As the prime minister unfurls the national flag this morning on the ramparts of the Red Fort, he will lead his fellow citizens in celebrating a historic occasion. Completing 75 years of Independence is a big deal for a country, which Benjamin Disraeli had once argued was not a nation. His reasoning: it lacked a common language, a common religion, a shared tradition, a cohesive majority, and a defined territory. The past 75 years have proved cynics like Disraeli wrong. India has proudly held together as a nation, in the words of Jawaharlal Nehru, by “strong but invisible threads…a myth and an idea, a dream and a vision, and yet very real and present and pervasive.” It has stayed united and whole, and remains one of the few post-colonial polities to remain democratic. These are considerable achievements in and of themselves.
There are many reasons why India can look back with satisfaction. It is now in a position to be the fastest-growing large economy for the foreseeable future. This year, it will become the world’s fifth-largest economy; a decade ago, it didn’t even make the Top 10. Since 1970, real GDP per capita has increased fivefold, and millions of people have been lifted out of poverty. Achieving “self-sufficiency” in food grains has been Independent India’s biggest achievement; forex reserves are now the world’s fifth-largest, from a meagre Rs 1,029 crore in 1950-51. Roads have expanded exponentially in the last 75 years. Key development indicators such as infant mortality and life expectancy have steadily improved. Life expectancy at birth has risen to 70.8 years from 32 years in 1947, remarkable given the global average of 73.3 years.
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But the overall record is still patchy, with a large number of Indians leading lives of quiet desperation. India remains grossly unequal. While the share of income going to the top 1% has doubled in the last three decades, almost 80% of its workforce remains in vulnerable employment with no work benefits or social security, as was cruelly exposed during the pandemic. Not so long ago, a growing population was seen as India’s demographic dividend. That has taken quite a few hard knocks with the education system not being able to deliver enough skilled workforce. Having the largest population in the world with one of the lowest employment ratios is something the country hasn’t been able to address with the right level of urgency. To these primary failures, add two more: failure to provide universal access to the basics (including clean water and clean air), and the absence of a law&order-cum-justice system that doesn’t have two-thirds of the prison population classified as under-trials.
Thus, the plan for the next 25 years should start in right earnest—now. A major reason for the problems plaguing India is that the country has for the most part been ruled by a relatively small elite whose attitude towards the masses was alternately benevolent and exploitative, but never inclusive. It is a good sign that things are changing. Also, India’s public institutions, which can act as checks on the executive, have been showing signs of decay for years, and must be rejuvenated. That is desperately needed at a time when the relationship between the state and citizens is showing signs of enormous strain. The state should propagate and enforce tolerance and respect for the law. It is time to remember what BR Ambedkar had said many years ago, ‘So long as you do not achieve social liberty, whatever freedom is provided by the law is of no avail to you.’ India has to work hard to make this her century.