India rises to reveal shameful stench
INDIA is routinely touted as a big emerging market and a rising global player. Tomorrow New Delhi will host the fourth BRICS summit of the non-Western powerhouses Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.
Last June, Boston Consulting Group listed the US, China, Britain and India as the world's top four wealth creators in absolute gains. By their calculations, India's national wealth is estimated to grow by 18 per cent a year. All this is real enough. India is the world's fourth-largest economy in purchasing-power parity dollars and, on present trends, will rise to third within two decades.
Most major global corporations have a presence there, with substantial expansion plans. Many Indian corporations are expanding their footprints abroad, including in Australia, through investment, mergers and acquisitions. India's growing economic weight has translated into increased political clout.
...All major indicators are trending in the right direction: GDP, poverty, literacy, life expectancy, infrastructure, etc. GDP has quadrupled since economic reforms in 1991 and per capita income has doubled. India has an impressive scientific-technological base, considerable soft-power assets and a 25 million-strong diaspora to provide ballast in relations with the major Western countries. Exploiting the rising global profile, India has been aggressively branding itself with the slogan "Incredible India".
And yet India has the world's biggest pool of poor, sick, starving and illiterate. It ranks 134 on ease of doing business indicators, 119 on human development, 122 on gender equality, and 87 on corruption. On average, more than 16,500 farmers have committed suicide every year for 13 years running. The annual road death toll is around 150,000, thrice as many as the US or, on a per vehicle basis, almost 20 times the US. Most of those killed in India's traffic accidents are pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists and pillion riders - those from the poorer end of society.
Even this single statistic is a proxy for several ailments, including inadequate infrastructure that adds to road risks and public corruption that ensures weak compliance with driving skills and safety regulations.
A report published in January by the Hong Kong-based Political and Risk Consultancy rated India's bureaucrats the most inefficient in Asia with a score of 9.21 out of 10, below China (7.11), The Philippines (7.57), Indonesia (8.37) and Vietnam (8.54). Singapore was judged the best (2.25) followed by Hong Kong (3.53). The report was based on a survey of business executives. Respondents also highlighted onerous and complex tax, environmental and other regulations and a time-consuming, costly and unpredictable court system.
Also in January, the Program for International Student Assessment published its findings of comparative national academic performance of 15-year-old school students in maths, science and English. In the 73 countries tested, India came second last, ahead only of Kyrgyzstan. An eighth-grade Indian student fared the same as a South Korean grade three or a Shanghai grade two student.
Yet another study, also published in January, based on a survey of height and weight of more than 100,000 children in six states, found that 42 per cent of India's children were moderately-severely underweight, and 59 per cent suffered from moderate-severe stunting. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described the results as a "national shame".
The following month a government committee concluded that Indian railways have been responsible for thousands of deaths. Some 15,000 people are killed every year trying to cross unfenced railway tracks, half of them in Mumbai alone.
The report called for urgent investment, but when the Railway Minister announced a fare increase to raise the revenue base to invest back in railways for modernisation and upgrade of services and safety, he was forced to resign by his own party, which is in the coalition government.
We read last year how India has more mobile phones than toilets. Some years ago, I had organised an international workshop in a resort along a beautiful stretch of India's eastern coast.
A European participant decided to go for a pre-breakfast run along the beach. I well remember his look of utter disgust and horror as he told us how he had to thread his way through the folks of the village squatting along the beach, defecating. According to a UNICEF survey last year, 58 per cent of the world's population practising open defecation lives in India.
Not all the perfumes of Arabia will wash away the stench of these sorry but entirely credible statistics. Incredible India, indeed. No wonder the Chinese are openly disdainful of efforts by Indians to compare themselves to China.
Ramesh Thakur is professor of international relations, Crawford School, Australian National University and adjunct professor in the Institute of Ethics, Governance and Law, Griffith University