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Failing at Fifty

(This is the text of the acceptance speech for the 1997 Indian Chamber of Commerce lifetime achievement award.)

We are very close to the celebration of the first 50 years of Indian independence-an event to which we have been looking forward with some excitement. I take the liberty of discussing a little what has or has not been achieved by independent India. Have we done well, or very well, or badly, or disastrously? Or is the record mixed? If so, what are independent India's main successes and failures? And, looking forward, where should we go from here?

I remember well the arrival of independence. I was then at school in Santiniketan. It was a thrilling moment. On August 14, 1947, as the great event approached, we glued ourselves to the radio in our little school founded by Rabindranath Tagore. It was six years after Tagore himself had passed away. And it was almost exactly four years after the terrible famine—the so-called "great Bengal famine". The death toll at that famine was large (between two and three million people had died0, but nearly everyone who had died had come from a few specific classes: rural labourers, transport workers, fishermen, small artisans and so on.

The upper middle classes did not suffer from the famine at all, nor did the residents of large cities and towns like Calcutta. The thought that we could share was not the old one, "There, but for the grace of god, go I." Rather, for those of us protected by our economic background from that famine, the thought had to be: "There, but for the grace of class, go I." Even though substantial famines have disappeared from India with the end of the imperial rule, the divisiveness that characterized the famines is still with us today. Indeed, India's failures relate closely to continued disparities and inequality.

In celebration of independence and a forthcoming democracy, Jawaharlal Nehru's voice beamed loud and clear over the radio, telling us about India’s "tryst with destiny’. The "task ahead", we were told, included "the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity". Nehru’s list of the major tasks is surely the right perspective in which to judge India's achievements and non-achievements. Fifty years is a long time, and it is not too soon to ask what came of that "tryst with destiny" and of the "tasks ahead".

The answer is not altogether simple. In line with Nehru's formulation, we can split the evaluation into three broad fields: practice of democracy, removal of social inequality and backwardness, and achievement of economic progress and equity. We must also ask how the successes and failures in these different fields interconnect and relate to each other.

There are reasons for satisfaction in the first area: practice of democracy. While the correspondent of The Times in the Sixties could report, with great pessimism, that he had just witnessed "the last" general elections in India, systematic elections have continued to occur in India with regularity and reasonable fairness. The press has remained largely free, the civil rights in place, and the military has not tried to take over our lives.

The survival of freedom of thought is indeed a major achievement of independent India. As E.P. Thompson, the great historian, has noted: "All the convergent influences of the world run through this society; Hindu, Muslim, Christian, secular; Stalinist, liberal, Maoist, democratic, socialist, Gandhian. There is not a thought that is being thought in the West or East that is not active in some Indian mind."

This is no mean achievement in the contemporary world (given the intolerance that seems to dominate so many countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America). I hope we will continue to defeat the forces of sectarian intolerance and the advocates of authoritarianism, which remain as potential threats.

The second field-that of social progress and equity- has fared much worse; not quite an immeasurable failure, but certainly a measurable flop.

Educational progress has been astonishingly uneven. For every student China sends to the University, India sends as many as six. But while China has made remarkable progress towards universal literacy (even before the economic reforms in the late Seventies), nearly half of the adult population of India, and two thirds of adult women, are still illiterate. We also find that even in the late Eighties, about half the rural girls aged between 14 and 16 have not been to any school for a single day in their lives.

The scepticism about educating the masses that has been a characteristic of Indian elitist value systems seems to have been remarkably effective, reinforced by the priorities of middle class politics.

Life expectancy at birth in India has climbed up to around 60 years (from below 30 at the time of independence), but mortality rates sharply differ between classes and between urban and rural areas, with many rural residents still far removed from decent medical attention. Inequalities between women and men in economic and social opportunities, and often even in health care, remain large.

This reflects itself even in the lower survival rates of women than what can be expected on biological grounds, which give women an advantage over men in survival. This is responsible for the high ratio of women to men in Europe and North America. The number of "missing women" in India, reflecting the effects of unnaturally higher female mortality rates, amounts to 30 million or more, depending on the method of calculation used.

While the bias against women varies from state to state (there is, for example, hardly any evidence of such a bias in Kerala), the average picture in India reflects remarkably sharp gender bias.

What about the economic side—-our third area of examination? India's economic progress has been relatively slow, particularly compared with the spectacular performance of East Asian and South-east Asian economies. The growth rate of gross national product has speeded up a bit in the last few years, and recent governments have been trying to emulate the economies further east by relying more on the market and on international trade, reducing government control of industrial operations and exchange.

There has, however, been a serious misreading in India of the causation of the economic success that South Korea, Taiwan, post –reform China, Thailand and other countries in east and south east Asia have been experiencing.

These countries did emphasize international trade and competition and made fine use of the market mechanism. But they also made it possible to have broad-based public participation in economic expansion through such policies as good schools and high levels of literacy and numeracy, good health care, widespread land reforms, removal of barriers to economic mobility, and considerable fostering of gender equity (not least through female education and opportunities for female employment).

This is not to doubt that India can achieve high growth of aggregate GNP even as it is (that is, even with a half illiterate adult population and with two thirds of adult women illiterate) since there are still a lot of literate people around in our large country.

It can do particularly well in industries that make good use of India’s advantage in higher education and technical training. New centres of technical excellence, like Bangalore, can prosper and flourish. Even a hundred Bangalores will not, on their own solve India’s tenacious poverty and deep-seated inequality. Their removal calls for more participatory growth on a wide basis, which is not easy to achieve across barriers of illiteracy, ill health and severe inequalities in social and economic opportunities. Some thing very important has been missed here.

Another subject that has been missed in the criticism of over extended government activities is the severe burden of military expenditure that costs India so much, but which gets accepted year after year-and often increased-without any substantial public scrutiny and protest. India’s defence expenditure is extraordinarily large, and in some years India has been the largest or the second largest importer of military goods in the world.

The Indian public which is ready to question any item of expenditure seems remarkably trusting of government priorities when it comes to the military. Occasional criticisms that come are readily answered by pointing to the superior knowledge and better judgment of those who run the military machine. This shackles us to gigantic expenses in pursuit of undisclosed priorities, and the costs of these are remarkably large, particularly in terms of the schools and hospitals that could have been built by the resources that are not available for peaceful purposes.

To be sure, India is not alone in this folly—far from it. Pakistan spends much more as a percentage of GNP, though much less in absolute terms. But we sometimes forget that we are seven times as large as Pakistan, and outman and outgun it in nearly every field. It is pleasing that the two governments seem to be on better talking terms now and perhaps something concrete may yet emerge from the talks (going beyond the photographs of sweet smiles that we have recently seen in the newspapers). India and Pakistan both pay an astonishingly heavy price for our discord—mainly in terms of loss of resource for social and economic development.

In general, I am not, of course, advocating the stopping of defence expenditure. But the absence of public scrutiny in this extremely important and expensive field cannot but be a matter of grave concern. People who scream at " public waste " when they look at the civilian public sector (and rightly so), seem to have little interest in the real sacrifices that India is forced to make in pursuit of priorities of defence that get politically approved without probing public scrutiny.

India is politically much richer as a result of its democracy, but docs it pay an economic price for it, as it has sometimes been alleged? While it has frequently been claimed that democracy is inimical to fast economic growth (India itself has been quoted often enough to illustrate this specious thesis), there is little statistical evidence to confirm this, as various empirical studies have confirmed. Indeed even the limited success of India in recent years in raising economic growth shows that economic growth profits more from a friendly economic climate than from an oppressive political environment.

India has certainly benefited from the protective role of democracy in giving the rulers excellent political incentive to act supportively when disasters threaten and when an immediate change in policy is imperative.

India has successfully avoided famines since independence, while China experienced a massive famine during the failure of the Great Leap Forward when faulty policies were not revised for three years while famine mortality took 23 to 30 million lives. Indira Gandhi’s brief attempt at suppressing basic political and civil rights, and initiating such coercive policies as compulsory sterilization, in the Seventies was firmly rejected by the voters, thereby electorally ending that government. Even today, India is in a better position than China both to prevent abuse of coercive power and to make quicker emendations if and when policies go badly wrong.

Democracy gives an opportunity for the opposition to press for policy change even when the problem is chronic rather than acute and disastrous. So the weakness of Indian social policies on education, health care, land reform and gender equity is as much a failure of the opposition parties as of the governments in office. Commitments of political leaders of other countries have often achieved more in these fields than the working of Indian democracy. The educational and health achievements of Maoist China illustrate this well. Post reform China has made excellent use of this accomplishment in its market based expansion.

This is not an argument for discounting democracy. Rather, it is a strong pointer to the need to practice democracy more fully. Instead of hoping to get, perhaps accidentally, good and visionary leadership under authoritarianism, which is a matter of " hit and miss" with terrible consequences when there is a miss, democracy makes it possible to use public participation to ensure attention to the needs of people. But it is up to us to make the best use of the opportunities that democracy offers. If, for example, we want to get more social development (basic education, health care, and so on), more gender equity, a less stratified society and a less expensive military, it is for us to agitate for these things. In politics, as much as in economics, demand is an important influence on supply.

Issues of social equity have been politicized in rather partial ways in different parts of India. North India seems very heavily concentrated on quite a limited range of issues related to "reservations" and the settling of privileges connected with diverse caste backgrounds. The latter is not a negligible matter on its own, but still quite far removed from the general public interest in health, education and so on. Politicization has occurred in West Bengal in some fields (such as land reforms, local self-government and removal of rural disparities in power), but not yet in others (including, by and large, in health care and educational gaps).

The state of Kerala is perhaps the clearest example where the need for universal education, basic health care, elementary gender equity and land reforms has received systematic and effective politicization. The explanation involves both history and contemporary development: the educational orientation of Kerala’s upper caste movements (of which the current left wing politics of Kerala is a successor), missionary activities in the spread of education (not confined only to Christians), early initiatives of the native kingdoms of Travancore and Cochin (outside the direct rule of the British raj), openness to the outside world (including the influence of early Christians, Jewish immigrants and Arab traders, among others), and also better placed position of women in property rights for a substantial and influential section of the community—the Nairs, to be specific.

Kerala has improved the quality of life of women and men quite dramatically. For example it has achieved a life expectancy at birth of 71 years (74 for women). It is close to universal literacy (certainly among younger age groups). And its fertility rate has fallen sharply to 1.8, which is below the replacement rate (and rather similar to fertility rates in the United Kingdom and France, and lower than what China has achieved even with compulsion in birth control). Many of the achievements relate to greater gender equality, since women's decisional power seems to favour the lowering of mortality rates (especially for children), encouragement to further expansion of literacy, and a reduction in the birth rate (since the lives that are most battered by over-frequent bearing and rearing of children are those of young women).

But Kerala has been slow in reforming economic policies in a market friendly direction. Some of its well meaning egalitarian policies, for example the fixing of unrealistically high rural wages , may have discouraged economic growth within the region and could have led to the migration of economic enterprises across the borders to neighbouring states. While people from Kerala have easily earned good money working elsewhere (often abroad in the Persian Gulf), the opportunity of taking economic initiatives at home has remained limited.

This has not prevented, I should emphasise, Kerala from experiencing a very rapid reduction in the incidence of poverty—one of the fastest in India, as the World Bank has recently acknowledged. But the full economic potentials of Kerala’s social advantages remain unreaped. If the combination of social development and encouragement to commerce makes a "dynamic package" for fast and participatory economic growth, much of India severely fails the first part of the twin requirements (that is, social development) in addition to various degrees of failure of the second (that is, in encouraging commerce). Kerala has problems— serious difficulties—mainly with the second.

Indeed, as the different states reconsider the possibility of economic reforms, it is hard to escape the impression that the communist leadership in West Bengal has more of an active agenda for encouraging commerce than has the mixed Communist and Congress government in Kerala. This is a matter that Kerala will have to address seriously.

The road ahead for India will depend much on the integration of different concerns: preservation of democracy (greater use of the power of politicization and public debates), rapid social progress (particularly in education, health care, land reforms and gender equity), and encouragement of commerce and economic expansion (consolidating the scope for competition, incentives and openness, while removing barriers to mobility and equity).

India has suffered in the last half a century from ignoring the need for such an integrated approach, and the tendency towards partial neglect, especially of social development, continues even today in much of India.

Where the level of social development is high, particularly in Kerala, the priority has to be on the encouragement of commerce and economic expansion. However, for the bulk of the country, the absence of social development is at least as big an obstacle to progress as counterproductive commercial policies that call for reform. The penalty of social neglect can be extremely large, and encouragement to commerce, under economic reforms, cannot be divorced from the extreme need for social development.

Inequality in India is not only a serious barrier to social justice, it has ended up being a major obstacle to general economic and social progress. Illiteracy, ill health, economic insecurity and the neglect of women's interests and powers not only hurt the deprived, but also make it hard to achieve general economic and social progress. Nothing is as debilitating for India’s social health as the continued disparities in social opportunities. The chain of potential economic progress snaps at its weakest link.

What then is the overall assessment? The important point is not so much that India’s record is distinctly "mixed""— that it certainly is—but that the mixture takes the form of considerable overall achievement combined with major deprivations for substantial groups of people.

our great achievement in democracy gives power, in principle, to all, though the sharing of it is in practice significantly unequal. The growth of the Indian economy is now improved, but the rewards of the "opening up" go disproportionately to the more privileged. Most significantly, the social achievements are extremely unequal, illustrated by remarkable expansion in higher education in a half illiterate country, and by excellent medical services for some ailments combined with very poor general health care. The lack of adequate economic support for basic social development is reinforced by a largely unscrutinised commitment to massive military expenditure.

It is on the sharing of social opportunities that the hope of a more just society rests. This is an important precondition of participatory economic growth, so that equity in social matters has rewards beyond its immediate contribution to progress in equitable enjoyment of quality of life. In bringing about this shift, the use of the opportunities of democratic practice has to be more robustly seized, through the politicisation of systematic deprivation and resistance to inequality. That it has not yet been seized is as much a failure of political opposition as of those in office. The unequal predicaments go with a shared failure of social responsibility.

We certainly can do a lot better in bringing about a closer approximation to justice of the kind that fired the imagination of those who fought for and achieved the independence of India half a century ago. The old objectives call for a new commitment.