Opinion Columnists 27 Sep 2022 Sunanda K. Datta-Ray ...
Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a senior journalist, columnist and author.

Sunanda K. Datta-Ray | The other side of life in the 5th largest economy

Published Sep 28, 2022, 12:05 am IST
Updated Sep 28, 2022, 12:05 am IST
India has 1.4 billion people against the UK’s 68 million. Even a low per capita income adds up to an impressive total. (Photo: Twitter)
 India has 1.4 billion people against the UK’s 68 million. Even a low per capita income adds up to an impressive total. (Photo: Twitter)

The jubilation over India’s GDP outstripping Britain’s is a reminder that Indians often take pride in records that should rightly be ignored or even sometimes treated as a matter of national shame. The quality of Indian life is exposed not by a tycoon or two strutting on the world stage but by India’s fall from 131st to 132nd among 191 countries in the UN Development Programme’s latest Human Development Index.

“Proud moment for India to pip the United Kingdom, our colonial ruler, as the fifth largest economy: India $3.5 trillion vs the UK $3.2 trillion”, gushed Kotak Mahindra Bank’s managing director, Uday Kotak. Given the tortuous history of Indo-British relations, the glee was understandable, but he did not gloss over the reality check of the “population denominator”.

India has 1.4 billion people against the UK’s 68 million. Even a low per capita income adds up to an impressive total.

However, such window-dressing serves little purpose if the shelves behind are either empty or display only a few tawdry goods. It was an impoverished India that produced the richest man in the world, not a politically blest Adani or Ambani, but Mir Osman Ali Khan, the seventh Nizam of Hyderabad. It’s a measure of India’s continuing destitution that 18 million persons from India living outside the land of their birth not only constituted the world’s largest diaspora population (bigger than those of Russia or China) in 2020, but whose $87 billion remittances top the global list. It is way ahead of the $53 billion that expatriate Chinese and Mexicans send back, the $36 billion remitted by Filipinos or the Egyptians’ $33 billion.

It is a standing joke in the Persian Gulf, where labourers from India, Bangladesh and Egypt often outnumber locals, that the temperature never rises above a certain point, no matter how frantically the mercury might sizzle. The cut-off point is where the law orders air-conditioning for all migrant workers’ accommodation. I pointed this out when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appointed me to a committee on the Indian diaspora. My intervention was not welcomed by the other members who were all high- powered officials.

But as Ruth Michaelson reported in London’s highly-regarded Guardian newspaper of August 18, 2017: “Nearly 70 per cent of Kuwait’s population is made up of migrant workers, many of whom power the near-constant construction of new office complexes and malls across the state. Though labour legislation now bans work outdoors between 12 pm and 4 pm, many are seen toiling through the hottest hours of the day regardless.”

She wrote about the large numbers of “labourers on a building site close to Kuwait international airport working well past the 12 pm deadline in 47 degrees Celsius heat. Climbing on scaffolding amid the skeleton frame of a future shopping mall, some tried to take shelter in the shade available, as others swigged from bottles of water to cool down. The irony: they were installing air-conditioning”.

The contrast between reality and the myths that Indians are encouraged to
believe was first brought home to me when I was 16 and living in England.

Seeing a disused gas light connection, an older English boy asked if we had
many of them at home. Seeing his question as a put-down, I angrily repeated a common boast of the time: “Calcutta is one of the biggest cities in the world!” My friend was scornful. That meant people, he sneered. It didn’t mean amenities.

That contrast cropped up again in the 1990s when everyone basked in the glory of 300 million middle class Indians. US President George W. Bush fed that fallacy because, as he told the Asia Society, the United States could sell so many Whirlpool washing machines and Domino’s pizzas to India’s rising middle class. But was it rising?

The Congress politician, Mani Shankar Aiyar, said once that he invented
the 300 million figure out of the top of his head in answer to a journalist’s question. He may well have done so for there did not seem to be any statistical evidence for the claim.

India’s is a lop-sided society. Although agriculture absorbs the most workers, services are the major source of growth. Due to its educated, English-speaking workforce, India has also become an important centre of information technology services, business outsourcing and software workers.

Yet, this major source of global labour ranks the lowest among 52 countries assessed for key indices of migrant inclusivity in 2020, according to the Migrant Integration Policy Index.

It doesn’t seem to concern us that a Credit Suisse Wealth Report says that
China will create millionaires more than seven times faster than the United States in five years through 2026. The era when Time magazine portrayed the Nizam on its cover demonstrated the hollowness of such claims.

But it is of great concern that a fall in life expectancy from 69.7 to 67.2 years while female life expectancy dropped from 71 years to 68.8 years is blamed for India slipping a place in the HDI rankings.

It is also a matter of shame that many neighbours have fared better. Sri Lanka is 73rd in the UNDP list, China 79th, Bangladesh 129th and Bhutan 127th. The worse-off countries include Pakistan (161st), Nepal (143rd), and Myanmar (149th). True, the trend is not confined to India, and the UNDP records that “for the first time on record, the global HDI has dropped for two years in a row, taking the world back to just after the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement.” But contrary to the boasts of our leaders, India does not seem automatically destined to lead a world that is dazzled by its meteoric economic performance.

Its modest record places India in the medium human development category
of countries. The world’s fifth-largest economy according to nominal GDP
and the third-largest if purchasing power parity is taken into account, India
ranks 142nd by GDP (nominal) and 125th by GDP (PPP).

The answer lies in avoiding bombastic promises, squandering less money on military extravagances like American drones, harping less on fantasies like Digital India, and focusing far more on the mundane daily needs of a neglected multitude. “We have miles to go”, Mr Kodak urged his countrymen. “Let’s be at it!” There could be no more sage advice than that for a nation in the making.

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