The Time Press
Opinion

India at 75: Much to celebrate and plenty ahead to aspire for


On 15 August, one-sixth of humanity will collectively celebrate 75 years of having breathed the fresh air of independence from colonial rule. A nation which has been a democratic, secular, self-governing republic for 7 decades; one that saw democratic and largely peaceful transfers of power at nationwide scale 16 times since 1947. This is possibly the only large modern country to embark on universal suffrage from day one, empowering every adult, man or woman, rich or poor, literate or not, Hindu or Muslim, with that magical ‘astra’ of a vote to bring about change for good. At birth, Independent India was largely illiterate, extremely impoverished from centuries of colonial exploitation and bore the ignominy of mass hunger and short life expectancy. That nation, which soon became a self-governing republic, is today the world’s third-largest economy in purchasing power parity, has doubled life expectancy, vastly reduced poverty and is geopolitically a force to reckon. In the past 75 years, many large nations splintered, most notably the USSR, but India with its mind-boggling diversity, be it language, religion, race, cuisine or culture, has remained united. Even Canada almost split during the 1960s on the issue of language. Unlike many other ex-colonial nations, we did not have a military coup, nor is it even thinkable.

Our achievements in many areas are impressive. For instance, achieving food self-sufficiency for such a large population. From being perennially starved of foreign exchange and on the brink of bankruptcy in 1991 to holding the fourth-highest stock of reserves is no mean feat. Despite being a rare Asian economy with a persistent current account deficit, a fairly consistent surplus on the balance of payments is amazing and reflects the confidence of global investors. A software outsourcing powerhouse with exports of nearly $200 billion, aiming for half a trillion in the coming decade. A global diaspora that sends the world’s highest remittances, almost $100 billion. A global leader of solar and wind energy, notching up ambitious targets ahead of schedule. India is blessed with possibly 350 days of sunshine over a vast landmass, making it the world’s solar energy capital. The key to unleashing the power of hydrogen is to link solar-powered electrolysis, making it cost effective and highly sustainable. This might very well make India a net exporter of energy. Solar can also help solve our drinking water crisis via desalination. India is the world leader in digital transactions, with the success of the Unified Payments Interface. The Open Network for Digital Commerce is expected to lead to a fair and inclusive e-commerce. In telecom, space and cyber tech too, India will soon be a force to reckon with. This is a place, a market and a fast-growing economy that global investors can’t afford to ignore. India’s rise is widely welcomed since it is seen as benign, unlike China’s.

Yet, there is much left to do. India’s world ranking by the hunger index is embarrassingly low. Unemployment plagues the economy, especially for the educated youth. Education assures neither quality nor employability. The skill gap is wide, while 70% of manufacturing jobs face extinction. The insecurity of employment is signified by a telling number reported in Parliament last week. A shocking 220 million Indians applied for a mere 700,000 jobs in the past 7 years. One-fourth of all Indian adults sought the security of a sarkari job. Why this lack of confidence in the private sector or in entrepreneurship? The participation of women in the workforce is also dangerously low and falling.

Beyond economics, the state of the rule of law is unsatisfactory. More than 47 million cases are pending in courts, some for years, and half a million people are in prisons, three-fourths of them technically innocent since their trial has not commenced or finished. An economy’s functioning depends crucially on the rule of law, speedy resolution of disputes and enforcement of contracts. Else, large parts of the economy stay in the shadow of informality.

In the decades ahead, demography will continue to drive growth and perhaps give us a competitive edge, so long as we remain an open economy unafraid of global competition. Even if our per capita income quadruples by 2047, we will still be a middle-income country; and the second-biggest economy. The big determinant of the quality of development will be education. Hence, here are three metrics of development to aspire for in the next 25 years. First, let every parent’s first choice be the nearest municipal school for their kids. Second, let there be at least five Indian universities in the global best 25. Third, let there be more inbound students than outbound.

Ajit Ranade is a Pune-based economist

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