“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. 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.
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 …
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‘How Is India Doing?’ An Exchange March 3, 1983