The 21st century is pegged to be the Asian century; India and China are expected to be at the helm of it, as the next superpowers. The United States of America under its president Donald Trump is protesting against India’s self-declared status as a developing country at the World Trade Organization. It has also stripped India of certain trade benefits, which the U.S.A makes available to developing countries (under the Generalized System of Preferences). India is a part of G20, a grouping of countries having great influence on world affairs. India has recently overtaken France to be the 5th largest economy in the world. India seems to be steadily marching towards being a global leader in the coming years. But is there another side to India’s growth story?
What is the criteria to determine if a country is developed? There is no strict definition. Russia, a super-power during the Cold War days, is often referred to as a developing country. Mr.Trump likes to refer to the world’s current superpower as a developing country. In the World Trade Organization, nations are free to label themselves as developing and avail some concessions in the implementation of the various trade agreements. But, broad indicators like education, health, material well-being of the population, low crime rates, technological advancement and such others can be used a proxy measures to determine the level of development of a country.
How does India fare of development indicators?
India has managed to pull a huge number of people out of absolute poverty in the last 10 years, bringing down its poverty rate from 55% to 28%. That’s roughly 271 million people, more than the entire population of Brazil. Looking at the flip side of the picture, in 2019, 110 manual scavengers died in the course of cleaning sewers and septic tanks. It has also achieved universal enrolment at the elementary school level between class 1 to class 8. But the learning outcomes for Indian children is very disappointing. Only one out of four children in class 3 could do subtraction of numbers.
India also performs badly on indicators of health, hunger and gender equality. One in every five children under the age of 5 years are wasted ( acute undernourishment) and half of India’s women of reproductive age are anaemic. This is a vicious cycle, malnourishment feeding into low birth weight infants, who are again prone to wasting and stunting; something called intergenerational effect of socio-economic deprivation. The tea plantations of Assam, from where the famed Assam tea is exported throughout the world, employ mostly women to harvest the leaves. It is back-breaking work with meagre remuneration. The women work until the very end of their pregnancy and get back to work as soon as they can, disregarding their own and their infants’ needs. Their socio-economic situation demands it of them. Consequently, the number of women dying in childbirth is highest in Assam and the number of infant deaths is also very high. Of course, most of the profits from the lucrative tea export and sale is cornered by retail companies and supermarket chains. Bangladesh fares better than India in quality and access to healthcare as well as women empowerment.
On the science and technology front, India does very well in certain areas, like space and nuclear technology. But then, India is the second largest importer of arms and ammunition, highlighting its poor defense technological capabilities. India’s R&D ecosystem and industry-academia linkages are lacking in various aspects, putting India in the backseat with respect to innovation and intellectual property. To cite an example, 5G technology is the first emerging technology that India is adopting with the rest of the world.
But India has great potential to improve on these fronts; it is doing so in its own pace. The need of the hour is to balance and prioritize. While India focuses on improving its ranking under the Ease of Doing Business index, it must also improve its maternity benefit schemes and gross enrolment ratio in higher education. But, India has its work cut out to attain high development levels for its population; because the 21st century presents us with lot more constraints.
The constraints to development in the 21st century
Firstly, carrying capacity of nature. With the dawn of the 21st century, realization also dawned upon us, about the extent of environmental degradation caused in the name of development. India has to take a sustainable road to development. We have only one Earth, who is fast exceeding her capability to support the burgeoning population and increasingly materialistic lifestyles. India cannot rampage her way to development, since it is the vulnerable populations of the developing countries who face the brunt 0f climate change and ecological damage. For example, agricultural output in rain-fed areas of India will lose productivity upto 16% due to climate change.
Second, a wide digital divide is being created between the technologically advanced and backward countries due to the emergence of disruptive technologies like Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things, Machine Learning and so on. The developed countries are in a better position to cash in on the benefits of the 4th Industrial Revolution, leaving the developing countries behind, widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots. The workforce of today also needs to be far more skilled and specialized than the 19th and 20th centuries, to be employable and retain employment. When India’s literacy rate is 74%, acquiring specialized skill sets seems to be a far-fetched possibility for majority of its population.
Thirdly, the exploitation, inequality and violence which marked the development of Western nations is simply not acceptable anymore. Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of Britain during the World War 2 years, stated that ‘The riches of the West are built on the graves of the East’. The western powers subjugated most of Asia and Africa through conquest and economically exploited its peoples to aggrandize themselves. India was systemically deindustrialized under the British rule; it was made into an exporter of raw materials and importer of finished goods. Millions of people suffered under the foreign yoke, subjected to poverty, racism and rampant inequality. Today, the focus is to leave none behind and ensure that the fruits of development reach everyone. India’s development must not be sustainable, but also equitable and peaceful.
While the challenges are daunting, India must lead the way into the 21st century, with an exemplary track record in in development. Only then, India’s growth story is complete.