There is a cliched expression about not driving with one’s eyes on the rear-view mirror. But as we celebrate our 75th Independence Day, we should not only look back in anger at what we have not accomplished, but also with wonder at what we have. Contrary to what Winston Churchill is supposed to have said (there is no evidence he actually said it) about rascals, rogues, freebooters, anarchy and internecine warfare, India has survived and prospered—politically, socially and economically. Even if one forgets Winston Churchill, many people read Paul Ehrlich’s neo-Malthusian The Population Bomb (1968) at the time, as they did William and Paul Paddock’s Famine 1975 (1967). People confidently predict the future, though history is replete with examples of supposed “experts” who have gone hopelessly wrong. Decades later, there are still people who would like India to splinter amidst chaos and anarchy, as Ehrlich expected India to do, over food riots and famine.
August 15, 1947, seems like a long time ago. It indeed was. Seven-and-half decades is a long period of time, though it is but a fleeting moment in the history of nations. The world was different then. India was different then. The Indian economy was different then. Minoo Masani (1905-98) is all but forgotten now. In his day, he was an influential thinker, politician and parliamentarian. In 1940, he published a slim book directed at children, titled Our India. It was socialist in tone and had views Minoo Masani would change in his later years. In the preface to this book, he said, “Statistics of Indian life are so scanty and scrappy that reliance on them is bound to endanger one’s conclusions.” Indeed, data and statistics were scanty and scrappy in 1940. Proper statistical systems started to evolve in the 1950s. These days, if one wants official data, one often resorts to Economic Survey. There was nothing quite akin to Economic Survey then, apart from data being non-existent. Even after Independence in 1947, and the enactment of the Constitution in 1950, for more than a decade, there was no Economic Survey in the sense we understand it now. Publishing Economic Survey is not a Constitutional requirement. It is published because of an executive decision and because it has now become established precedence. As the seed of what would eventually become Economic Survey, a “White Paper” started to be included in the Budget papers from 1950-51. If one reads the first White Paper, included in the Budget papers for 1950-51, there is nothing on what is called human development indicators today.
Therefore, if we are going to be correct, with that lens of socio-economic indicators, we don’t know what it was like to be an average Indian in 1947. Minoo Masani offers some indication. To set matters in perspective, data existed for British India, not necessarily for all Princely States. “Learned professors in our universities have estimated that the ordinary peasant in our country with a wife and three children has to live along with his family on much less than Rs 27 a month, which is the average income for all kinds of Indians rolled into one…If, for instance, a baby brother or sister were to be born in your home—don’t mention this to your mother or father, it’ll only hurt their feelings, because grown-ups are like that!—the little baby, sad to say, is due to die at the age of 27.” A per capita income of Rs 27 per month and a life expectancy of 27 years. There are also literacy numbers from the Census of 1941, though the geographical definition of India in 1941 was different from the geographical definition of India today. The literacy rate was 16.1%. By 1951, we had a slightly better idea of what it was like to be an average Indian. In the Census of 1951, with India geographically defined as it is now, the literacy rate was 16.7%. (To be pedantic, this literacy rate is not comparable with literacy rates after 1991, since there have been methodological changes.) The infant mortality rate was 146 for every 1000 live births and life expectancy increased to 32 years. But that 32 years was for the new India, 27 was for undivided India.
With a life expectancy of 27 (or 32), none of midnight’s children should be alive today. Obviously, this isn’t true, because an average hides a lot of variation. Even today, life expectancy among better off sections of Indian society is almost on par with that in more advanced countries.
“The Cat only grinned when it saw Alice. It looked good-natured, she thought: still it had very long claws and a great many teeth, so she felt that it ought to be treated with respect. ‘Cheshire Puss,’ she began, rather timidly, as she did not at all know whether it would like the name: however, it only grinned a little wider. ‘Come, it’s pleased so far,’ thought Alice, and she went on. ‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’ ‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat. ‘I don’t much care where’ said Alice. ‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.” At the time of the 75th Independence Day, I think it does matter where we have come from and where we have reached.
The author is Chairman, PMEAC