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How Is India Doing?

Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side / Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide / Of Humber would complain,” wrote Andrew Marvell, outlining to his coy mistress the things they could do if they had “but world enough, and time.” While not many rubies have been found on the banks of the Ganges, India’s reputation as a land of riches is as ancient as the history of its poverty. That mixed reputation has changed in recent centuries, and India is seen these days primarily as a land of poverty, famines, disease, squalor, caste, untouchability, separatism, and chaos. This reputation, while exaggerated, is not altogether undeserved. But things don’t stay stationary, and some changes have occurred in the last few decades. We have to ask: which way is India going? A sixth of humanity is involved.

I start with the economy. What did India look like at the time of independence in 1947? It was poor, obviously, but, more strikingly, almost completely stagnant. In fact, many estimates suggest that a sizable economic decline took place during the last decades of British rule. This is disputed by Alan Heston in his chapter on national income in the recently published Cambridge Economic History of India—an impressive two-volume work that is indispensable for anyone seeking enlightenment on India’s past.1 While Heston challenges the thesis of decline, his own estimates indicate a complete absence of growth of per capita income for the three decades preceding independence. Heston also accepts that in these years Indian food output per head was falling, despite the rather low growth of population (around 1 percent a year).

The average expectation of life at birth in newly independent India was a mere thirty-three years. India also experienced a gigantic famine in 1943, shortly before independence; this killed around three million people. While the Great Bengal Famine was not directly related to the decline in the amount of food available per head (since it took place at a time when there was a comparatively good aggregate food supply), it brought out the disastrous vulnerability of several occupation groups in the Indian population to the vagaries of economic fluctuations.2

Judged against this background, India’s economic performance since independence is bound to appear quite remarkable. Its national product has grown steadily faster than population, and the process has speeded up from being about 3 to 3.5 percent per year to about 4 or 5 percent, touching 6 percent recently—and it is comfortably ahead of the population growth of about 2 percent. Agriculture, no longer stationary, has grown sufficiently for India to be self-sufficient in most years and often more than that. Some regions within the country, e.g., Punjab, have grown at rates high enough to compare with the fast-growing economies in the Far East. The popular world image of India as a model of Malthusian decline survives, but the reality is different.

There have been no major famines since independence. While droughts and floods have threatened famine (for example, in Bihar in 1968, in Maharashtra in 1971-1973, in West Bengal in 1978), public action has prevented a traditional catastrophe from taking place. Life expectancy at birth has gone up from thirty-three years to fifty-two years. While the fall in the death rate led initially to a sharp increase in the rate of population growth, that growth has recently been declining because the birthrate has been falling. It still has a long way to fall, and there is little cause for smugness, especially since China and Sri Lanka have achieved so much more in reducing the birthrate than India has. But even the relatively moderate fall in birthrate from 44 to 36 per thousand during the last two decades has now given India the third lowest birthrate among the thirty-three “low-income economies” covered by World Development Report 1982.3 Some regions in India, especially Kerala, have been more successful in cutting down the birthrate than have others.

The postindependence period has also seen some far-reaching changes in the legality of the caste system, and these have included making the practice of untouchability a criminal offense. India has been many years ahead of the West in introducing its own programs of affirmative action and positive discrimination. The constitution of the republic of India, which came into force in 1950, two and a half years after independence, makes explicit provision for such actions. In the civil service a substantial number of jobs have been reserved for members of the “scheduled castes”—officialese for traditional “untouchable” groups. As a temporary measure, a proportion of seats in the House of the People (the lower house of the Indian parliament) were reserved for “untouchables” (the others being “general” seats open to all citizens). The same was done in the legislatures of the states. The number of “untouchables” in positions of power and influence has grown rapidly under these “positively discriminatory” arrangements.

If all this sounds like a propaganda handout by a pro-India lobby. I should warn that I will presently argue that Indian society is a deeply troubled one, with extreme injustices heaped upon dreadful inequities. But we cannot begin to view India’s problems and failures intelligently without acknowledging what has been achieved.

The expansion of science and technology in India—including nuclear power—has received some comment lately. Ved Mehta in his interesting and important book on the grip of the Nehru family in modern India has even argued that “by some estimates” India “ranks next to the United States and the Soviet Union in its number of highly trained nuclear scientists.”4 India’s higher education sector is vast. In the number of students enrolled in higher education as a percentage of the population aged twenty to twenty-four, not only is India a considerable distance ahead of any other country of comparable income level, but there is in fact no country with even twice India’s per capita income that comes anywhere close to its higher education ratio. 5 In China, for example, the number of students in institutions of higher education is about 1 percent of the corresponding age group, whereas in India that ratio is 8 percent. In the number of doctors per unit of population, India is second only to China among all countries having income per head no higher than twice India’s.

I ought to discuss two other achievements of some importance before I take up the bad news. Ever since independence, it has been feared that, in view of its regional diversities, India would soon break up. It has also been doubted whether India is, in any sense, one country. The inevitability of disintegration was most plausibly argued. But this has not happened. The so-called most dangerous decades have come and gone. There have been regional tensions, but the social, cultural, and economic bonds have proved to be too strong to snap—or even come close to snapping. I believe the historical basis of Indian unity is often underestimated by those who attribute to the innocent British the creation of a sense of “Indianness,” which in fact has deeper roots. The first volume of the Cambridge Economic History of India, edited by Tapan Raychaudhuri and Irfan Habib, brings out the extent of social and economic integration that obtained in pre-British India.

There are, of course, several peripheral groups, e.g., the numerically small but politically important tribes in extreme northeast India, and retaining their loyalty has often involved the use of force—even brutality. However, for most of the country separatism has proved to be a very weak force much overestimated by “experts,” foreign and domestic. While various internal rearrangements (such as revision of interstate divisions) have occurred, the nation of two-thirds of a billion people, with fourteen major languages, has survived remarkably intact.

The second achievement concerns the effects of the oil crisis and the world recession. India is dependent on oil imports, though attempts have been made recently to find more oil within the country. Despite the hike of oil prices in 1973, which expanded India’s import bill remarkably, its foreign exchange earnings also increased rapidly. While India’s terms of trade declined sharply with the rise in oil prices, the volume of its exports increased much faster than the volume of its imports through the Seventies. India also earned large remittances from Indians working abroad, especially in the Middle East. India has had more difficulty in coping with the second round of oil price rises, in the late Seventies, but all in all it has weathered the storm remarkably well. And in recent years—despite the world recession—the Indian economy has grown at an unusually rapid rate. Taken together these achievements are certainly impressive. What is the other side of the story?

Speak of me as I am,” said Othello (shortly before that imperialist agent gave his candid views on “the base Indian” and “a malignant and turban’d Turk”). To apply the same principle to India today offers much scope for criticism even without anyone’s having to “set down aught in malice.” One can, for example, point out that while the pace of India’s growth has speeded up recently, its long-term average growth has been much lower than the world average; that Indian agriculture has got by with some help from good monsoons in recent years; that one reason India has weathered the oil crisis so well is that it is relatively near to the Middle East. Even as it has suffered from the rise in oil prices, India has benefited from the consequent shift in world income from the West to the Middle East, which has been much more inclined to buy Indian goods, services, and skills.

These facts, however, do not really detract from India’s achievements. Judged historically, the speeding up of Indian economic expansion from, at best, just about 1 percent at the time of independence, to 3 to 3.5 percent, and then to 4 to 6 percent, cannot be dismissed merely by noting that it is only recently that India’s performance has become internationally respectable. Nor can the monsoons—on close analysis—be seen to be the major influence on the change in India’s growth performance. And insofar as India has put the Middle Eastern boom to good use, it has been able to do this because of its potential for domestic production, the availability of skilled and semi-skilled workers, and a willingness to seize economic opportunities as they arise. The real blots on India’s performance lie elsewhere.

One of the major blots is the survival of regular malnutrition—as distinct from acute starvation and famines—in most parts of India. At least a third of the rural population seems to suffer from nutritional inadequacies. The deprivation is especially common for landless rural laborers, whose entitlement to food in the market economy of India rests on their ability to sell their labor and buy food. Depending on the varying chances for employment and relative prices, a great many of these families remain hungry a lot of the time. This class of rural wage laborers has been the traditional victim of South Asian famines (e.g., the Great Bengal Famine of 1943, the famine in neighboring Bangladesh in 1974). While this class has not had to face a famine in post-independence India, it has had to live with regular malnutrition and endemic hunger.

  1. 1

    The Cambridge Economic History of India (Cambridge University Press, 1982 and 1983). Volume I: c. 1200 to c. 1750, edited by Tapan Raychaudhuri and Irfan Habib; Volume II: c. 1751 to c. 1970, edited by Dharma Kumar with the editorial assistance of Meghnad Desai, to be published in January.

  2. 2

    See my Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (Oxford University Press, 1981).

  3. 3

    The World Bank, 1982, Table 18.

  4. 4

    Ved Mehta, A Family Affair: India Under Three Prime Ministers (Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 158.

  5. 5

    The real income levels and other comparative data used here and later are taken mostly from World Development Report 1982, “World Development Indicators.” See also World View 1982: An Economic and Geopolitical Year-book (Pluto Press, London, 1982, and Maspero, Paris, 1982).

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