India remains a “poor and very unequal country, with an affluent elite” where the top 10% holds 57% of the total national income
How high will India rise? The answer varies, as with the proverbial blind men and the elephant. Not surprising in a sharply polarised country in the run-up to an election year, where increasing numbers are getting sucked into narratives of hope, with no caveats, or of doom, despair, and deprivation with no bright spots.
“When the tricolour will be hoisted in 2047, the world will witness and praise a developed India," said Prime Minister Narendra Modi while speaking from the ramparts of the Red Fort on India’s 77th Independence Day. This has been a recurring theme in many of Mr Modi’s speeches. And by many of his party spokespersons.
How one defines “development” is going to be critical. This may sound abstract, but it is really about lived realities, what you choose to focus on, and what you ignore.
I am writing this column at a time when Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, two hill states in northern India, are being ravaged by incessant rain, flash floods, cloudbursts and landslides. In Himachal, the worst-affected state, vehicles have been swept away, buildings and bridges have been destroyed; economic losses have already crossed Rs 7,020.28 crores. At least 60 people have died in landslides and flash floods. Dozens are missing and injured. Rescue and relief operations continue.
The catastrophes have brought to the fore critical questions about the development model being implemented in the ecologically fragile and landslide-prone Himalayan states in the time of climate change and mounting extreme weather events. As many experts have pointed out, “development” of a certain kind spells disaster.
The question about what constitutes “development” extends to other areas as well. Even as we cope with the heartbreaking images from Himachal and Uttarakhand, the sheer horror of Nuh, Haryana, and Manipur, are seared in our memories. Can a fear-based model lead us to a “developed India” that shapes the world?
How does one chronicle India’s “development” story?
The short answer -- be brutally honest. We need to speak about India’s strengths as well as weaknesses. We cannot shape our future, nor be part of others’ future, if we are not prepared to look honestly at our present. Introspection and difficult dialogues need to leaven the soaring rhetoric swirling around the grandeur of the India story.
Today, India has the world’s fifth-largest economy. Many Indians live “first world” lives. But we are a nation of 1.43 billion people and the median age is around 28. Even if India continues to soar economically, the lived realities of the majority will define the texture of the “developed” tag.
In April this year, when Apple chief executive Tim Cook launched his company's first retail store in Mumbai, more than 300 people queued up to buy phones costing more than Rs 1 lakh. India was a country with “the potential to be among Apple’s top markets”, Mr Cook said. For many, this was yet another marker of unstoppable India and the country’s inexorable rise.
But amid the euphoria, some commentators flagged the stark reality of India’s per capita income being the lowest among 26 countries where the iPhone maker has retail stores. Currently, India’s per capita income is estimated at $2,500. So, while framing “development” in India, it is important to also ask “which India”? There’s a globalised, metropolitan, networked India, for whom the world is an oyster and many opportunities beckon. That’s good news. There’s also the other India, inhabited by people without much education, skills, connections, and social capital, who make news only when disaster strikes.
Arguably, the situation has improved for millions of Indians in recent decades. The India success story is no longer confined to big cities or the pedigreed rich.
But numbers matter.
When we talk about gross domestic product, and of India surpassing the United Kingdom and becoming the fifth largest economy in the world, it also needs to be stressed that GDP alone does not tell the full story nor can it predict the shape of the future for ordinary Indians. It must be seen alongside per capita GDP and per capita gross national income and human development indicators for a more rounded picture of the state of the nation.
India remains a “poor and very unequal country, with an affluent elite” where the top 10 per cent holds 57 per cent of the total national income while the bottom 50 per cent’s share was just 13 per cent in 2021, according to the World Inequality Report 2022.
The inequality is not just in terms of earnings but also basic education and skills. When we talk about leading the emerging global knowledge economy, we must also keep in mind that too many Indians remain unable to read and write. We have not had a Census since 2011; the last one pegged the average literacy rate in the country at 73 per cent. Other more recent official surveys show a slight rise in the literacy rate. But it is still less than 80 per cent. Many among those who are literate do not finish school.
All this impacts the development story and India’s ability to shape its future and lead.
India’s ability to generate enough jobs is a critical issue and will remain so in the years to come. Far too often, conversations about India’s technological prowess get reduced to the Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Management. It comes as no surprise that IIT and IIM grads who have survived the most severe forms of culling in the entrance exams do well in life but how is that a consolation for millions who are jobless or barely getting by? What percentage of India’s youth gets into IITs, and what percentage is hired by multinationals in India or abroad? One of India’s fatal flaws is its inability to educate a majority of the population to a high enough standard. Another fatal flaw is India’s extremely low female work participation rate. To be a leader in the Global South, India must invest much more on building the human capital of those at the bottom.
India is the only country in the world with a 1,000-year policy framework. During his Independence Day speech, Prime Minister Modi told us that decisions taken in Amrit Kaal (now called Kartavya Kaal) will impact the next 1,000 years. As an ordinary Indian citizen, my greater concern is about India in the next five to 10 years, about the resilience of its physical and human capital and the country’s social fabric.
The conversations we have, and those we choose not to have, will determine the grandeur or otherwise of the India story. And our future.