The mantra “world’s-second fastest-growing-economy” is often thrown at every problem this country faces as if it were a solution. It reminds me of the ‘mere pas ma hai’ dialogue from ‘Deewar'. I must admit that if you are wealthy and live in an upmarket area of a metropolis, it is easy to miss the big picture. We are swamped by air-conditioned malls, multiplexes, BMWs, fancy toll-roads, huge corporate hospitals, swanky airports; clearly we must be making rapid progress, right? Well, data shows that is not the case. On an individual level some wealthy people like you and me are much better off than we were a couple of years ago, but that cannot be said of the other one billion citizens of India. Data from official Government of India publications, World Health Organization (WHO), World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) reports underlines this bitter truth.

41.01 % of the world’s poor live in India
Next is China with 22% and there is no other country with double digits. ‘Poor’ here is defined as living below the global poverty line of US$1 per day.

25% of India’s population lives on less that $1.25 per day.
One in four people in our country barely subsist. In 2002 India was ranked 26th in the list of highest percentage of people living below the poverty line. In 2007 India was 9th.. This implies that some 17 countries managed to bring down their percentage of population below the poverty line, while India maintained it at 25 per cent. Compare that with Ethiopia, where the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day dropped from 61 per cent to 29 per cent in 18 years.

18% of babies born in India are underweight.
India is the undisputed world champion in this. Ethiopia, Niger, Pakistan and Bangladesh do better than India on this count. WHO estimates that “about 49 per cent of the world’s underweight children, 34 per cent of the world’s stunted children and 46 per cent of the world’s wasted children, live in India.”

On overall Human Development Index (HDI) India is ranked 128th.
Imagine that! More than a hundred countries have better living conditions for their citizens. HDI is generally considered a better indictor than GDP alone because it provides a composite measure of three dimensions of human development: living a long and healthy life (measured by life expectancy), being educated (measured by adult literacy and gross enrolment in education) and having a decent standard of living (measured by purchasing power parity, PPP, income).

Employment in the organized sector has declined
Despite all the growth stories you have been reading, the fact is that employment in the organized sector declined from 28.2 million in 1977 to 26.4 million in 2004 (Economic Survey of the Government of India 2006-07). According to the Census numbers, the percentage of people employed came down from 39.1% in 1951 to 37.5% in 1991. If you look at the number of unemployed people registered with government employment exchanges you will find that the number has grown every year from 1961 to 1998.

The agricultural sector has not fared much better: the workers are getting less work – according to the National Sample Survey approximately 110 million agricultural workers found employment for 209 days in 2004-05 compared to 220 days in 1999-2000.

Income differentials are widening – inequality has become worse over the years
It is estimated that a significant increase of wealth in India can be attributed to the equity market, the residential property market, and gold. Since such a miniscule percentage of the population is involved in these activities, the bulk of wealth accretion was concentrated within a very small segment of the population. Data suggests that since the 1990s there has been a significant increase in overall inequality, particularly in urban areas.

In 2007, 53 individuals in a population of one billion held wealth ($335 billion) equal to almost a third of their nation’s GDP at the time. India has many more of these billionaires than all the Nordic nations put together — though they boast the highest living standards in the world.

World leaders in crime
Even though we know for sure that crime numbers are underreported in this country (you’d know if you have ever tried to report an FIR in a police station) the numbers still make us world leaders in terms of number of murders and in terms of acquittals by the court system (justice denied). In terms of Assaults, Manslaughters, Rape, and actual number of prisoners in the system India ranks in the top five in the world.

Among the worst healthcare in the world
In terms of life expectancy and maternal mortality India ranks among the worst in the world. In terms of HIV-AIDS related deaths India ranks second in the world. Yet India has only 0.9 hospital beds per 1,000 people, once again among the worst in the world. In terms of access to sanitation and clean drinking water India once again stakes its claim among the worst in the world.

To all those who beat their chest and declare how proud they are about the number of Indian engineers in Microsoft, in NASA, the percentage of Indian doctors and scientists in the USA, the number of Indians in the Forbes list of billionaires, or of the glittering Commonwealth Games opening ceremony, I have only one thing to say: till the last underweight baby is born to a mother who died in childbirth because she did not have access to primary healthcare, I will continue to hang my head in shame.

First published on October 21, 2010
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