India@100: The journey during the Amrit Kaal | The Financial Express

India@100: The journey during the Amrit Kaal

A glimpse into India’s progress over the past 75 years suggests that focus on B (basic amenities) and C (children) is a must if the country were to realise its own massive potential

India@100: The journey during the Amrit Kaal
India’s fiscal deficit touched a record 6% of GDP in 2008-09, as the government spent more.

By Bikash Narayan Mishra

How we, as a nation, have done during the last 75 years? Many stories have been told and many analyses done. But the issue never loses its relevance.

We have succeeded beyond all expectations, including our own, to remain a one-nation democracy. Many nations became independent around the same time; but democracies collapsed in most of the decolonized nations around the 1960s. It was surprisingly perceived in the second half of the 20th century that democracy survives mostly in wealthy nations but we proved them wrong. Having said so, we need to introspect a lot more on the economic front.

After attaining freedom from the British and with a baggage of nearly 200 years of colonial rule, which had resulted in de-industrialization, brain drain and partition pains, we embarked on a path of rebuilding akin to what the Germans or the Japanese did in the aftermath of the second world war. Starting from a scratch, we had an industrial policy resolution in 1948 focusing on a mixed economy. Our first five-year plan was devoted to agriculture and the second to heavy industries and economic modernisation. 

The nationalisation era of 1951-1990 saw the nationalisation of Air India in 1953 and banks in July 1969 and again in April 1980. War with China in 1962 was a big setback and this resulted in a food shortage and elevated inflation. So, the focus again shifted to agriculture. In order to lessen the burden of the adverse balance of payment (BoP) on account of import of food grains, the first devaluation of the rupee was carried out in 1966; this was to make exports more attractive as well.

The collapse of the USSR, or major trade partner then, in the late 1980s and the Gulf war in 1991 again brought the BoP issues to the fore. India asked the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a bailout loan but was suggested an economic de-regulation in return. The then government started the process of liberalisation to come out of the crisis. The liberalisation process was kicked off by substantially doing away with the license Raj, ending several public monopolies and reducing tariffs and interest rates, and automatic approval for foreign direct investment in many sectors followed.

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Then came 2008, which brought the global financial crisis and the fall of Lehman Brothers. The Indian government announced three stimulus packages in a space of three months. India’s fiscal deficit touched a record 6% of GDP in 2008-09, as the government spent more. That seemed to have worked and the economy staged a rebound.

During the last ten years, the notable developments on the economic front have been the Jan Dhan programme in 2014, demonetisation of high-value currency notes in November 2016 and the implementation of the goods and services tax (GST) regime in July 2017. This was followed by two very difficult global years starting 2020, with the unprecedented Covid crisis affecting the world.

To soften the blow to the economy, the government took a raft of initiatives, including a Rs 5 trillion ECLGS (emergency credit line guarantee scheme) for businesses, mainly MSMEs, and professionals. The economy had started to show signs of recovery when the country was confronted with geopolitical tensions in and around Ukraine resulting in severe supply chain bottlenecks and a spike in global commodity prices, especially of oil. In a nutshell, during the last 75 years, the country has witnessed partition, four wars, refugee problems and pandemics, in addition to natural calamities affecting one part of the country or another in regular intervals. But the show must go on!

As we complete 75 years of independence, the average Indian is seven times better in terms of per capita income (in 2021) than 1950. Life expectancy went up by 100% from 35% in 1950 to 70% in 2021. Literacy rate rose from 18% in 1950 to 74% in 2021. Maternal mortality (per one lakh) dropped from 1,000 in 1950 to 99 in 2021 and infant mortality declined from 146 to 30 during this period.

So, the country has done exceedingly well in some of the crucial parameters. But now, the main agenda for the next 25 years needs must be to address the issue of poverty and unemployment. The list of agenda items includes affordable quality education and health services to all and, maybe, a resilient justice system that delivers justice to all and in time. POVERTY

Over the years there have been numerous attempts to measure poverty in India by the government as well as various think-tanks. The last official version of the definition was given by the Rangarajan committee in 2011-12. The new poverty line was Rs 32 per day in rural areas and Rs 47 in urban areas. The committee had found over 360 million people, more than our population at the time of independence, below the poverty line. Out of this, a staggering 51 million were estimated to be living in extreme poverty.

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Supposing there has been improvement in the numbers during the last 10 years, we still have 15% of our 1.4 billion people below the poverty line—or over 21 million. These people need not just food but shelter, clothing, medical care and education for their children to survive. The recent pandemic has made things worse for people at the lower strata of society. A few more millions would have returned to poverty or extreme poverty and the country needs to urgently address this issue.

EMPLOYMENT

There is a near unanimity on the fact that a large section of our youth is looking for jobs. We have about 80 million people (including the 50 million disguised unemployed), who are looking for gainful employment. Every year about nine million people join the labour force. So, we need to create 12 million new jobs every year in the next 25 years to cater for the growing demand. Skill level of our workforce is extremely low. The service sector has been the largest employer, after agriculture, all these years. The ongoing focus on digitization, quite rightly so, will further add to the capacity. But it is the manufacturing sector, which, along with service sector, can provide a lasting solution to our unemployment issues.

CHILDREN

We are a country with limited natural resources like land, water, minerals and oil. But we have one endowment in abundance – our people. So, improving human capital is key to the realisation of various aspirations, which could not be achieved in the last 75 years. We will have to fundamentally change how we treat the most vulnerable segment of our society–our children. The overall development of a human being is laid in early childhood; health and education being the two most vital ingredients. If the foundation is not well laid in early years, any intervention later will not compensate for the early childhood deprivation and the damage is done. Tawney RH, the renowned economic historian says: “Equity of opportunity requires not just an open road; but also, an equal start.”

As per UNICEF findings, over a third of India’s children are stunted, resulting in an underdeveloped brain with the inevitable consequence of poor academic performances (if at all they have access to education), and, hence, reduced earnings.

Our health infrastructure to fight the pandemic was abysmal and it failed us during the second wave. So along with the critical need to further bolster our health-related infrastructural facilities, it is time to focus on children’s health. Any such move will require sustained efforts from better parental and post-natal care of mothers to universal vaccine regimes, adequate nutrition, access to clean water and sanitation as well as to public health clinics.

EDUCATION

We have made substantial progress in improving access to schools and colleges, including those imparting higher technical education. Learning outcomes, however, are extremely weak. While children are the country’s future, they are a marginalised political constituency. 

There are approximately 1.22 million elementary schools in our country and nearly 80% are government schools, where more than 115 million (out of a total of nearly 200 million) children from the marginalised society study. The quality of education, access to basic amenities in these schools are far from satisfactory. Neither the old education policy nor the new one offers any tangible road map to address this critical issue. And this apathy manifests in multiple dimensions – absenteeism in schools, untrained and ill-equipped proxy teachers, large vacancies of teachers in schools, innumerable scandals involving the recruitment of school teachers. All these lead to further marginalisation of the already marginalised.

Between 2001 and 2018, we added some 27,000 new colleges–at 4.4 new colleges per day for a long period of 17 years–and they are mostly private colleges. Maybe a few million graduated from these institutions but mostly without the requisite skill and knowledge.

The problems of poverty and unemployment have always been there and it will lessen in times to come. But by neglecting our children we are adding to our own discomfiture, which can potentially impact our transformation process adversely.

(The author is Senior Advisor to the Indian Banks’ Association. The views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the FinancialExpress.com.)

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