This could be India 20 years out: An upper-middle income nation of healthy, educated people; every village and town as easily accessible by road and railway as on the Internet; dozens of global Indian brands; a shining gallery of Olympic champions and Nobel winners. Above all, a nation driven by a vision of shared prosperity.
Today, India stands before a unique moment in history: It could choose to squander its immense potential with its antiquated socio-political system, corruption and flighty business rules or build on its cultural heritage, democratic values and a young demography to transform the lives of its 1.25 billion citizens.
It’s not a difficult choice to make but what will it take to achieve what could be the largest national development effort ever attempted by a nation?
To begin with, two decades on, nothing less than a $10 trillion economy will secure India’s future, says a recent study by Pricewaterhouse Coopers( PwC). It will have to create jobs on a scale that can absorb 10-12 million people who join the workforce every year, including members of the emerging middle class — a billion strong by 2034.
That means clocking 9% GDP growth over the next two decades, apart from also devising new solutions that are scalable, resource-efficient and environment-friendly to drive innovation and build capabilities.
For instance, to keep the wheels of the economy turning India will need a healthy and literate workforce, yet we are nowhere near delivering high quality, formal education to seven million more children every year over the next two decades.
Nor are we in sight of the 100,000 additional doctors and 300,000 more nurses required every year through 2034 to help deliver healthcare to us.
Both sectors face an investment crunch, as do infrastructure, manufacturing and agriculture to name a few. Given that all these sectors are interlinked, trouble in one triggers trouble in others while improvement in one enables improvement in others.
But the problems are far more complicated for India, which must stay away from any model of economic growth without shared prosperity. Already, its per capita GDP growth is inconsistent with its social development as measured by the Human Development Index.
There are more agonising examples of skewed growth. India has an army of 168 million child workers but 200 million jobless unskilled adults – many of them parents of these very children who find easy employment just because they come cheaper and offer less resistance.
A failure to rectify such anomalies could spawn instability. Moreover, a diversity of race, religion, caste, language and governments – which should count as a strength – appears to only compound India’s social challenges.
Sure, India is not living up to its potential on many counts.
It remains, on the one hand, a growing economy with a digitally savvy young population and a vibrant market. On the other, it’s a nation of malnourished children, masses of jobseekers, corruption and red-tape. It accounts for just over 17% of the world’s population but has only five companies in the Fortune Global 500, whereas China has 32. Only two Indian nationals won the Nobel Prize during 1993-2013; the UK had 22 Nobel laureates during the same period. On the sports front, Indian athletes won only six medals in the London 2012 Olympics, when the US secured 104, according to the PwC study.
Yet, given its entrenched democratic values, intrinsic market strength and the young restless masses with their intellect, energy and aspirations, it should be possible for India to leapfrog into a radically transformed future.
Today, India is restless for change. And the Internet revolution that offers unfettered access to information is helping Indians demand that change. The decisive victory voters handed Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year was a mandate for change, a desire for rapid growth that would help lift vast populations that remain in poverty even seven decades after independence.
But to achieve the momentous transformation that India desires, the pace of reforms must pick up.
We must marshal our human capital and resources towards the common goal of shared prosperity, placing as much emphasis on unleashing material wealth as on social good. Political consensus, so vital to policymaking in a vibrant federal polity, must form the cornerstone of governance.
Government leaders must create an enabling ecosystem for entrepreneurs to create masses of jobs, and then help citizens find and excel in those jobs. It must not be deterred by the socioeconomic hurdles in its way but see them as an opportunity for growth and renewal.
To be sure, India has achieved much since independence, although it is still far from transitioning to a prosperous, healthy nation. But in a world buffeted by strong economic and political headwinds, it appears like an oasis of growth.
It must seize this moment to shape it into a brighter future.