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Freed From Independence

India now has a higher proportion of the world’s poor and is home to fully a third of the world’s extremely poor.

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Independence Day unleashes new torrents of self-congratulation both in India and among overseas Indians who march in celebratory India Day Parades throughout America, the Caribbean, Africa and Europe. But what are we celebrating 66 years on? The demons of the British Raj have long been exorcised; can we turn now to our own.

In his celebrated “Tryst with Destiny” speech at the stroke of midnight on 14-15 August, 1947 — the moment “an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance” — India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, spoke movingly of the anguish and challenges that freedom bequeathed. His speech was noticeably devoid of the nationalism and jingoism that marks contemporary Independence Day celebrations.

“The achievement we celebrate today is but a step, an opening of opportunity, to the greater triumphs and achievements that await us,” Nehru said. “Are we brave enough and wise enough to grasp this opportunity and accept the challenge of the future?”

 

Nehru did not trumpet, as smaller men now do, India’s spectacular economic growth, or industrial development, or god forbid, the number of millionaires or billionaires in the country. He lay down but one marker: “The service of lndia means the service of the millions who suffer. It means the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease andinequality of opportunity.”

So, 66 years on, what is that score? The World Bank reported in a study, “The State of the Poor: Where are the Poor and Where are the Poorest?” released in April 2013, that while the number of people in extreme poverty worldwide declined from 50 percent to almost 20% between 1981 to 2010, India now has a higher proportion of the world’s poor and is home to fully a third of the world’s extremely poor. India’s share of the world’s poorest people has grown from 22 percent in 1981 to 33 percent in 2010. India is home to 400 million of the 1.2 billion people in poverty.

Did you know that India is the second-fastest growing major economy in the world, after China?

The 2011 Global Hunger Index (GHI) report identified India as one of only three countries among the 81 countries it rated where the GHI between 1996 and 2011 actually went up from 22.9 to 23.7. The 2012 UN Human Development Index places India at 136th rank. It ranks 94th of 119 in the World Hunger Index. The World Bank estimated that “About 49 percent of the world’s underweight children, 34 percent of the world’s stunted children and 46 percent of the world’s wasted children, live in India.”

But… India has the 15th largest number of millionaires in the world — nearly 153,000, according to Capgemini. Credit Suisse projects that the millionaire population in the country is all set to balloon to 242,000 by 2017. We even have 55 billionaires. Imagine!

Imagine also, that in 1947, India’s per capita income at $619, was 38% higher than China’s, which stood at $439. By 2012, China’s per capita income was fourfold India’s — $6,091 v $1,489.

Economists and politicians may bicker over whether the post-Independence socialist model or India’s current liberalization regime is responsible for our conundrum. But whatever the causes, can we at least pledge during the parades this Independence Day, as Nehru pledged 66 years ago, that “as long as there are tears and suffering, so long our work will not be over.”

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Commentary | Politics | August 2013

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