Winter of discontent: reality lies behind India's growth

opinion January 19, 2013 00:00

By Irfan Husain
Asia News

This hasn't been a good season for Indian cricket fans: first, their national team lost a Test series to the visiting England squad on home soil after decades. Worse, the Pakistani team defeated them in the recent one-day international (ODI) contests. And


But far more seriously, the recent high-profile rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey has shocked Indians by its sheer brutality. The huge protests caused by this incident underlined the status of women: from birth to death, Indian women are discriminated against in the most blatant manner. According to a UN report, India is the fourth worst country in the world to be a woman in. And before Pakistani readers take any satisfaction from this, let them know that Pakistan figures one spot below India on this sorry list.
In a CNN special report, a woman stated that when her baby girl was born, neighbours urged her to drop her from her second-floor abode. “Why do you want to keep a girl?” they asked. She went on to complain that from birth, boys were favoured over girls, getting better food and clothes, and being sent to good schools.
The report pointed out that, in fact, discrimination began in the womb, with an unprecedented number of female foetuses being aborted. According to The Lancet, the authoritative British medical journal, there are 7.1 million fewer girls than boys up to the age of six, and the gender gap has worsened by a million in a decade. There are now 109.4 males to 100 females. The termination of viable pregnancies on this scale has been called genocide by some observers. The social fallout from this skewed demographic growth has yet to be felt.
Despite India’s many complex social problems, its people justifiably take pride in the economic progress their country has made in the past two decades. But even this image of a thriving economy has taken a battering of late. Last August, the world’s biggest power cut hit 700 million Indians, underlining the fragility of India’s infrastructure. While we in Pakistan are all too familiar with the problem, the scale of the Indian blackout was unprecedented.
William Dalrymple, the well-known historian, is a friend of India’s, having lived near New Delhi for years. Many of his books are about the country. In the October 12-18, 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Dalrymple wrote a devastating cover story, “After the Blackout”, in which he discusses the stark contrast between India’s aspirations and claims and its ground-level reality: “For over a decade now, India has marketed itself as the coming superpower, placing itself in the same league as Europe and the United States, and hyphenated with China as the dominant force of the near future.”
But for Dalrymple, and for millions of Indians, the reality is very different:
“India’s remarkable growth figures have, however, successfully masked a far less appealing set of statistics that, despite the success of its middle class, when you look at government delivery of basic services to the poor, India has been struggling against being hyphenated less with China than its more desperate and impoverished neighbours – Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan – and by some indices has been failing to compete with the poorest in sub-Saharan Africa.”
Damningly, the writer observes: “Sixty-nine per cent of Indians live on less than US$2 a day, and roughly 35 per cent on less than $1 a day. India ranks 66th out of 88 vulnerable countries listed in the Global Human Index. India has the highest number of children dying in the world. Every year, 1.7 million children under the age of five die from easily preventable illnesses such as diarrhoea. Of these who do survive until the age of five, 48 per cent are stunted due to lack of nutrients: child malnourishment is sadly something for which India wins the gold medal every year.”
And yet, India has ambitions for lunar exploration, as well as sending a rocket to Mars. Its military budget has tripled in recent years, and it is now set to be one of the ten top countries in terms of defence spending.
While the Indian economy has grown, so has income inequality. Dalrymple cites an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) study that finds that inequality has doubled in the last 20 years. In 1990, the top 10 per cent of earners made six times as much as the bottom 10 per cent. This disparity has now grown to 12 times.
Massive corruption scandals, too, have badly damaged India’s image. While this is a universal curse, the magnitude of some of the scams has been mindboggling. The 2G airwave auction reportedly cost the exchequer $40 billion.
Other observers have been highly critical of the corruption and slow decision-making process that is hampering investment. In a stinging article published last October, the Financial Times wrote: “Indian investors, unfortunately, have been putting much of their wealth to work outside India … in part because they find their domestic business climate almost as daunting as foreigners do. They know this to be a market where the government has imposed retrospective taxes on investors and where managers have been attacked and occasionally kidnapped or killed by angry employees.”
One Indian voice that has been consistent in its defence of the poor and the marginalised is Arundhati Roy’s. Dalrymple quotes from a conversation with the writer: “In order to create a large middle class, a much larger underclass has been pushed down into poverty. You now have huge cities populated by migrant labour living on less than 20 rupees a day. Growth rates are not an indicator of wellbeing – during the period of highest growth, our per capita food intake, which was already lower than sub-Saharan Africa, actually went down. Meanwhile, power has fallen into the hands of a corporate, middle-class oligarchy.”
Despite all the current gloom, Dalrymple sees hope for India, provided it can find the will to carry out the difficult political, social and economic reforms that are so desperately needed. The whole region – and the world – needs India to succeed.