India?s emergence as a major actor on the global stage in the last decade is one of the great narratives of the already very narrative-full early 21st century. It is often paired with China?the two Asian giants. Yet the expectations both inside and outside India differ. India is a democracy; and it is a nation that has long claimed its identity on the basis of human values.
However, India?s image is badly tarnished and there is a great deal at stake not only for the 1.5 billion Indians (the expected population in 2030) and especially the huge numbers of Indian youth (65% of the population is below 35), but also for the world. India must succeed not only economically, but also socially and morally. India, arguably more than any other country, will determine what the 21st century will be like.
Generally, at the moment, things are not looking good. To paraphrase Shakespeare, many feel that there is something rotten in the state of India. The country has been rocked by major corruption scandals from some of its most prominent companies. This has involved not only domestic scandals, notably in the illicit sale of 2G mobile telephony licences, leading to the forced resignation of the telecom minister; but also the Indian global diaspora, especially in the case of alleged insider trading by Raj Rajaratnam, founder and head of the hedge fund Galleon Group, who is accused of having been in criminal cahoots with some of the most important Indian business leaders in the US.
But the worst indictment comes from India?s social indicators. In the UN Human Development Index, India ranks 119th, behind Guatemala, Equatorial Guinea and Cape Verde, just ahead of Timor-Leste, Swaziland and Laos. All the figures are appalling?for example, India has more illiterate women than the rest of the world combined?but undoubtedly the most damning are the exceedingly high rates of child malnourishment and of child mortality. According to the Index, while India is doing ok-ish on some of the eight Millennium Development Goals, it is totally off track with respect to the fourth goal, the reduction of child mortality.
Democracy and humanistic national philosophies notwithstanding, there is a lot of injustice in India. A vivid illustration can be drawn from incidents that occurred in relation to the Commonwealth Games that India hosted in October 2010. This event was meant to highlight the global campaign to promote the ?Incredible India? image. It turned out to be a bit of a PR shamble. But much worse, reflecting the country?s misplaced priorities, is what happened to some of its citizens.
According to a study commissioned by the Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN), ?200,000 people were forcefully and mercilessly displaced in different Games-related construction projects and at least 18 people died during and in the aftermath of the forced eviction due to loss of livelihood and the means to survive.? Not only were homes destroyed, but also schools, depriving the children of these slum dwellers of even the most basic education. Shivani Chaudhry, the head of the HLRN, pointed out in a public meeting in February that to add insult to very profound injury, much of the construction for which the slum dwellers were evicted remains underutilised, while most of the displaced slum-dwellers have not been allocated living facilities.
These developments have caused a good deal of thinking, soul-searching and debate. One of the liveliest debates was sparked off following the sharp criticism levelled at the Indian government by Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen over its obsession with faster growth and the race with China at the expense of social development. This was countered by Columbia University?s economics professor Jagdish Bhagwati who argued that high growth generates better jobs and the income for government to invest in social development programmes. Some 30 Indian (and foreign) intellectuals got involved in an online debate monitored by Indian NGO CUTS; it was fascinating to follow.
The fact is that high growth does not seem to have made India a happier place and certainly not a more egalitarian one. There is a growing social backlash. Indians fear that a variation of a Tahrir Square scenario could erupt in Indian cities. Youth unemployment and disaffection are very high in India, as in the Arab world. There is already a strong presence in several provinces of the extreme political-guerrilla movement known as the Naxalism.
The main problem in the Bhagwati growth perspective is that if growth provides jobs, as indeed it does, society has to be geared in such a fashion that individuals have the means and skills to acquire them. While India?s growth over the last couple of decades has been only marginally lower than China?s, the number of people lifted from poverty in India pales in comparison with its Asian neighbour. Amartya Sen pointed out in Development as Freedom that the fruits and opportunities of freedom?including freedom to work?can only be had if people have the most basic skills of literacy and numeracy, which in India hundreds of millions lack. Indian leaders also bemoan the fact that contemporary Indian society suffers from a compassion deficit and insensitivity among the elites, especially the new brash business and finance elites.
The situation is grim; as is the outlook if present trends continue. There is good reason to hope, however, that trends will be reversed. There is, as noted, a growing acute awareness of the cancer that is eating away at Indian society. There is a determination among many business and thought leaders to do emergency surgery and cure it. There are also some hopeful signs in the provinces. Bihar, which has been one of the most backward, poor, crime infested and corrupt states of India, had elections in November that resulted in the landslide victory of a pro-development coalition under the aegis of one of the few highly respected politicians in India, Nitish Kumar.
When Gandhi was asked what he thought of Western civilisation he famously replied that it sounded like a good idea. The same could be said of Indian civilisation. It is high time to put the great idea into practice. India provides the biggest challenge and hope for the 21st century global era. It must not fail.
Jean-Pierre Lehmann is professor at IMD and founding director of the Evian Group at IMD