Mohan Guruswamy | How did we do in 75 years? Clearly, better than most…

Columnist  | Mohan Guruswamy

Opinion, Columnists

If India were to be horizontally sliced by income, it can be said to be three overlaid countries

A file photo of Red Fort. (Photo: Twitter | ANI)

Around August 15, we have the usual litany of lies about seventy-five wasted years. Were they?

The Indian economy is now the fifth largest in the world, measured by nominal GDP, and the third largest by purchasing power parity (PPP). Its GDP in 1950 was $30.6 billion. In 2021, India’s GDP was $3.53 trillion, or $9.69 trillion (PPP). Its industrial sector accounts for 29.02 per cent of its GDP and India now is rightly classified as a newly industrialised country. 

 When India gained Independence in 1947, its population numbered about 340 million. The average life expectancy in 1947 was 32 years. It is a little over 70 years now. The literacy level then was 12 per cent, or about 41 million people. In 2020, India’s population scaled 1.34 billion and the literacy level reached 74 per cent, or about one billion. That is a huge shift in numbers, and a hugely impressive achievement. Never before in history have so many people moved from one to the other. True our numbers are staggering, and hence only one other country can provide a benchmark.

In 1949, China’s population was 540 million and its literacy level was estimated at 20 per cent, or 104 million. In 2020, China also has a population of about 1.34 billion and literacy of 85 per cent, or 1.14 billion. Both India and China lifted almost a billion people each from ignorance of the word to modest knowledge.

Communist China employed a highly mobilised system of government with no restraints on coercion to achieve this, while India did it under a system of voluntary compliance. That is to my mind the biggest achievement of our seventy-five years of Independence.

The intention in 1948 was the have Hindi replace English everywhere. Many notable South Indians such as C. Rajagopalachari even favoured this. But most people across South India and most other non-Hindi speaking areas vociferously rejected it. In this effort, several good years of teaching had been lost. The insistence of the local patriots or regional nationalists on their language also churned up education quite a bit.

The result is a wholly inadequate education system that works in three silos. One is the English medium silo that produces the leadership manpower for government, commerce and industry. The second silo of the Hindi-educated mostly produces the clerical, supervisory, military and police manpower for the foundational levels of society. The third silo of the regional language educated are still battling the odds. The result is India’s huge education sector doesn’t produce the kind of technical skills and entrepreneurial drive that the Han Chinese system does.

At the time of Independence, India’s accounted for only three per cent of the world’s GDP, or about Rs 2.7 lakh crores. In 2021, India accounts for 9.5 per cent of world GDP (Source: IMF), or about $3.53 billion, or Rs 285 lakh crores. India’s GDP this year is bigger than that of its erstwhile colonial master, who mulcted the world’s biggest economy in 1700 to beggar status in 1947. More than that, India now adds 17 per cent to world GDP growth, giving it a considerable economic heft. What is more important is that internal resources drive a good part of this growth. The savings rate has risen from eight per cent of GDP to 31 per cent now, and continues to be on an upward trend despite several recent setbacks.

India produced around 50 million tons of foodgrains in 1947, but it now produces five times that. Clearly, these are big achievements and only the churlish will not give credit where it is due. More important, famine has been abolished from India.

In the last great famine that India experienced back in 1943, four million people died in Bengal, even though most of the credit for it must be given to Winston Churchill and a little to God. By contrast, in the 1965 famine in Bihar, there were no starvation deaths. India has not experienced a famine like that anywhere near that again.

Where credit is due, much blame is also due. At the time when India got Independence the incidence of poverty in the country was about 80 per cent, or about 250 million. When poverty numbers began to be counted seriously in 1956, Prof. B.S. Minhas of the Planning Commission estimated that 65 per cent, or 215 million Indians, were poor. In 2017 the number of people below that same poverty line of 2,200 calories a day was about 269 million, though the incidence has fallen to about 21.92 per cent. Successive governments keep pushing this level down and the present one fixes it at nine per cent. But they have a reputation of conjuring figures to suit a narrative. 

In 1947, agriculture accounted for 54 per cent of India’s GDP. In 2020 it is at about 13 per cent. But at the time of Independence, 60 per cent of India, or about 180 million people, depended on agriculture for a living. In 2020, it is about 52 per cent, or 650 million people. Therein lies the tale of India’s colossal failure to make its tryst with destiny. It still has too many people living off the land.

If India were to be horizontally sliced by income, it can be said to be three overlaid countries. The one below is akin to sub-Sahelian Africa, the one in the middle to the Southeast Asian neighbourhood, barring Singapore, and the topmost layer enjoying the lifestyles and living standards of a middling European nation.

How did we do in these seventy-five years of Independence? Look around us. Clearly, we have done better than most. If you factor the human cost in China, we probably did better than all.

In 1947, India chose to be a full democracy and a nation of equals. It ordained itself to have a government by popular choice with an attendant political economy and all the implied pitfalls. Our founding fathers decided that in such a diverse country, all aspirations needed to be heard and reconciled. Our giant neighbour to the north chose a system where choices were limited to a few.

About this choice, Robert Frost said it best: “Two roads diverged in a wood and I … I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.” Of course, we could have done better in so many different ways. But what is better than being a united and optimistic nation?