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India's Poor Showing on Development Indices Punctures BJP's 'Viksit Bharat' Claim

Despite India becoming fifth largest economy and being home to the world's richest, a vast population still lives without basic amenities, and it is ranked 134 out of 195 countries on human development index.
Representational image of Mumbai. Photo: Bernard Gagnon/Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0.

Not long ago we received WhatsApp messages where the Union government sought suggestions for building a Viksit Bharat (a developed India). It got us thinking about how to make our Bharat a Viksit Bharat, but to do so we have to understand how Viksit (developed) is Bharat currently. We cannot answer the former without understanding the latter.

Before one proceeds, an essential question must be answered: What is Bharat? Former prime minister  Jawaharlal Nehru in his book The Discovery of India examines the question as to who is “Bharat Mata” when we proudly proclaim “Bharat Mata ki Jai”. Nehru reminded us that Bharat is not just about the land, its rivers, its mountains, its fields that nourish us and are dear to us all; Bharat is ultimately about the millions of people spread out all over our beloved country. Victory to her means victory to its people; Bharat cannot be Viksit without its people.

For evaluating people’s development, human development should be a key parameter. The Human Development Report (HDR) 2023/24 ranked India 134th out of 193 countries, just a rank up from the previous 135th rank it had secured in 2021. It is important to note that from 2015 to 2022 India’s HDI increased by just four ranks. India still ranks lower than Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Bangladesh in terms of HDI. It seems that India’s so-called economic growth has not translated in terms of human development which reflects people’s capabilities and wellbeing.

Also read: Human Development Index: India Ranks 134th, Falls Behind Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and China

India has now become the fifth largest economy, but India’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita (Current Prices, 2024) as per International Monetary Fund (IMF) is just 2,850 USD, while it’s more than 100,000 for Luxembourg, Ireland Switzerland and Norway. India ranks 149 in terms of GDP per capita (at market exchange rates). With almost three-fourths of the economies ahead of India in terms of per-capita income, India is very far from being Viksit.

The narrative of transformative economic growth rate too falls short of the previous government. Former governor of the Reserve Bank of India Raghuram Rajan has also emphasised that it would be a mistake to believe the strong economic growth hype. Above all the quality of GDP data has also come under the scanner. Also, the recent remarks of an 8% growth projection for India by Krishnamurthy Subramanian, executive director at the IMF, was later clarified by IMF not representing views of the IMF, but in his role as India’s representative at the IMF. No official IMF projection for India’s likely growth for the next five years exceeds 6.5% per year.

The poverty reduction (to 5% or less, forget the elimination of absolute poverty) as per the Households Consumption Expenditure Survey seems nothing but a whitewash. For one, the rate of increase in the per-capita consumption falls short of the previous government. Secondly, it seems that the survey is conducted with samples drawn from landed aristocrats from rural areas and urban elites with high-end cars. Now to estimate poverty from such a sample would simply be an absurdity.  Further light on poverty estimates can only be shed after the government releases the unit-level data.

The economic parameter where India has shown remarkable progress is income inequality. As per the working paper Income and Wealth Inequality in India, 1922-2023: The Rise of the Billionaire Raj published by World Inequality Lab, a global research centre focused on the study of inequality and public policies, has stated that 22.6% of the national income of India in 2022-23 went to the top 1%, which is the highest in the last 100 years. India’s income inequality is amongst the highest in the world.

On one hand, India is home to the world’s richest, on the other hand, we have a vast majority who are not able to access the basic amenities of life. As per the National Family Health Survey (2020-21), 69% of Indian households use improved toilet facilities, which are non-shared facilities that prevent people from coming into contact with human waste and can reduce the transmission of cholera, typhoid, and other diseases. While India declared itself open-defection-free in 2019; without universal access to toilets, can India be truly called an open-defecation-free country?

Multiple Indicator Survey (2020-21) states that only 62% of households use LGP as the primary fuel. Still, the government through, State-Owned-Oil Companies highlight Ujjwala Yojna’s success of distributing gas cylinders without the security deposits. Having a gas cylinder at home is not quite the same as having the means to afford the use gas cylinder. Half of the rural households still use, firewood, wood chips, crop residue and dung cake as primary-source of energy used for cooking. Rural households are still not free from smoke.

On a similar line, as per the NFHS 5 (2019-21), just 58.6% of the households were using clean fuel for cooking. Thus, the tall claims of the government regarding sanitation and LPG coverage did fall flat.

As per the NFHS 5, 35.5 of children under 5 years are stunted (height-for-age), 19.3% of Children under 5 years are wasted (weight-for-height) and 32.1% of the Children under 5 years are underweight (weight-for-age) and 67.1% of the Children under 5 are anaemic. Similarly, 57.0 of women aged 15-49 years are also anaemic. Thus it is no surprise that India ranks 111 out of 125 countries in the Global Hunger Index. While India could refute the global ranking, one could not refute the findings of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 5. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare had to form a panel to study the adverse findings of the NFHS 5 report, as it ran counter to the national narrative government’s success.

The “fastest growing large economy in the world” also has among the world’s highest Youth unemployment rates (at 44% for 20-24-year-olds, CMIE). Just one-fifth of the workforce is engaged in the regular-wage and salaried jobs. On account of stalled structural change, there has been a massive increase of nearly 60 million workforce in the agriculture sector in the intervening period of 20017-18 to 2022-23. At the same time, annadatas income was supposed to be doubled, but has it doubled? The government has fought the idea of a “Minimum Support Price” for 23 crops tooth and nail, let alone provide a legal guarantee to MSP.

It is important to revisit India’s tryst with destiny, a solemn promise made on the eve of independence. Bharat that is India is all about its people, what will a ‘5 trillion dollar economy’ mean for the poverty-stricken, if in becoming the fifth largest economy it has also become one of the most unequal countries on this planet.

For this, the mantra by Bapu will ever remain eternal to the governance. “Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man (women) whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to Swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions?

Santosh Mehrotra is a Visiting Professor at the Centre for Development Studies, University of Bath, UK. Rakesh Ranjan Kumar is a Senior Research Fellow at the International Institute for Migration and Development, Kerala. 

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