Sort through the noise and fury that characterise modern Indian politics and three things emerge.
First, the Congress-led UPA government was a bastion of old-style, slow-moving government. Many of its constituents were either corrupt or condoned corruption — for whatever reason: Patronage, personal profit or the cost of coalition.
Second, as recently available statistics reveal, the UPA got some things right.
Stubbornly high levels of malnutrition fell, fewer mothers died, more Indians climbed out of poverty than ever before and fewer went to bed hungry. But the government could not deliver what these millions with improving lives wanted — education and jobs to meet soaring aspirations. The first half of its 10-year reign witnessed unprecedented economic growth, which tailed off during a scandal- and hubris-ridden second term.
Third, Narendra Modi swiftly disrupted India’s politics-as-usual model. The new prime minister’s ideas, whether his own or borrowed from the UPA and outfitted afresh, show purpose and determination. These include launching legal and labour reforms, drives to clean up India and grow manufacturing, freeing diesel from price controls, giving bank accounts to all Indians, cutting subsidies and making them more efficient by revving up Aadhaar, the unique identification system conceived — and crippled — by the UPA. While you can question some of these moves (emasculating environmental laws and discarding some subsidies) and debate the impatience over implementation (even the RBI governor warns against the dangers of a universal banking drive on steroids), you cannot but admit these are ideas whose time is past due.
Now that India has a government that appears responsive to emerging India’s aspirations, is clear-headed in its actions — including a disturbing tendency to quietly encourage its extremist fringes and marginalise minorities — and marking out the roads ahead, it could be time to debate some destinations. It is pertinent to note that despite the vast gulf in personality, popularity and style, Manmohan Singh and Modi share many similar economic views, in particular a free-market, top-down, a rising-tide-floats-all-boats approach to development.
This view translates into a model that urges a more literate and urbanised nation, made that way by rural-to-urban migration, factories and dams, a model that measures hard indices of progress. The soft indices of progress include health, nutrition, quality of education, pollution and female emancipation (the last mentioned is getting particular attention from Modi).
Merging the two models will, ideally, measure a nation’s overall well-being. That is not the case in India (or in the nation India envies, China). From Nehru to Modi, the Indian establishment has always prioritised the hard indices. In many ways, this is not hard to understand. The argument: India has always been so far behind with the basics — electricity, roads and jobs — that it has rarely had the luxury of looking beyond.
There are now strong indications that what lies beyond might not be as appealing as we think. Millions who have moved up the economic scale will contend that their life is better than ever — and they would be right. But there are no indices, hard or soft, to explain why those who believe they have made it, often, cannot shake the feeling that life is more stressful and dissatisfactory than ever.
A strong indication of the perils of the Indian path to success comes from lush Kerala, the state that preceded Gujarat as a model of development. As my colleague Jyothi Shankaran recently reported, quoting government health statistics, other things remaining the same, by 2025, Malayalee men will live to 75 years and women to 79 (the general Indian estimate is 70 and 72), a consequence possibly of spending more on health per capita than any other state. Kerala is also now India’s most urbanised state, with nearly 48% of the population living in towns and cities, up from 27% in 2001.
But weigh these measures of progress against softer indices and you may begin to understand why Kerala is more stressed than ever. The men in God’s Own Country have a blood-sugar measure that is four times the national average and India’s highest. Once a nation of wiry, fit people, Kerala leads the way in sedentary living and physical inactivity. Alcohol consumption and suicide rates are soaring and spending inequity is the nation’s highest.
Could this be India’s future? Some answers are available in prosperous communities and their islands of affluence across the nation. Similar reports have emerged — of soaring cancer and cardiac-disease rates, linked to changed lifestyles and other still-indeterminate links to polluted air, water, food, even ever-chaotic traffic.
India now has a suicide rate that is among the world’s highest, according to a new WHO database. Many more people kill themselves in the more prosperous and urbanised southern states and, since 2012, more non-farmers have been committing suicide than farmers, suggesting mounting stress may accompany a better life for Indians.
Little wonder, a vague feeling of stress, ill-being and impatience appears to be spreading among Indians; perhaps, these feelings emerge in the form of ever-rising political expectations. After the UPA’s blunder-filled reign, which refused to adequately even address these expectations, Modi’s direct conversation about aspirations generates an almost euphoric voter response.
India is at an inflection point. Never has there been a greater yearning for progress. There is abundant talent, money and, possibly, political support for change. But it is imperative to carefully consider the kind of change unfolding to assess the hard indices against the soft. With the Planning Commission gone, it might not be a bad idea to consider a Commission for National Well-Being, which could study links between the government’s priorities — many on the right track — and others that should be.
For instance, reform of India’s vast, ramshackle health infrastructure is not among the government’s priorities. It should be — along with dodgy pollution-control and crumbling environmental protection processes. Few nations have progressed on the hard indices alone. Consider war-ravaged — and now fast-growing — Cambodia: In 1990, the maternal mortality rate (MMR) — a measure of the mothers who die per 100,000 live births —was 1,200, three times higher than India’s 560. By 2013, India’s MMR was down to 190, according to the WHO. Cambodia’s had dropped to 170.
Samar Halarnkar is editor, Indiaspend.org, a data-driven, public-interest journalism non-profit
The views expressed by the author are personal