Growing concerns

Published : Feb 11, 2011 00:00 IST

A YOUNG GIRL showing her balancing skills to make a living, on a severely cold day in Patna. Inequality is as much a part of India's profile now as it was 60 years ago. - RANJEET KUMAR

A YOUNG GIRL showing her balancing skills to make a living, on a severely cold day in Patna. Inequality is as much a part of India's profile now as it was 60 years ago. - RANJEET KUMAR

Will India keep on becoming more prosperous or will it go off-track and end up in a welter of scandals?

THE start of a new year is a good time to shed our subjective attitudes and biases and assess ourselves as a people, if only to get a measure of what we are, where we are and where we seem to be going.

Beset as we are by shocking examples of corruption, of public money having been wasted, of violence, of hatred fuelling murder plots and of many such bleak events, stepping back in time may seem to some like a step into a minefield, but it needs to be done.

As someone who has lived in the country for over seven decades and has had the privilege of serving it for more than three of those decades, I may be well placed to do it offering a clear perspective, much like adjusting the focal length of the lens of a camera for maximum clarity to take a long shot.

The perspective takes in India from the time it became an independent country. This was a time when the refrain in most government departments was that owing to shortage of funds something or the other could not be done. Sometimes what was done was pitiful: a small, shabby structure meant to be a primary health centre, water seeping though its walls, services working intermittently or not at all.

It was a time when Douglas Ensminger of the Ford Foundation wrote a seminal paper on India's food crisis in which he said India was facing a famine of monumental proportions and not all the resources of the developed countries could stave it off. It was a time when a Minister of the Union government went to Palam airport to receive a historic gift from the United States 50 heifers meant to cross-breed with local cows to produce a breed that would survive in India's harsh weather conditions and yet increase the yield of milk. India meant impoverishment. India meant hunger; the phrase India's starving millions was routinely used in newspapers, journals and books. India's foreign exchange reserves were at what now seem as comical levels.

Today, India exports foodgrains. The exponential growth rate of its population has slowed and been overtaken by the rate of growth of foodgrains production. India also exports vegetables, flowers, frozen seafood and much more. India's infrastructure has grown; wide, metalled highways connect metropolitan areas and ports, and roads reach the interior areas of the country.

Land prices are rising everywhere, a clear indication that economic activity associated with land has either been planned or has started and also that there are enough people who have money to invest in land.

There are other signs as well of that economic activity, including in Delhi the metro network and the state-of-the-art airport terminal, which is among the five largest in Asia. Indians are prominent among scientists and researchers in different fields all over the world; an Indian spacecraft orbited the moon and India's space programme regularly puts satellites into orbit. A giant employment guarantee project has brought some security to many while creating infrastructural assets.

But poverty continues to be a major problem as are lack of an adequate supply of drinking water, an effective health care system and employment. Inequality is as much a part of India's profile now as it was 60 years ago even though its nature has changed. These issues are being addressed although one may question the manner in which some aspects of this is happening. Dishonesty is being exposed in almost every facet of economic activity.

All this notwithstanding, India's growth rate continues to remain considerably higher than the Hindu growth rate of some decades ago. India's prosperous middle class is of the order of some 400 million people, representing a huge market for consumer goods and for housing, transport and other services. This makes the Ensminger report look rather comical in retrospect and reflects the fact that, all the corruption and inefficiency notwithstanding, the country did move forward owing to the efforts of a large number of unknown people in the public and private domains.

Nothing illustrates this more than the virtual procession of presidents and prime ministers who have come calling over the past two months. The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom was the first, followed by the President of the U.S., the President of France, the Prime Minister of China and the President of Russia. They came to express their goodwill towards India, naturally, but the economic dimension of these visits was more than apparent.

All of them emphasised the fact that India was an emerging economic superpower. The key word is, of course, emerging. It has not yet emerged as one, and the process may be a fairly long one. But they mean the signs are there, and they wanted to get on board. Which leads to the question where does India go from here? Will it keep growing and becoming more prosperous or will it go off-track and end up in a welter of scandals, with a mismanaged economy and financial crises leading to more unemployment, inflation, poverty and unrest?

Much will depend on not just the government but on private enterprise in industry and in the rural areas. It is not just a question of energy and money of which, fortunately, there is a good deal right now but of a shared sense of social responsibility.

Can there be a general awareness of the need to act responsibly and with some sense of ethics rather than petty self-interest? India has come as far as it has because of the sense of responsibility shown by the government and by private entrepreneurs. Will that continue or will the temptations prove to be too great?

To cite an example, the 2G spectrum scam seems to have been too much of a temptation for some because the amounts within reach were mind-boggling. Similar temptations may well offer themselves as the country continues to grow. It may be too much to expect that everyone involved in the process of India's growth will become a saint overnight and acquire a shining halo, but time has shown that the odds are with the nameless, faceless Indians who actually take the country forward.

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