India is better prepared even if the coronavirus knocks again as a new variant.
The Fifa World Cup revealed profound truths about the state of the world today. In the uncertain age that we are living in, there are no permanent losers and winners, and everything is possible. Yesterday’s losers can be today’s champions and today’s winners could lose it all tomorrow. And win again. Saudi Arabia can beat eventual champion Argentina; Morocco can reach the quarter-final; France can equalise twice and still lose the final. Argentina won the World Cup after more than three decades.
Beyond football, China’s Xi Jinping has been forced by public pressure to reverse his “Zero Covid” policy, and China is in the middle of a pandemic resurgence. Climate change not only warms the world but also leads to floods that hit one-third of Pakistan’s population; it can create a bomb cyclone that paralyses the United States. It also triggers cold waves. As I write, Delhi is colder than Nainital or Dharamsala.
Is there anything to look forward to in this uncertain world? There are straws in the wind. Vladimir Putin, who started a war, has begun to talk of the possibility of peace — a flicker of hope. But just that! Ukraine continues to suffer, continues to fight. The ongoing war has accelerated the rollout of renewable energy. People are starting to travel after the pandemic-forced hiatus. Some major economies are showing signs of being in the upswing.
Where does India figure in this “you never can tell” landscape?
Much has already been said and more will be said in this season of yearend ruminations, but a safe starting point is to begin with what we can tell.
India is better prepared even if the coronavirus knocks again as a new variant. India is also widely seen as a bright spot in South Asia. “By most standards, India sailed through 2022 relatively unscathed. The lifting of pandemic restrictions allowed normal life to resume and migrants to move around the country once more,” noted the Economist’s Leo Mirani this November. India’s remarkable run looks set to continue in 2023, says the Economist. But there are caveats: “Like the rest of South Asia, it (India) faces risks from events and trends beyond its control.”
As we head onto a brand new year, we must also look within. Strengths, opportunities, risks and threats stem not only from the world outside and global geopolitics and geo-economics. They also rise from within. We must look at the domestic situation, the fault lines inside the country and internal contradictions. Currently, two states ruled by the BJP are engaged in a border dispute. We have a lot of housekeeping to do; there is a desperate need for a conversation among Indians as the country’s perception of strengths, opportunities, risks and threats is also polarised.
2023 will shape the political narrative of 2024 when India heads for a general election. Next year is also packed with state elections. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal popularity remains intact, and his presence in real time and on hoardings will be larger than life. Expect India’s political economy to be tilting towards what would be popular with the majority.
The Modi government has just announced that it is making all foodgrain distributed under the Public Distribution System (PDS) completely free for one year. Each eligible Indian will get five kilos of rice or wheat or coarse cereal every month free, starting from January 2023. Earlier, this was provided at a subsidised rate under the National Food Security Act (NFSA). But while this move has won predictable accolades, there is a sombre truth embedded in this policy announcement, which is part of India’s internal narrative that we cannot afford to ignore. Even in a country acknowledged to be a “bright spot” in the region and which is currently holding the presidency of G-20, more than 800 million people out of nearly 1.4 billion plus need free food grain to survive. As eminent economist Ajit Ranade asked in a recent column: “If hunger is not a big problem, why are we giving away free food on such a massive scale?” Meanwhile, the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY), the Covid-era scheme which provided foodgrains free of cost, will not be extended beyond December 31, 2022.
Some of us trash global surveys on faulty methodology but what about official data? Hunger does not make headlines till it takes an explosively severe form, but malnourishment remains a throbbing pain point in India. The National Family Health Survey 5 (NFHS-5) reveals that in 2019-20, 35.5 per cent of children below five years were stunted, defined as low height-for-age. This is due to chronic or recurrent under-nutrition, usually associated with poverty, poor maternal health and nutrition, frequent illness and/or inappropriate feeding and care in early life. Stunting prevents children from reaching their physical and cognitive potential, as every nutrition and health expert will tell you.
In 2023, India is also set to become the most populated country on earth, surpassing China. India is a dominantly young nation, with over half its population (52 per cent) below 30 years of age. This tempts many Indians to wax eloquent about the demographic dividend. But having a huge young workforce can potentially be a demographic disaster unless the country can provide adequate nutritious food, minimum education, safe housing, health services and jobs to its people. Much of the country’s recent economic growth has been relatively jobless growth. This calls for sustained discussions between policymakers, industrialists and those seeking jobs.
There is a no dearth of policies and programmes in India, but the ground reality continues to be worrying for millions of Indians. While there are excellent schools and colleges for those with access and resources, there is also the disturbing scenario of children dropping out of school for numerous reasons, including deprivation. Families eking out a living in India’s informal economy continue to put their children to work to supplement earnings. According to the government’s Unified District Information System for Education Plus (UDISE), 2021 report, the annual dropout rate of secondary school students in the country was 14.6 per cent.
Then there is the running theme of divisiveness, which is creeping into every sphere of activity in India. This must stop. As long as Indians continue to view a section of their own countrymen as enemies for whatever reason and dog whistling and economic boycott of specific groups of people, notably minorities, continues, we will pull each other down. That must not be allowed to happen in 2023, election or no election.
Disruption defined 2022. It’s here to stay. We can see it as a threat or seize the opportunities it offers.