India often likes to believe it could be a "super power", but a more realistic target is to beat China first. India could even do well, for now, to match Bangladesh, a smaller neighbour with a lower per capita income, but far better human development indices.
Compared to India, fewer children die during their first five years in Bangladesh; girls stay longer in Bangladeshi schools and mothers have less chances of dying during childbirths.
Should India chase growth and leave everything else to the markets or increase focus on state-run social programmes? An acrimonious debate rages on, from university classrooms to television studios.
Last month, Alpa Shah of the London School of Economics joined Professor Akhil Gupta of the UCLA on BBC Radio 4's "Thinking Allowed" show to discuss why India's poverty-alleviation programmes don't work. Shah called on India to review the kind of economic growth it is currently pursuing, which has led to an "economic polarisation". In other words, an ever-increasing gap between the rich and the poor.
"Rampant corruption and the state's obsession with paperwork despite widespread illiteracy amongst India's poorest citizens leads to the arbitrary distribution of state assistance," Professor Gupta argues.
Last May, the government had asked the Planning Commission to update it on how far the UN's Millennium Development Goals (MGDs) had been achieved. The MGDs are a set of eight globally agreed benchmarks to free people from extreme poverty and deprivation by 2015. The target is to reduce these by half. The plan panel reported that, of the eight goals, none looked distinctly achievable, from health to hunger. Two sub-targets were "likely" to be met, provided efforts were sustained and four are "not on track", while four others were found to be on course.
It said India was likely to be "close" to its poverty reduction target, despite no clarity on the official poverty line yet. Its 2009-10 poverty benchmark - R32 and R26 for urban and rural dwellers - was squarely criticised for being so low that few Indians would get by on it. The government had then set up a panel for a more realistic "poverty line". "Income-poverty reduction is expected to be border line (case). But if one were to include more 'non-income poverty indicators', like spending on health and education, the poverty scenario could be different," said Mahendra Dev, who heads the Mumbai-based Indira Gandhi Institute of Rural Development and is on the panel to review the vexed poverty line.
In quite a contrast, China, revealing its budget allocations on March 5, announced raising welfare funds. Its largest percentage increase is in health-care spending, set to rise 27%, compared to a 16% increase last year. Much of it will go to for rural healthcare subsidies. India's spends a tiny 1.2% of its GDP on healthcare. Of this, the Centre spends just 0.3%. Targets on primary education and HIV-prevalence reversal are likely to be met, but this is offset by abysmal teaching standards. The government's annual education report of 2011 showed a majority of Class 5 pupils could not read Class 2 texts.
Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has questioned India's "single-minded" pursuit of growth, which on its own can't improve lives, calling for "growth-mediated development" instead. Is the government listening?
'Pink slips are a reality in India'
Anil Kashyap (Name changed)
I had spent eight years in the organisation and all along was very happy because I always thought I perfectly blended in the cultural matrix of the company. There was a lot of emphasis on honesty in the company. My career progression had been quite rapid-from a middle level position I had moved up to become a regional head. The additional responsibility of setting up a unit empowered to take decisions had given me a sense of belonging.
But, in retrospect, I now believe, it eased me into becoming more complacent. I failed to catch the signals that the organisation had, perhaps, repeatedly sent out to me. It came to a point where I was transferred to Mumbai without a commensurate hike in salary. It was 2010 and there weren't too many jobs at my level of seniority that came my way. I moved to Mumbai. There were murmurs in office that a retrenchment exercise was being formalised. One evening, I got a call from the HR department asking me to report to the section at a stipulated time. The next morning, it was all over. I walked out shocked and forlorn. It hasn't been easy ever since. I have managed to get a job at firm for a pay-earning about 30% less than my previous job. I have now to come to terms with it. Pink slips in India are a reality. Nobody knows this more than me. The biggest lesson from this experience has been that never get married to any organisation. It clouds your vision and you would not be able catch the warning signals even these may be very obvious to others. At the end of the day, it were my friends and family members who helped me regain my confidence. Given a chance I would not like to go back to the same organisation. The hard knock still hurts and the cracks will remain forever.
Kashyap (not his real name) was not willing to be photographed. He was working as senior executive in a major global financial institution.
He spoke to Gaurav Choudhury.
'We considered selling our house'
I have been without a regular paying job since October. It has been a very difficult period. In the last three years, my home loan equated monthly installments (EMIs) have gone up sharply. The rise in EMIs has been the sharpest in the last three years. I had taken a loan of Rs. 54 lakhs in 2006 to buy a house in Noida. I was comfortable with an EMI of Rs. 48,000 at that point in time.
A couple of years later, the EMIs started rising, to the extent that there was period when EMIs were being raised by nearly Rs. 1000 a month for a few months at stretch. This has pushed my EMIs to Rs. 64,000 currently. Needless to say, it is hurting me badly. Home EMIs cannot be compromised, so we have had to squeeze our budget by cutting down on usual monthly expenses even on items such as clothing and consumer durables. We have cut down on all outings, vacations and even on clothes and other basic expenses. It is not just the rising home loan costs that have pinched us hard. The economic slowdown has also implied lower earnings. In the given market conditions, people are not paying too much to consultants.
There was a point in time not so long ago when we were seriously considering selling the house to free ourselves from the EMI shackles.
As told to Gaurav Choudhury