“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.

Estimates of poverty in India are usually related to nutritional norms such as the amount of calories people need. There have been a great many controversies among Indian economists and nutritionists on the choice of such norms (even on whether they are meaningful at all) as well as on the use of these norms for statistical analyses of India’s performance in relieving poverty. While some estimates show an increase in poverty despite economic growth, others suggest a slight amelioration of the incidence of poverty. But there is no picture whatsoever of a decisive change for the better.

India’s “self-sufficiency” in food has to be assessed in the light of the limited purchasing power of the Indian masses. Their needs may be large, but their “entitlements” in the market are small; that the economy produces enough to meet their market demand is not in itself a gigantic achievement. There has been no great “shortage” in the market—no “crisis” to deal with—but at least a third of the rural population has regularly—and quietly—gone to bed hungry and malnourished. The government has been able to ignore this endemic hunger because that hunger has neither led to a run on the market, and chaos, nor grown into an acute famine with people dying of starvation. Persistent orderly hunger does not upset the system.

Could India have done otherwise? It could be argued—indeed it is argued—that given the extremely low level of income from which India has started, it could not really do anything else until economic growth put the Indian people at a different level of economic prosperity altogether. Does that argument hold up? The contrast with China is relevant here, but that raises a great many complex issues, some of which I shall take up later. Fewer problems are posed by a comparison with Sri Lanka, which belongs to the same region and has a political system not far different from India’s.

For a long time now Sri Lanka has followed the policy of providing extensive social services, including distribution of subsidized rice. The nature of that subsidy has varied over the years—sometimes cheaper rice was made available for all, at other times some rice was given free to anyone qualifying by a means test. While Sri Lanka’s per capita income is of the same order of magnitude as that of India and Pakistan, and its total amount of available food (measured in calories) per unit of population is also quite comparable, cases of endemic hunger are much rarer in Sri Lanka than in the subcontinent. And the expectation of life at birth in Sri Lanka—estimated to be about sixty-six years—is far closer to the figures of rich countries than to those of India and Pakistan (fifty-two and fifty years respectively). The rice policy is by no means the only factor responsible for the difference, but it has certainly contributed substantially to the result, and the general program of government-financed social services—of which the rice policy and medical provisions are part—has worked powerfully in that direction.

It is thus not quite the case that India’s overall poverty rules out all policies other than the one it has followed. Food subsidies in Sri Lanka have cost no more than 5 percent of its GNP, and if they were similarly expensive in India, they would have amounted to less than just one year’s growth of GNP at India’s current rate of growth. But India’s approach to social services has, in fact, been sadly unimaginative and breathtakingly conservative. The deal that the government of India struck recently with the International Monetary Fund, leading to the approval of the largest loan (exceeding $5 billion) that the IMF has ever given to any country, seems to involve a pattern of development that includes a further move in the direction of the no-nonsense South Korean model and that will have the effect of excluding ambitious programs of social services. There is not much reason to doubt that this type of policy can bring dividends in high economic growth, but its impact on the quality of life will be slow. It is worth noting that South Korea, with five and a half times the per capita income of Sri Lanka, still has a slightly lower expectation of life than Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, the Indian leaders seem to have clearly decided on a strategy focused on growth, with an astonishingly conservative approach to social services.

That conservatism happens to fit quite well with the elitist character of Indian society and politics. The powerful groups have much to gain from high growth. If intensive public efforts were made to eliminate endemic malnutrition immediately, that would benefit groups that are less powerful. It is important to understand the elitist nature of India to make sense of India’s policies. The elite groups in India are remarkably powerful, and while they are a small minority of a nation of 700 million people, they are still numerically large. The elite must not be confused with just the industrial leaders or the bourgeoisie. It includes millions of civil servants, business people, commercial farmers, educators, office workers, and small land-owners. In fact, it includes many people who are themselves poor by international standards.

Nor is it the case that the Indian elite is unenlightened, or indifferent to the rest of the community. The moral and political consciousness of the Indian elite does not permit, for example, a major famine in India, and when a serious famine threatens, public intervention is swift and effective. Even reports on pockets of acute starvation by probing journalists—and there are many excellent ones in India—get prominent attention in newspapers and produce some response. On the other hand, removing the quiet presence of non-acute, endemic hunger does not have high priority in that elitist morality and politics.

The roots of elitism go way back in Indian history. The Hindu view of mankind—stratified and hierarchical—connects with it. To be born into one of the higher castes does not ensure elite status in the political economy; but in fact most of the elite comes from the upper and middle castes. The firm grip of the elite can be seen in practically every sphere of social activity in India. Recently, the historian Ranajit Guha has argued in Writings on South Asian History and Society that it is difficult to disentangle the events of the history of South Asia, since even the writing of history in the Indian subcontinent is so “dominated by elitism.”6 As far as politics is concerned, it is remarkable that much of the leadership of all political parties in India—from the extreme right to the extreme left—comes from this elite background. It is not so much that the leaders join the elite when they establish themselves but that they typically come from that stratum already.

Some of the achievements of India that I discussed earlier reflect the success of elitism. The remarkable expansion of higher education is a case in point. This applies to liberal university education, and also to science and technology. The other side of the coin can be seen in the shocking neglect of elementary education. After thirty-five years of independence, only a miserable 36 percent of adult Indians are literate. In this nation with a nuclear capacity, well-developed scientific know-how, and a higher-education ratio perhaps eight times that of China, nearly two-thirds of the citizens simply cannot read or write.

Speculation on the influence of cultural history is usually rather treacherous, but there might well be some significance in the fact that in countries molded by the less elitist Buddhist tradition, primary education is much more widespread and higher education much less so than in the land of Hinduism. This applies even to Buddhist countries in the same region, such as Burma and Sri Lanka; their adult literacy rates are 70 percent and 85 percent respectively (against India’s 36 percent) and their higher-education enrollment as a proportion of the population aged twenty to twenty-four is 4 percent and 1 percent respectively (as opposed to India’s 8 percent).

Underdevelopment of elementary education seems to go hand in hand with limitation of other social services. Kerala, the one state in India that has had a high level of literacy and schooling for a long time, also has a much better developed system of social services, including medical care. The expectation of life at birth in Kerala is, in fact, much closer to that of Sri Lanka than to that of the rest of India. But Kerala occupies an unusual position in Indian history. It has had rather different property laws and tenurial arrangements. Women have had a larger role in property inheritance. It has also been more open to outside influence. Christians came there by the fourth century and Jews shortly after the fall of Jerusalem, and both got on well with the Hindu kings and with the population; there were long-standing and close trading ties with many foreign countries including the Arab world; and Kerala also elected the first communist government in India in the 1957 state elections. The dividing line between the elite and the non-elite has been under pressure for a long time in Kerala.

I mentioned earlier positive discrimination in favor of “untouchable” groups. Reserving civil service jobs and legislative positions has certainly had the effect of increasing substantially the number of “untouchables” in positions of power and influence. But there is little evidence that this has contributed substantially to improving the lot of the great majority of “untouchables” in the country. The high correlation of untouchability with economic disadvantage—in particular landlessness and poverty—makes it difficult to transform the general position of “untouchables” without very substantial economic change. Moreover, social conventions have been hard to break by purely legal means, such as the laws against the practice of untouchability.

In fact, in recent years the persecution of “untouchable” groups by members of some of the rural upper and middle castes seems to have intensified; and in some regions this oppression has even taken a sharply violent form. Members of “untouchable” communities seeking a better economic or social deal (e.g., less exploitative labor relations) have been subjected to harassment, beating, burning of homes, and even murder. While the offenders have been brought to justice in many cases (often only after newspaper reports and the resulting public outrage), the preventive measures have been quite inadequate, and incidents of such violence continue to occur in different parts of rural India. Because of the rural power structure—even the nature of the police force—it is difficult to wipe out this violence without a much firmer and broader use of central power.

It is also remarkable that those “untouchables” who are now in a position of influence thanks to positive discrimination have—with a few exceptions—done very little to help others left behind. Recently, the Untouchable Battle Society (Dalit Sangarsh Samiti) has strongly criticized the inaction of “Dalit legislators, members of Parliament, and ministers in the face of growing atrocities” against other Dalits. Positive discrimination has often done no more than recruit some of the ablest, or most advanced, “untouchable” members into the charmed circle of the Indian elite. One thinks of Marx’s remark: “The more a ruling class is able to assimilate the foremost minds of a ruled class, the more stable and dangerous becomes its rule.”

The elitist character of Indian society is brought out also by the treatment of women. Many women hold prominent positions in India—as parliamentarians, political leaders, academics, doctors, artists, and others—not to mention the most powerful prime minister the country has had. Although women in elite groups may still suffer from disadvantages, many doors are open to them. But the general position of women in Indian society is nothing short of scandalous. Their mortality rates are typically higher than men’s (except for those above forty). The expectation of life at birth is lower for the Indian female than for the Indian male, and this pattern is quite contrary to that of the overwhelming majority of countries. Malnutrition too is more common among females. In studying the effects of the 1978 floods in West Bengal, I found that even among children under five, severe malnutrition was about 60 percent more frequent for girls than for boys.

All this helps to explain the extraordinary fact that the so-called sex ratio—the percentage of females to males—in India has declined from around 97.2 percent in 1901 to 93.5 percent in the last census in 1981. This is, of course, an ominous and startling trend, since with modernization one would have expected a relative reduction of female mortality vis-à-vis male mortality. On the contrary, it appears that with the progress of modern medicine and health services in India, the opportunities have been much more effectively—and unequally—seized by men than by women. The traditional differences have been heightened by new opportunities, and as the absolute positions of both men and women have slowly improved in health and longevity, the relative position of women has fallen behind. This does not of course happen among the elite—not much anyway. The peculiarities and inequities of the respective mortality rates of men and women among the nonelite majority in India have not become a major policy issue in elitist India.

Insofar as elitism is seen as one of the main problems with India, a comparison with China is obviously relevant. With the establishment of communist China, anti-elitism immediately became one of the major emphases of its official policy, and during the Cultural Revolution this aspect of Chinese policy became particularly prominent. Certainly, anti-elitist achievements of China are very substantial. The traditional rural power structure was smashed effectively, the hold of the urban elite quite transformed. Schooling and medical services have expanded rapidly and are much more widely spread than in India. The general level of nutrition has vastly improved. Life expectancy—between sixty-four and sixty-nine years according to various recent estimates—is much higher than India’s miserable fifty-two years.

But anti-elitism has caused grave casualties too. The chaos and destruction in the old university system that took place during the Cultural Revolution have clearly extracted a heavy price, and while the system is currently being rebuilt, a great deal remains to be done. The tyranny imposed during the Cultural Revolution was also justified by the anti-elitist policy, and even the more moderate accounts suggest a merciless extremism—torture, “punishments,” killing—in the treatment of a considerable part of the population. India’s record in this respect is obviously less disquieting. As Fox Butterfield, who was the New York Times correspondent in China, puts it in his disturbing book China: Alive in the Bitter Sea, except for the short period of the “emergency,” which ended in Mrs. Gandhi’s electoral defeat, India

has maintained its political freedom; there have been no unchecked Public Security Ministry, no street committees, no network of forced-labor camps, no persecution of whole groups of people because they were intellectuals or had relatives who had once been landlords, no destruction of libraries and universities.7

But in view of the price that India has to pay for its political system, it could be asked: are these liberties worth it? Would not better feeding, clothing, and health for the Indian population compensate for the loss of liberty which after all effectively concerns only a minority? I believe this way of posing the choice is both banal and wrong. First, there is little evidence that matters of liberty do not concern most of the people, even in poor countries. Indeed, the response of Indian voters to Mrs. Gandhi’s “emergency” rule demonstrated the wider concerns of one of the poorest electorates in the world. It is indeed remarkable that a community of voters who are ready to tolerate so much economic inequity and are so difficult to mobilize against elitist policies could be so quick to move in its rejection of tyranny.

Second, the choice posed is unreal. A regime in which basic liberties are severely suppressed, and in which the government cannot be voted out of office no matter what it does, is deeply unpredictable, and there is no guarantee that even large-scale starvation and famines would not occur under such a regime. Indeed, there is clear evidence now that in China during the three years from 1959 to 1961 a great many people died from lack of food.

The exact size of the extra mortality caused by the food problem remains controversial. One estimate, based on Chinese data sources, indicates that the extra mortality during a four-year period including the food crisis years was about 16.5 million. Another, also based on recently available Chinese data, suggests that “the net loss in 1960-61 would have to be no less than 23 million,” though other evidence suggests that “the losses during the crisis may not have been as acute.”8

No matter which of the various estimates we pick, there cannot be any serious doubt that there was truly appalling extra mortality during the food crisis years. The same statistical approach—focusing on extra mortality—was used to calculate the size of the Great Bengal Famine of 1943, and the extra mortality during the years from 1943 to 1946 was estimated to be around 3 million (much in excess of the official figure of 1.5 million). On that basis the Bengal famine of 1943 counts as the largest famine in South Asia in this century. The scale of Chinese mortality seems to have been much larger. So the Chinese catastrophe of 1959 to 1961 dwarfs even the pre-independence famines in India, and as I have already noted, there have been no major famines in the post-independence period in India. Although the Chinese have an economic system that makes guaranteeing food to everyone much easier than in the Indian economy, it is China rather than India that has had sudden large-scale deaths from food shortages in recent times.

What is also remarkable is that the news of hunger and death in China could fail to become more widely known. It is only in the last few years—nearly twenty years after the event—that the extent of the calamity has been acknowledged, and this has happened after a major change in the Chinese leadership. In India even a fraction of that death toll would have immediately caused a storm in the newspapers and a turmoil in the Indian parliament, and the ruling government would almost certainly have had to resign. Any government keen on staying in power would have had to avoid such starvation deaths from taking place at any cost. Thus the question of food and starvation is not unrelated to the issue of liberties, of newspapers, and, ultimately, of democracy. The Soviet famines in the Thirties point toward the same lesson. So does the Kampuchean famine of more recent years.

What Wei Jingsheng called “the fifth modernization”—the establishment of democratic rights—in his famous wallposter message of December 1978 (after which he was sent to prison for fifteen years) is not only valuable in itself, as he emphasized, but it also has a crucial instrumental function in guaranteeing food and other necessities of life. The Chinese experience brings out the penalties of doing without “the fifth modernization.” The Indian experience does not contradict the value of democratic rights—it confirms that value—but it also shows how easily terrible inequities can survive despite “the fifth modernization.” The issue of democratic rights is part of a bigger social picture. In itself it does not make the picture, but if it is excluded, the picture has a crucial gap in it.

The strengths and weaknesses of the Indian system are clear enough. It permits endemic malnutrition and hunger that is not acute, so long as these happen quietly; it does not permit a famine both because it would be too acute and because it cannot happen quietly. It permits the injustice of keeping a large majority of the people illiterate while the elite enjoys the benefits of a vast system of higher education. It tolerates the continuing disadvantages of those who formerly suffered from explicit discrimination, even though such discrimination is now made illegal, and even though “positive discrimination” promotes a small number from the bottom stratum to positions of power and influence as new recruits to the elite. The elections, the newspapers, and the political liberties work powerfully against dramatic deprivations and new sufferings, but easily allow the quiet continuation of an astonishing set of persistent injustices.

This dichotomy seems to me to be the central point in judging how India is doing. It is doing quite well in many specific respects—e.g., in accelerating the growth of income per person, in guaranteeing many traditional liberties, in developing science and technology and higher education, in putting more dynamism into agriculture, in meeting the oil crises and the world recession. But this record has to be assessed in the light of the persistent inequities, and the basic weakness of modern India that sustains them. It is a weakness that is not being conquered.

This Issue

December 16, 1982