India @75: The hits and the misses

In 75 years of Independence, India has done reasonable well on certain parameters and not-so-well on certain others. And the growth momentum has also suffered some setbacks. Let's take a look....

India @75: The hits and the misses
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Bharat Dogra

The country’s strides since Independence can scarcely be glossed over. At the time of Independence in 1947, the average life-expectancy was 32 years, less than half that of in the USA at 70. It is now 69.6, only around seven short of 77 in the United States.

Ironically, the much smaller island nation of Sri Lanka too has a life expectancy of 77.22 years today despite its current troubles and bankruptcy.

The infant mortality in India in 1947 was 146 per one thousand live births. It has come down to 27. But once again, India has performed much below its potential as the current figure for Sri Lanka is just six.

Similarly, maternal mortality in India in the 1940s was a whopping 2,000 per one lakh live births. It has progressively declined to 100 but once again Sri Lanka has performed better and has MMR of just 36.

The literacy rate at the time of Independence was 18.33 per cent while female literacy rate was at a dismal 8.66 per cent. The female literacy has now risen to 65 per cent while the overall rate of literacy is now 74 per cent. But once again, Sri Lanka has stolen the thunder with a much higher literacy rate of 92 per cent.

As the British continued to plunder India over 200 years, the country was periodically wracked by famine. As food grains were sent out of India and diverted for the war effort, as many as three million Indians died in the Bengal famine in the mid-1940s.

But even though India’s population increased phenomenally after Independence from 330 million in 1947 to 1,400 million in 2022, the country has become self-sufficient in food. It has a reasonably good Public Distribution System, which supplied free food grains to the two-thirds of the population during the pandemic. And despite adverse weather conditions damaging the wheat crop, India still managed to export wheat this year.

Despite such dramatic strides, malnutrition has remained unacceptably high. The nutritional levels plunge even more alarmingly during natural disasters like drought.

At the same time there is no unanimity on the extent of poverty reduction. Despite a sharp decline in absolute poverty, there have been setbacks in recent years. I look at poverty as the inability to meet basic needs and/or being forced to take up tasks that pose serious hazards and violate human dignity.

Going by this definition, poverty levels remain intolerably high in India, which is borne out by the precarious condition of several sections of the people including the rural landless, who number about 35 per cent of the total households.

poverty levels remain intolerably high in India (Representational image)
poverty levels remain intolerably high in India (Representational image)

According to the World Inequality Report 2022, the bottom 50 per cent of the Indian population own only 6 per cent of the national wealth while the top one per cent has ownership over 33 per cent. The bottom half of the population, 50 per cent of the population, earn only 13 per cent of the income while the top one per cent corners 22 per cent of the national income. This same report points out that inequality in India today is close to what prevailed in colonial times.

Since 2014 democracy and freedom have come under a cloud. Growing curbs on freedom of expression, assaults on critical voices in the media, growing number of political prisoners (not acknowledged officially), misuse of State agencies to intimidate and harass political opponents and the ruling party amassing massive funds, often through anonymous Electoral Bonds have put a question mark on our democracy.

In opposition-ruled states there has been an increasing tendency to use money and intimidation to install a BJP or pro-BJP regime.

Legislations like the Right to Information, seen as a major step to empower the citizen, have been undermined. Similarly, increasing hostility of the State towards Muslims in particular since 2014 has sullied India’s relatively better record of ensuring equality to minorities.

They have been at the receiving end of attacks, insults and humiliation and in addition, economic boycott of Muslims has added to their vulnerability.

Meanwhile, environmental deterioration has been very rapid with the highest number of polluted cities now found in India. Soil and water conditions have rapidly worsened in vast rural areas. River pollution has been high and several small rivers have virtually dried up. The long coastal region faces multiple threats.

There is a rush to promise water taps in all houses, but not adequate concern is shown to save or enhance the water sources which will be needed to bring water to taps. There is a rush to declare that all houses have toilets, without ensuring how well these are built, used and maintained.

During the last 8 years or so, India has moved away from paying even lip-service to economic equality and social justice, secularism and inter-faith harmony, human rights and civil liberties. One hopes it is not too late and corrective steps can be taken to strengthen India’s commitments to the core values of its freedom movement.

(Bharat Dogra is honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now)

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Published: 21 Aug 2022, 7:00 PM