An elephant, not a tiger

The vibrant ideas about incredible India are not unfounded, but they obscure the extent to which old problems continue to exist

Thanks to the rapid economic growth, especially post ‘liberalisation’, India is being hailed as a great success story of globalisation, as a vibrant nation with growing financial and industrial clout, as one of the main protagonists of new economy and new international policy, and as a viable counter-weight to China’s sudden rise. These vibrant ideas are not unfounded, believe many, but they obscure the extent to which old problems persist and are being dug deeper. As Rabindra Nath Tagore once remarked, “Darkness usually intensifies under the lamp”.

At the stroke of midnight on August 14, 1947, independent India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru delivered a famous speech: “Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge… The service of India is the service of millions who suffer. It means ending of poverty and ignorance, disease and inequality of opportunity. The ambition of the greatest man of our generation has been to wipe every tear from every eye.” It goes without saying that despite substantial accomplishments made in various fields, the tasks Nehru voiced in his famous speech remain unfinished.

As noted author and columnist Thomas Friedman once remarked, India is a six-lane super highway, but full of potholes, cracked cement, and unfinished sidewalks.

Hype or reality
A few years ago, London-based independent think tank Legatum Institute in its report concluded that India’s economy is growing rapidly and the country is likely to leapfrog into the league of economic superpowers by 2030. According to respondents of the survey, India is on a course to outstrip developed nations such as the United States, Japan, Germany and the fast-emerging economic giant China over the next two decades.

Since then, the global economic recession has led to dramatic developments across the world, posing serious challenges to emerging economies in particular. However, to the surprise of many in the West, India has managed to stand its ground, as is evident from the latest surveys and reports. As per the Grant Thornton Global Dynamism Index, India is the fifth best country in the world for dynamic growing businesses. The index is a reflection of the feasible environment it offers for expansion of businesses. A Deloitte study says India is slated to be the second largest manufacturing country in the next five years, followed by Brazil. On the Ernst & Young’s renewable attractiveness index, India is at fourth position. On the solar index, India is ranked second and on the wind index, it is ranked third, as per the latest study by E&Y and UBM India Pvt. Ltd.

There is no denying the fact that India is blazing past a highway to become world’s third or fourth largest economy, but it is also true that its lagging states are mired in world’s highest levels of poverty and some human development indicators are among the worst in developing world. Economic experts say in modern India’s context, dualism juxtaposes the hi-tech boom areas with the vast tracts of economy that have barely been touched by post-91 reforms. In Indian society, small islands of excellence, prosperity and possibilities are surrounded by a sea of mediocrity, deprivation and discontent.

All is ‘not’ well
India may be a liberal economy and a rising money power, but there are people who still eat grass, sell their children, sell their kidneys, and commit suicide out of desperation. For every million new entrants to India’s burgeoning middle class, there are tens of millions still trapped in grinding web of rural poverty, barely earning a dollar after back-breaking labour. The Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2010 – a report released by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) – ranks India below Rwanda and Sudan, putting it in the ‘alarming levels of hunger’ range. We have witnessed substantial progress in overall growth, but there is a dire need to look at what is happening to the poorest of the poor.

China and Vietnam, like India, have shown remarkable growth in GDP rates, but unlike India, they have also succeeded in bringing down the levels of poverty and hunger. Lack of education, abysmal quality of work, rampant corruption, sloppy implementation of projects and huge population are some gnawing problems in India’s way. Nearly 65 per cent of people in India live on agriculture, which accounts for around 18 per cent of GDP. The World Development Report in 2008 stated that one per cent growth in agriculture is twice more effective in reducing poverty than similar growth in the non-agricultural sector. But lately, growth in India has been triggered by IT and telecom sectors. Gender inequality and malnutrition are highly correlated, and Global Gender Gap Report 2010 ranked India 112th out of 134 nations.

India’s growth story looks similar to the monkey sum – a monkey climbs two ft and slips down one ft in a minute, so how much time will it take to climb a 25-ft pole? Leadership, execution and arrogance are some of the problem areas. Education scenario is dismal too. In the QS World University Rankings, Times Higher Education World University Rankings and Academic Ranking of World Universities, India figures nowhere in world’s top-100 universities. Besides, according to recent World Bank reports, while more than 95 per cent of children attend primary school, just 40 per cent of Indian adolescents attend secondary school (Grades 9-12).

India may boast of many hi-tech super specialty hospitals, but there are not even primary health centres in many parts of the country. The budget allocation for health care here is among the lowest in the world. A report in Lancet, the prestigious British medical journal, said that most Indians pay 78 per cent of their medical bills themselves. The only country worse off as far as private spending on health is concerned is Pakistan, where the figure is 82.5 per cent. The basic problem is infrastructure and support staff. There are some great professionals in health industry and we get a lot of patients from overseas, but unfortunately great majority of our population is still deprived of basic health care. This anomaly must be corrected.

Corruption is a monster. No matter how good the plans and policies of the government may be, corruption is pulling down the country in a big way. In this age of corruption, sycophancy and nepotism, it is extremely difficult for an honest person to survive.

The way ahead
India still has a long way to go. It can become a superpower only when the huge gap between the rich and the poor is bridged. We have to set the focus right. We cannot hide the disparity between the real and imagined India. The dichotomy is too ugly but real. While we celebrate the story of growth, we need to work hard to ensure it is inclusive and substantial.

Citizens of India have to enforce their right to outcomes as the Right to Information (RTI) is just not enough. It is high time we shun the ‘we-are-like-that-only’ mindset.