India’s Sixty Years

India has seen tremendous progress since Independence. In order to understand that we need to know the kind of society we had inherited from the British. Our literacy was 17%. The largely peasant nation didn’t know what democracy meant. It was a huge challenge building the new nation from such society. When India chose to go the democracy way, there were a lot of voices of snicker from across the world. The media in the UK wrote ridiculous editorials about a poor, illiterate country choosing democracy that too by offering universal franchise. Nehru stood strong in his decision to make India a republic. Since then we have retained the record of being the only post-colonial nation to have continually remained a democratic nation. (Emergency is the only black spot in this otherwise unblemished history.)

The next is our constitution, which in itself is an achievement. The constituent assembly had representatives from all walks of life. Each law, each amendment, was fiercely debated and put to vote before being included in the constitution. To contrast, consider this: Japan’s constitution was drafted around the same time the constituent assembly in India was debating ours. The only difference is, the entire constitution of Japan was drafted by a team of Americans behind closed doors and was thrust onto Japan to follow.

After this, India held its first General Election and Sukumar Sen, the first Chief Election Commissioner conducted it. This in itself would qualify for a world record. India was a vast and varied nation with huge illiteracy and even where literates present they spoke dozens of languages. Teaching its peoples about election, voting, booths, constituencies, and then reaching the ballot boxes to far and wide across to hill stations, forests, islands and conducting was the largest exercise in democracy even at that time. You’re guaranteed to feel goose bumps reading this story. For more try, Y S Qureshi’s An Undocumented Wonder – The Making of the Great Indian Election.

The next is Indian agriculture. In the 50s India faced a great food shortage. We were importing rice and wheat from the US every year, which was a matter of great shame for the Indian government. Then in the late 50s, C Subramaniam and MS Swaminathan jointly initiated the Green Revolution which introduced modern seeds, crops and methodologies into Indian agriculture and greatly enhanced yields. Today India has achieved self-reliance on key food crop to the extent that our grain stock is generated at 45 tonnes per year and as of last year the target was raised to 60 tonnes.

Next is education. Unlike food, there wasn’t really any educational revolution in India. But there was a lot of awareness about education and, consequently, enrolments increased in primary schools. In 1951 India had 2.1 lakh primary schools and 14 thousand secondary schools. In 2000, the primary schools increased to 20 lakhs and secondary schools to 12 lakhs. As a result, the literacy figure that hovered around 17% during Independence is now at 69%. The lowest is in Bihar at 67% and the highest is Kerala and Tripura, which achieved 100% long ago. If you take higher education, India is currently the third in the list of largest number of people with university degrees. According to a study conducted by the British Council, by 2020 India will reach the second position, next only to China.

When it comes to Healthcare, the average life expectancy in India during Independence was 32 years. Today it is 68. We have managed to achieve this feat mainly through our government hospitals and primary healthcare centres. Also, when it comes to healthcare, food plays a major role. During British era, India faced severe famines and epidemics. The last epidemic India faced was the Spanish Flu in 1918 which claimed 17 million Indian lives. Leading economist Amartya Sen claims that India hasn’t faced famine of this kind since Independence. A lot of people write admiringly of China these days. Not many of them would know that between 1958-62, China faced a major man-made famine that claimed the lives of 30 million people. Around the same time, India begged and borrowed grains from the western countries to feed its poor and largely brought famine under control. To learn more, read Frank Dicotter’s Mao’s Great Famine.

If you take economy, during the early years of Nehru, the government pumped in money to build heavy industries and, due to central planning, there was some momentum in the economy. However, Indira Gandhi’s extreme socialism was a punishing phase for India. Then, since the liberalisation in 1991, the economy has largely been on forward momentum. Between 1991 and 2010 alone, India has uplifted 300 million people from the lower-strata have become middle-class. To put this in perspective, we have saved about five Englands from abject poverty.

If you take social progress, the constitution assures equality to women, minorities, Dalit and tribal peoples. When even the developed western nations were reluctant, India gave universal franchise to its people, including Dalit and women. The school enrolment of Dalit children has been increasing from 11% in 1950 to 64%, which is encouraging, if not impressive. (Because, during the same period, the enrolment of children from advantaged castes rose to 82%.)

Therefore, to conclude, undoubtedly, there has been tremendous progress in a lot of avenues in the past 60 years.

However, having said that, it’s not without its blemishes. We have consistently been 30 years behind on infrastructure. There have been severe lacunae and corruption in schemes that provide basic amenities to people below poverty line. For more, read P.Sainath’s Everybody Loves a Good Drought.

Although the primary education scene has improved since Independence, it is not really up to scratch. The reason is, since Nehru’s time, our focus has always been on higher education. Sadly, even today it remains this way.

Healthcare in India needs serious overhaul. Today, a person with money can get world class treatment in India whereas someone without money can even die of diarrhoea. A nation-wide policy on free and quality healthcare is long overdue. The reason being that India’s healthcare-spend of 3.5% is one of the lowest in the world. (The US spends 17%, the UK 9%).

We have not made any serious attempt to resolve Kashmir conflict or our border dispute with China. The trouble is, we have been spending huge dollars in defending these territories. To put in perspective, India spends $21 billion per annum to ‘protect’ Kashmir and spends $5 billion on healthcare. If we can manage to resolve Kashmir, a lot of that money can be used to build hospitals, roads and primary schools.

The UN believes that, although GDP is a measure of the economic growth, it is not a real measure of society’s progress. To address this, the UN uses HDI, Human Development Index, which includes parameters such as healthcare, primary education, human rights, rights of women and minorities, etc. India’s data on HDI is one of the worst even among the other south Asian countries. India even lags behind Bangladesh on HDI performance. To learn more, read Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze’s An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions.

Next is the plight of Dalit, Muslim and Tribal peoples. Their progress is still far behind that of other advantaged communities. And the scar that fell on the Muslims during the Partition hasn’t gone at all. Even today, Muslims are the second largest victims of police brutality. (Tribals still hold the first position.)

Next is the Hindu fundamentalism. India is slowly and alarmingly being radicalised towards right-wing Hinduism. This trend, once goes out of control, will wreak havoc on society. The effort to convert India into a ‘Hindu Pakistan’ has already begun.

Next is India’s rehabilitation efforts: When India uproots rural people for infra-structural projects such as factories, dams, highways, etc. our track record in rehabilitating them is very bad. Since Independence, around 60 million people have been ‘displaced’ in the name of development, and there is no trace of where they are today and what they are doing. That is, India has ‘lost’ a population equivalent to one England and no one cares about the whereabouts of them!

Next is our police system, which still functions like it is British Empire, when they were trained to treat the entire native population as enemy. No effort has so far been taken up towards modernising and sensitising our police force.

Finally, we are surely becoming experts at destroying our environment. The day isn’t far when we will overtake China on this performance.