Make-or-break century: India must choose right options

  • Samar Halarnkar, None
  • Updated: Jul 23, 2015 13:57 IST

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his supporters are fond of saying that the last 60 years of Congress rule has been disastrous for India.

They are right about the time period. Except for the eight years of Janata and BJP rule, the Congress has held sway since the first post-Constitution general election in 1951.

They are also right, in many senses, to lay India’s third-world conditions at the Congress’ doorstep.

This month, some end results of these 60 years were made evident through the latest government data: More than 315 million Indians are illiterate; another 280 million barely literate. Millions are jobless, with 12 million entering the job market every year. Manufacturing has not coped; agriculture, with a growth rate of 0.2% cannot hope to, and the high-profile IT sector provides direct employment to less than 3.5 million people, with hiring likely to fall 13% this year, according to Nasscom, an IT industry association.

Eight in 10 Indians have no means of meeting rising health expenditures at a time when the rates of lifestyle-related diseases, such as cancer, cardiac ailments and diabetes, are soaring. One illness is enough to push a patient into poverty.

But India is not only about abjectness.

A flood of entrepreneurship is generating ideas, capital and companies. Investment in startups reached $1.7 billion in the first quarter of 2015, according to, a website that tracks startups. That’s nearly eight times the figure for the same period last year. The media are full of stories about the daughters and sons of farm labourers and vegetable vendors breaking shackles.

So how should we assess India’s journey over these six decades?

That question cannot — should not — be answered without walking over a foreground of perspective, some of which is hidden amidst the call charges in my mobile-phone bill.

I pay 50 paise per minute — as many of you do — for local or long-distance calls on my mobile network. Indian mobile-phone tariffs are among the lowest in the world.

It is hard to imagine that in 1950, a long-distance call was 10 times costlier at Rs 5 per minute, a small fortune at a time when an officer entering the civil service earned no more than Rs 350 per month. The Indian economy had just emerged from the effects of a world war and a bloody partition. Its gross domestic product (GDP) was about one-sixth the cost of building a metro for Mumbai and about as much as the Supreme Court wants Sahara chief Subroto Roy to pony up as bail. The government’s revenue: Rs 332 crore.

But telling the story in the manner the BJP and its supporters do is plainly unfair.

India has clearly grown richer and more educated, and Indians live substantially longer and healthier lives. It is this human capital, generated over the years of Congress rule, that Modi intends to use to vault India into the ‘good days’ he promises.

But the data also reveal how Congress-led growth was not good enough.

On many critical measures, India has been left behind by its peers.

Consider the impressive growth in India’s life expectancy from 37 (male and female) years to 65. That puts India in the neighbourhood of Kenya (60) and Ethiopia (60), lagging today those who lagged us in 1950 — Pakistan (66), Bangladesh (70) and Indonesia (70). With infant and maternal mortality, all our progress has not been enough to catch up with former basket cases and poorer countries.

In 1950, India itself was a basket case, with priorities that focused on survival rather than aspiration.

The 1950 budget speech by then finance minister John Mathai mainly discusses payments to former princely states, the details of partition and World War II. Cranking a crippled economic engine was a tricky affair, and you might well argue — in hindsight — that Jawaharlal Nehru chose the wrong path. Yet, the government-driven path he chose did deliver the space and nuclear programmes, dams and an industrial base.

Could India have done better? Who’s to say?

Where India could have done better was the 1970s, when Indira Gandhi’s socialism and authoritarianism delivered the infamous ‘Hindu’ rate of growth (a term coined in 1978). The elephant started to move only during the liberalisation of the 1990s.

The 2000s and 2010s, first under Atal Bihari Vajpayee and for the most part Manmohan Singh, were a period of unprecedented growth — with more people raised out of poverty than ever — regardless of what Modi and his supporters say. But the Congress also delivered crony capitalism, corruption and offered no vision to match soaring expectations in this age of instantaneity.

If it took India the last 60 years to get to a point where it is taken seriously, the next 40 will determine if it rises or falls. This period, 1950 to 2050, is really the Indian century, and regardless of who is in power, we now occupy an era that demands critical decisions, specifically as regards the monumental task of enhancing the lives and livelihoods of millions of young Indians — the so-called demographic dividend.

Modi knows those decisions are his to make.

The past indicates that incremental or selective change never works in India, yet he is in danger of following just that path.

Like the Congress, Modi’s track record is mixed. His supporters talk of the Gujarat model, but the latest data clearly show that while his state’s economy flourished (as did a few others, such as Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu), social and health indicators floundered.

At the national level, ignoring these issues is no longer an option.

“There is currently a vacuum with respect to institutions and policies to address these challenges (health, education and training needs) in India,” Harvard economist David Bloom wrote with prescience in a 2011 paper. Choosing the right options will determine if India can encash its human dividend. Failure, said Bloom, could result in disaster.

Samar Halarnkar is editor,, a data-driven, public-interest journalism non-profit. You can mail your views to . The views expressed are personal.

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