The Indian Olympics Association and our entire nationalist project owe a big thanks to Shobhaa De. She stepped in at just the right time and with a single well-targeted tweet managed to defuse that moment of doubt coming out of our performance in the Olympics. How dare she complain? Could she run a 100 metres? Doesn’t she know that it is not about winning?
Exactly. Except that we don’t actually see photos of our (many) losers on the front page of newspapers. It’s the remarkable PV Sindhu, Dipa Karmakar and Sakshi Malik who show up, because we actually do care about winning. To the point where our journalists troll through the lists of football teams in Europe to identify Indian names, so that we can lay a claim on some (however distant) glory, given that our national teams ranks 158th in the world.
The problem is that there is very little that we can take pride in, as far as sports are concerned. Setting cricket aside for a minute, take our most successful moment in Olympic history — the 2012 games in London. We won six medals, which is about one for every 20 crore people. In the recently concluded games it was one for more than 60 crore. There are 20 countries in the world that won a medal for every 10 lakh this time, and 75 that won a medal for every 1.5 crore.
Before someone screams that I am forgetting that we are poor, let me point out that Kenya got 11 medals and Ethiopia eight, and they are both much poorer than us, while Vietnam got two medals and Indonesia got three, which is not a lot but if we had the same number per capita we would have had at least 16. We are really the exception, us South Asians. Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, home, between them, to more than one in 20 people on earth, did not win a single medal.
What is it then? In part it is cricket. We all want to be Tendulkar and have our politely smiling faces plastered across the country and don’t really give ourselves a shot at being good at anything else. My friend Sree, who in his forties has turned himself into a competitive cyclist, spent his youth trying to be a fast bowler and not quite making it. Imagine he had started working on his cycling when he was 15. Or something else that he is even better suited to? Not every athletically gifted person is designed for every sport — Michael Jordan did not cut it at baseball — but no one in South Asia at 11 wants to believe that, and so they never become the great pole vaulter or pugilist that they were destined to be.
This cannot however be the whole story; if it were true that our entire athletic talent is going into cricket, given our overwhelming size advantage, we should have been striding the world like a colossus, not fighting to stay in the top few. West Indies beat us on Saturday even though there are about five times as many people in Delhi alone than in the whole of the West Indies.
One clue to what is going on is malnutrition. As well-known, South Asia is what the Americans would call the malnutrition capital of the world. Forty per cent of children in India are officially stunted, by WHO’s definition. Moreover, stunting and wasting rates are higher even among those families that are in the middle of the Indian income distribution than in almost every African country, most of which are substantially poorer than us.
It is tempting to blame our genes, but the evidence is strongly against: An important recent paper by Seema Jayachandran from Northwestern University and Rohini Pande from Harvard shows that first born Indians are not shorter than first born Africans. The entire difference comes from those who are later in the birth order. So unless we are prepared to argue that our first-borns are genetically different from the rest of us, we have to accept that this is a man-made problem; families don’t feed their children enough, especially once they have multiple mouths to feed. This is consistent with the evidence that nutrition in India has not improved nearly as fast as income growth and by some measures has gotten worse.
If starving our children was not bad enough, we also expose them to some of the worst sanitary conditions and vilest air in the world (13 of the top-most polluted cities are in India and even in rural areas, indoor air pollution caused by chulhas burning dirty fuels often reaches semi-lethal levels).
But perhaps most cruelly, we deny them their childhood. When I was growing up, in our (relatively nice) neighbourhood in Kolkata, there was one playground with a few creaky swings and a rusting slide, and maybe half an acre of open space to run around — for something like 50,000 families. And that open space was often taken over by the saffron tents of some religious order. There were two places to play cricket or football within a kilometre of our house, but those were taken over by the big boys (and lovers after sundown). We played in the street as long as we were not shooed away by the local worthies.
Those of us who got to play were the lucky ones. Many of the girls, especially in less well-off families, were busy minding their siblings by the time they were 10. And even for the rest playing was entirely on sufferance. There were many afternoons when our star goalie or spin bowler would be suddenly dragged off by an irate parent who had woken up to the fact he was playing rather than studying, despite his poor grades. I was one of the lucky ones, but most children my age had not been told that it is legitimate and indeed desirable that they do physical things and enjoy themselves in the process.
As far as I can tell, things are not that different even now. And till that changes, we might as well blame Shobhaa De.
Abhijit Banerjee is Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics, and director, Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, MIT
The views expressed are personal