Written by Diego Maiorano.

Over a quarter of India’s population – and over a third of the female population – cannot read or write. To find similar figures in China, one has to go back to the early 1980s. The percentage of children who are malnourished is higher than in sub-Saharan Africa and comparable to neighbouring (and much poorer) countries like Bangladesh and even Nepal. More than a fifth of the population (21 percent) lives in extreme poverty and as many as 58 percent lives in poverty. These figures hardly match the image of India as a rising global power.

Of course, independent India’s underdevelopment has historical causes, which are deeply rooted in the brutally extractive and destructive nature of British colonialism. After all, India was, before the advent of the British, one of the richest countries on earth; two centuries later, it was one of the poorest. India was also a major manufacturing hub, producing about a quarter of the world’s output in 1750. A century and a half later, the share of India’s manufacturing output had plummeted to less than two percent – while Britain’s share skyrocketed from less than two percent to about a fifth of the world’s output in 1900. In fact, India’s nationalist movement has its early origins in the ‘drain theory’ elaborated by Dadabhai Naoroji – the first Asian British MP – who showed how British colonialism was draining wealth out of India and in many ways creating its poverty.

However, after 70 years of independence, how do we explain the persistence of widespread deprivation and very low human development indicators amid the plenty of what is the third largest economy on the planet? Politics is a big part of the answer. In short, human development has never been – and still isn’t – a priority for any Indian government.

In short, independent India’s leaders have paid very little attention to build up essential capabilities for large strata of the population. This developmental failure is perhaps the greatest waste of human capital the world has ever seen or is ever likely to see.

Shortly after independence, the Congress made a clear choice for the allocation of (admittedly very scarce) economic resources: the bulk of the state’s investments would go to the financing of heavy industrialisation, in the hope that, in line with the then dominant development thinking, this would trigger a rapid modernisation process that would eventually benefit the whole of the population. This was a 1950s version of the ‘trickle-down’ economic theory. However, little wealth trickled-down.

The welfare of the poor was pursued through inexpensive, but largely non-implementable policies.  Land reform remained on paper – unsurprisingly given that it was implemented by a party which relied on the support of big farmers to extract votes from the countryside, where the large majority of the population lived.  The Community Development Programme, while useful to ‘oil’ the Congress machine in the countryside, failed to bring substantial development to India’s rural areas. Crucially, education and health – especially primary education and basic health facilities – were relegated to the very bottom of the new state’s priorities.

In the mid-1960s, when it became clear that India’s developmental strategy was not working as expected and, perhaps more importantly, was eroding the Congress Party’s support base, the government inaugurated a new phase of its developmental strategy: India embraced the green revolution. The results were spectacular from a number of points of view: India, which was dependent on food aid in the early 1960s, became self-sufficient and then, by the end of the 1980s, an exporter of food.  The Congress Party regained much of the support that it had lost in the 1960s; and higher rates of growth in the agricultural sector did ‘trickle-down’ to the poor in terms of higher agricultural wages (in the 1980s). A major environmental disaster was looming – as in most of the countries that had adopted the green revolution technologies – but it did not become a major preoccupation until much later. However, even though the poor benefitted to a certain extent from the green revolution, education and health remained at the very bottom of the state’s priorities.

In the 1980s, land reform was abandoned as a pillar of India’s redistributive strategy, while targeted anti-poverty programmes absorbed the bulk of India’s welfare spending. These programmes were of limited effectiveness at ameliorating the living conditions of the poor, although they distributed patronage from New Delhi to the villages. But even a complete success of these programmes would have not substituted for the virtual indifference of India’s leadership to the issue of health and education, which remained very low on the agenda.

After the fiscal crisis of the early 1990s and the abandonment of the dirigist economic regime, little has changed in terms of the state’s approach to the welfare of the poor. Poverty was not attacked at its roots: the lack of health and education among the vast majority of India’s citizens. However, since the early 2000s, higher rates of economic growth and higher availability of resources, combined with an increased commitment of the  government to expanding India’s welfare regime through a rights-based approach, contributed to reducing extreme poverty and to slowly improving a number of human development indicators. In 2010 the government passed the Right to Education Act, which, 63 years after independence, made primary education free and compulsory. Very little was done, however, to address the equally crucial issue of the quality of education, which remains abysmally low, especially in rural areas.

In short, independent India’s leaders have paid very little attention to build up essential capabilities for large strata of the population. This developmental failure is perhaps the greatest waste of human capital the world has ever seen or is ever likely to see.

The implications are clearly visible in today’s India. A child born in the 2010s has a 38 percent chance of being malnourished (stunted), which has serious repercussions on their lifelong ability to become an intellectually and physically productive adult. If they are born in the countryside, they have more than 70 percent chance of not being able to make a two-digit subtraction after three full years of schooling. This means that India is wasting its demographic dividend, which occurs when the working age population increases, potentially bringing about a spurt of economic growth and development. However, India’s workforce is poorly educated, very unhealthy and extremely vulnerable to future challenges like climate change – which is expected to create 100 million poor people globally before 2030 – and automation – which is expected to destroy nearly 70 percent of India’s current jobs. Under these conditions, making the transition to a fully developed economy – not to speak to a global economic power – is a very unlikely outcome of India’s developmental trajectory. It seems more likely that India will remain, as Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen bitterly described it, “islands of California, in a sea of sub-Saharan Africa”.

Diego Maiorano is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of Nottingham and author of ‘Autumn of the Matriarch – Indira Gandhi’s Final Term in Office’. He tweets @diegoemme Image credit: CC by Pixabay.

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