‘relieving yourselves’, and if ‘you can find no water, take some sand and rub your faces and hands with it’.

One day, our bus stopped at an unplanned open-air pitstop in the rural countryside. I was astonished when I saw from a quick sideways glance outside the window that the men were squatting to urinate. I nudged Safiq and asked him what was going on. He nonchalantly explained that this was recommended in the scriptures. He said that his father would even get annoyed when he had to use western-style men’s urinals. The specific Hadith on toilet hygiene also emphasised privacy. So, clean toilets dotted the landscape across rural Bangladesh.

(Excerpted with permission from UnEqual: Why India Lags Behind Its Neighbours published by Westland Books.) 

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