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
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
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
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
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
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.