Chris Martin of the famous group Coldplay had his song, Hymn for the weekend, pictured on the streets of Mumbai. The setting was what one would have expected: smiling poor children, taxis, bearded ascetics, dilapidated buildings etc. with Beyoncé getting morphed at some stage. The video created controversy for unfair depiction of India. But this had a lot of irony. Coldplay choosing India for the song, singing on the roads of Mumbai and the other sights along with foreign intervention of a famous lady singer tells something deeper which was not intended but evoked umbrage nevertheless. It throws a lot of color on the ambivalence in our country.
The occasion of Independence Day always warrants some introspection as it gives one an occasion to evaluate how far we have come. 69 years on, there has been a sea change in the country, but then that would hold for all countries as the overall environment has changed quite radically in the last two decades. Besides being more prosperous, the world has turned less secure which is an anomaly because normally the two move in the same direction. This gives one a clue that the main problem is more on the non-economic front which raises broader questions. How can we judge ourselves here?
We can look at the major progress made in different areas in this period and then look at the issues which still raise concerns. On the positive side, we can be proud that our country is a frontrunner and cannot be ignored anywhere. Besides being a part of the coveted group of BRICS, India is the fastest growing economy which speaks a lot about all that has been done right.
Second, there has been tremendous progress seen in the economic sphere with high growth leading to better living standards of a large section of the population. Today an Indian town or city resembles those anywhere in the world in terms of access to goods and services. This would not have been conceivable, a decade back. The high level of efficiency in the corporate sector has made India a producing hub and the ultimate vindication of this effort is to see Indian companies acquiring others overseas. This is a case of internationalization of operations, which in a way is reverse colonialism..
Third, in terms of global political power, India has become strategic for both the USA as well as the developing countries as can be seen from the change in concept of G7 to G20, where India has played a decisive role in bringing about equal treatment of countries. Strategically too, the alliance with the USA was out in the open with the support provided for our nuclear plans by the George Bush government. This is an about turn from the open hostility which existed in the 1970s.
Fourth, the victory for democracy along these 6 decades is something which we can be happy about. Except for the short span of 1975-77, when we had an emergency, the country has had popularly elected governments. Freedom of speech is guaranteed to the people and at times people do go overboard. But this is allowed as part of adhering to what has been guaranteed by the Constitution.
Fifth, we have seen the advent of westernization which is positive as it helps us integrate with the global economy and also move away from tradition which has come in the way of progress. Emancipation of women, and some degree of upward mobility in the caste structure (which is very slow), bear testimony to how our mindsets have changed over time.
Where then do the weak spots lie? The first area of concern relates to poverty and inequality. While we do claim that the poverty ratio has come down based on different definitions of the poverty line, the fact that between 300-400 mn of the people are struggling to survive does not speak well of a country which is one of the leaders in global growth. Quite clearly growth has been lopsided and not even. The blame for failure to address the equity issue is on successive governments.
Second, related to the first is a clear case of government failure to alleviate the conditions of the people. High levels of corruption and inefficiency has hindered the flow of funds to the intended beneficiaries. If one looks at various programs of the government such as food security, employment (MGNREGA), health, education, they read very well on paper. Both the centre and the state have allocated substantial amounts of these objectives, yet the progress has almost universally been poor. The reason is clear – there is an obsession with just meeting targets, siphoning of money from programmes and little attention to outcomes especially in qualitative terms. Hence schools may be set up but do not have water facilities, or teachers or chairs and tables.
Third, related to the second is the infiltration of crony capitalism especially after reforms which have been detrimental to the system. This becomes evident when there are natural resources involved and we have seen almost every scam is related to big tickets and big business.
Fourth, our quality of politics has degenerated over time and the Parliament debates are no longer based on conviction and argument and have a disruptive focus. This could have been ignored but for the fact that it has come in the way of speedy policy formulation. Both the UPA and NDA have indulged in such techniques to stall debate which has also cost the country a lot.
Fifth, the social fabric of the country has several chasms, as society has been divided across various lines over time. India was born on the basis of religion which has been used regularly to divide the people for political gains. There are no signs of any change here. To top it all caste has become important and we do not feel ashamed to talk of vote banks based on caste or sub-caste. This is how the system works.
For the nation to move forward, two things are necessary. First we have to accept that these faults exist and second, we should address them with alacrity. Not doing the same is pure hubris and delaying the second will slow down the development process.
(Views are personal. The author is Chief Economist, CARE Ratings)