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India At Sixty


On the 15th of August this year, India celebrated its 60th year of independence from British rule. So for the past month, the country – its intellectuals, prominent personalities, the media, the government and even the common man – has been indulging in a fair amount of self-examining and soul searching.

It’s a time of colossal enthusiasm for India, so it’s interesting to note the varied perspectives that this honest assessment has produced. Though some have been immensely optimistic and celebrated what they see as India’s arrival on the global stage, there are those who’ve been a little more realistic, and some others downright pessimistic, insisting that this kind of growth that leaves out the masses is bound to spell disaster.

The media, predictably, has been busy bringing together panels, comprised of leading businessmen and senior ministers, for healthy debates about the country’s achievements, failures, and the road ahead. While there’s been the usual pointing of fingers and patting on the back, what’s been almost unanimously agreed upon is clear: although since 1947 India has had some remarkable achievements, they’ve not been near enough, and India still faces many difficult challenges.

A look first at some of the hard facts: Eighty percent of India’s population – some 836 million people – lives on less than a dollar a day, according to a recent government report; one-third of the world’s malnourished children and a quarter of its vaccine-preventable deaths are in India; the country houses 2.5 million HIV infected people; it ranks a dismal 126th out of 177 countries on the Human Development Index; water and electricity are scarce, with cities like Bangalore – hailed as India’s silicon valley – getting fresh water for less than three hours a day; it has one of the lowest proportions of medical services supplied by any government; it fares miserably low on the corruption index – 88th out of 158 in a survey of countries by Transparency International in 2005; and, with its obsession for sons, India has one of the lowest child sex ratios of daughters to sons in the world.

The must-do list, therefore, is a long one – education, health care, poverty, crime, infrastructure, and corruption – to name a few. The government has not done enough on any of these fronts, making life for the common man a constant struggle. The rich are not affected since money can buy you out of anything (even murder) in the country, but the poor are left to fend for themselves. There are social welfare programs that allocate funds for the lower classes, but hardly any of that money actually reaches the poor, getting lost in the countless layers of the corrupt bureaucracy.

But, having said that, I must now add that not all is gloomy, and it’s not as if nothing has been done. Some inspiring facts: since 1947 India has dramatically reduced its poverty levels (defined as those living at or under the official poverty line) – from 55 percent of the population in the mid seventies to around 26 percent in the last few years. According to the IMF, during the nineties – which is when India’s economy opened up – the poverty rate fell from 34 percent to 26 percent, indicating a link between faster growth and poverty reduction; literacy rates too have gone up radically – from 12 percent at independence to 64 percent today (the southern state of Kerala is at 91 percent); it is still a healthy democracy; famines, which took millions of lives in pre-independent India, have been successfully eradicated; India is one of the fastest growing economies of the world with the growth rate averaging 8 percent annually over the past three years; it’s now a leading powerhouse in information technology and business process outsourcing and is home to world class institutions for higher education like the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) – the former having been described as an “incredible institution” by Bill Gates.

India is a diverse country with diverse problems – it’s the world’s second most populous country, home to more than twenty-two languages, some 1600 dialects, more than six religions and a rigid caste system. All this makes it a difficult country to govern, though that is not to say that the government shouldn’t be blamed for the nation’s failures, especially in key areas such as education, healthcare and infrastructure.

Sixty years is a long time, and India has come a long way from the pre-independence days, but if India hopes to truly become a world economy it will have to face its failures and work hard to redress them.

As India’s prime minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, said on Independence Day –
“We do feel a sense of satisfaction that on many fronts we have done well. Yet, we are aware that there is much more to be done. We have moved forward in the many battles against poverty, ignorance and disease. But can we say we have won the war?”

I think not.

Share  Posted by Gopika Kaul at 2:16 AM | Permalink

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