India’s relationship with global rankings has always had shades of Jane Austen. Call it pride and prejudice. Each time, there is a laudatory reference, there is euphoria and gushing pride. Each time, we figure at the bottom of any international list, there is near-hysteria and accusations of prejudice.
This emotional yo-yo between excessive pride and prejudicial hand-wringing may have once been understandable. But in 2022, the geo-political and geo-economic situation requires us to be less of Jane Austen and imbibe more of the spirit of a SWOT analysis. “SWOT” is an acronym for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. A SWOT analysis systematically lists an organisation’s greatest strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
One can always cherry-pick indicators that make one look good or better than some other countries. The India of the future, however, will depend on which metrics and indicators we choose to play up, and which ones we try to gloss over.
We should celebrate our strengths and successes. But celebrations without an honest deep dive into weaknesses will continue to derail the possibility of ordinary Indians fulfilling their potential.
Which brings me to two headline-grabbers in recent weeks -- India overtaking the United Kingdom to become the world’s fifth-largest economy around the same time that the Human Development Report 2021–22, brought out by the UN Development Programme, showed that India’s global rankings have gone down. India ranks 132 out of 191 countries and territories in the Human Development Report 2021-22 -- down from 130 in 2020.
Shorn of emotions, what does this mean? Does a low rank mean all is lost? Coming back to the analogy of the SWOT analysis, one must remember that strengths and weaknesses are fluid and they change over time but not without a lot of work.
Opportunities and threats, on the other hand, are external and not always within one’s control. They too are not necessarily permanent.
Look at Ukraine. Against massive odds, and contrary to many expert forecasts, its counter-offensive against Russia notched up significant victories in recent days. Nearer home, look at a country like Bangladesh. In 1971, when it became an independent nation, Bangladesh had a GDP per capita that was the tenth lowest in the world. By 2015, it had reached the status of a lower-middle-income country, and today it is ahead of India on many parameters -- life expectancy, mean child-bearing age --and it has a higher HDI rank.
Now, let’s get back to India. India now has the fifth largest economy but denominators matter. Its per capita GDP is only around $2,500. The corresponding figure for the UK is $47,000. India is also dominantly young. According to the latest National Health Profile, the proportion of population in the working-age group (15-59) years is expected to rise from 60.7 per cent in 2011 to 65.1 per cent in 2036. Jobs are and will be central to this population. This is why strengthening human capital becomes such a pressing issue.
The extraordinary have always done well and will continue to do so.
But a country’s long-term success depends on how its ordinary citizens fare. That depends on the foundation -- education, health, nutrition. Without quality education, food consumption that is not only calorie-adequate but also nutritious, and good health, the vast majority of Indians will find it hard to tap into the new opportunities in the evolving world of work.
It is easy to get lost in the maze of numbers, but let me pick just a few.
India's Global Innovation Index ranking has improved from 81 in 2015 to 46. This is good news. But what does it really mean when India’s mean years of schooling are at 6.7 years. Mean years of schooling (MYS) refers to the average number of completed years of education of a population and is a widely used measure of a country’s stock of human capital. The global average is 8.7 years. Mean years of schooling in Japan is 13; the corresponding figure for Sri Lanka is 11, for Malaysia, it is 10, for Philippines, it is nine, for Vietnam and Indonesia, it is eight.
Impressively, India has lifted a staggering 271 million out of multi-dimensional poverty over the last decade and the country is improving access to clean water, sanitation, and affordable clean energy, the UNDP’s Human Development Report acknowledges. The Jal Jeevan Mission and Swachh Bharat Abhiyan are steps in the right direction. These will contribute towards our strengths. UNDP also notes that India has boosted access to social protection for vulnerable sections of society, especially during and after the pandemic, with a 9.8 per cent increase in the budgetary allocation to the social services sector in 2021-22 over 2020-21.
But the celebration of strengths must not come in the way of a hard look at the persisting weaknesses and gaps that remain.
India lags behind not only in mean areas of schooling but also in healthcare. The latest National Health Accounts shows that while out-of-pocket expenses have come down, they are still higher than global average. India consistently falls short of the goal of its own National Health Policy -- spending 2.5 per cent of GDP on health. Setting up new hospitals mean little unless they are adequately staffed and equipped and an ordinary Indian finds it much easier to access affordable and quality healthcare. And the level of stunting among children under five years in India still hovers around 36 per cent.
“We have been seduced by big mega-projects. These need to be matched by attention to the micro-context and interventions in key areas -- education, health, nutrition and reduction of pervasive inequities on the ground. Those at the top can afford to send their children to exclusive schools, expensive coaching classes. Their children will do well. What about the rest? The Constitution guarantees equality. But we need a more collaborative society in practice which recognises the mutuality of interests”, says P.V. Ramesh, a physician, a former IAS officer who has also worked in many countries worldwide.
Grand narratives hinge on big ideas. But big ideas are most successful when attention is paid to the smallest details affecting the ordinary person. While celebrating the success of Indians who have “made it”, we can’t afford to abandon the rest if India as a country wishes to succeed and be a developed nation. Countries widely viewed as huge success stories today did not wait to become rich to strengthen their foundation. They became rich simply because they focused on strengthening their foundation.
We need to bring the focus back on ordinary Indians and their ease of living.