India grappled with a different reality 75 years ago, when our forefathers first took the reins of the country from our colonial overlords. A much more sombre reality. A divided country left nursing the wounds of a partition, existential problems such as extreme poverty, incumbent colonial structures, corruption, untouchability, gender discrimination, and communalism, all tugged at the coattails of a nation that had audaciously made its claim for independence. Yet, 75 years hence, India is a different country. With changing times, India has made strides in many walks of life where it has justifiably held its head high, while in others it hangs in shame. This is a short report card of things that India has gotten right and things where it lags woefully behind. Such an analysis cannot be wholly comprehensive, there are issues where we see none still. But here are just a few that we feel have had the most definitive impact on the persona of our nation. As we move forward, we need to celebrate the good work with as much gumption as we adapt and address those that have been ignored for over seven-and-a-half decades.
When India gained its independence in 1947, it was a country that was besotted with many problems, but amongst the foremost was the inequity of representation. There was more uncommon than common among us, divided by languages, colour, creed, religion, aspirations, and social status. Our forefathers, in their great wisdom, hoped to make amends for our historic past and chose to adopt a constitution with which to govern the state. As a result, Indians were allowed to exercise their universal adult franchise to vote for their leaders in the general elections every five years. With only a sliver of hope and the scorn of the rest of the world to keep them going, India decided to embark on a journey to reclaim its rightful place in the world. It was thus with great difficulty that India managed to conduct fair and independent parliamentary elections for a large part of the country’s future success story
While India grasped at unity even in the face of separatist movements, and the world battled fascism, communism, and dictatorships, India’s immediate neighbourhood suffered from instability and military coups. Yet, India persevered with the blotted exception of a National Emergency during 1975-77 when the citizens’ fundamental rights remained suspended. Today, India is the world’s largest and youngest democracy, with equal voting rights for men and women alike. India has become a beacon of the world, where the citizen is the maker of his/her own destiny, in what can easily be described as the greatest social experiment ever conducted. Today, women have emerged as the largest political bloc in the country, turning out in greater numbers. We have had a woman prime minister, many opposition leaders and two women presidents. Women make up 14.6% of the MPs in parliament today. Leaders have come from the very bottom of our society. In fact, our current President hails from a tribal background.
This democratic framework is not without contentious law and order issues, corruption, and social and economic issues, but India has largely maintained its lofty social justice ambitions. As recently as in 2020, the US, the oldest democracy in the world, struggled in the face of insurrections and tainted elections, India thus fared much better, with more to hope for. In the 2019 General Elections, 267 members were first-time MPs, providing representation far beyond the plaguing nepotistic reality of the Indian polity.
The looming crisis of the 21st century is climate change. India, while harbouring its developmental ambitions, has for long ignored this incoming catastrophe. Our environmental policies have also lacked teeth. Our lofty ambitions aside, no country in the history of the world has ever had to deal with twin transformations simultaneously — high competition and long-term sustainability. But to ignore one for the other is suicidal. Numbers really put this stark reality into perspective. As per a Lancet study from 2019, air pollution in India accounted for 1.7 million premature deaths in 2019, i.e., around 17.8% of the total deaths in the country during the year. This human loss in economic terms translates to about US $37 billion annually, or 1.36% of India’s GDP. The World Bank predicts that climate change could force more than 100 million people into extreme poverty, while the WHO says that climate change could cause 250,000 deaths per year between 2030 and 2050. These numbers are, however, just the tip of the iceberg.
While civil society efforts such as Sadhguru’s #SavetheSoil programme engage stakeholders beyond the 5-star activism, other government-led schemes such as the National Electric Mobility Plan 2020, pursuit of energy efficiency, the Ujjwala Mission aimed at LPG penetration, and the banning of single-use plastic in the country are rightly paving the way. In fact, India today has the fourth largest installed renewable energy capacity in the world, the world’s largest floating solar plant and is now on its way to blending 20% ethanol in petrol to reduce carbon emissions. Other programmes such as Swachh Bharat, Namami Gange, etc., and the extension of sanitation coverage from merely 1% in 1947 to 99% in 2019 are hopeful steps in the right direction.
But, as PM Modi grimly reminded us from the pulpit of the Red Fort yesterday, the more we do, the more we need to do to keep up with our goals. For India, this is both a necessity and an opportunity to prove its mettle and show true global leadership, even as it plays catch up against lost time. India needs at least $1 trillion over the next decade to undergo a green transformation. But not everything needs to be driven from the centre. The states actually have a more important leadership role to play. For example, in 2020, Sikkim announced itself as a 100% organic and plastic-free state. Similarly, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Lakshwadeep Islands have been classified as generating 100% of their electricity from renewable sources. There remains hope, but it’s a race against time even as we pay dearly for the lost opportunities of the past.
India is a country where the more you do, the less it seems. This is especially true in the case of human rights, which have for long been something of a topic to be ashamed of. If you were to check out the Freedom in the World ranking on political rights and civil liberties by Freedom House, for example, India is considered “partly free.” Similarly, the New York-based Human Rights Watch regularly slams India and Amnesty International has had to shut shop in India for being embroiled in rampant FCRA violations. If the World Press Freedom Index 2020 is to be considered, India is at rank 142. But keeping the often weaponised aforementioned indices aside, India has made significant contributions to human rights for the world, not just India, that are often selectively brushed aside.
To begin with, the very development of human rights owes a little something to India. Smt Hansa Mehta, a staunch feminist, educator, social reformer, and freedom fighter, not only was one of the 15 women who helped draft the original Indian Constitution, but was also one of the most significant advocates for the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the UN. Ms. Mehta has been credited with replacing “All men are born free and equal” with “All human beings are born free and equal” in the original 6-page document that holds the Guinness World Record for the most translated book ever with more than 500 language translations, including in sign language. Her fight for changing just one word had the most transcending impact, recognising gender-equality for the world, recognised by none less than former Secretary Generals Ban Ki-Moon and Antonio Guterres on the floor of the UN. Female emancipation was thus ingrained in the Indian constitution.
India has fought for her women and their political representation in both politics and social welfare. India’s had countless female MPs and CMs, cabinet ministers (Finance, Defence, External Affairs, Health etc.), Prime Minister, and Presidents. India breaks the stereotypes and has fought hard for girl-child education, women's rights, and even abortion laws at the grassroots. It goes without saying that we haven’t reached where we'd want to, but the idea is no longer on the back burner. If PM Modi’s independence day speech setting the vision for the next 25 years is anything to go by, women's empowerment will be one of the biggest cornerstones of India’s rise to the top. And with good reason too, as the impact of gender equality in 2025 in India is estimated to be $700 billion, i.e. an increase of the country’s GDP by a massive 27%.
India has much to celebrate. Whether celebrating the fundamental rights as enshrined in our constitution, the inclusion of the Right to Education, the enactment of the Right to Information, the establishment of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act or even the abolishment of the archaic Sec 377 that once banned homosexuality in India, the list goes on and on. The ruling party is mulling over even dispensing with the Brit-era Sedition Law, a bane for human rights activists around the world. As much as there is to be done, India has its heart and mind in the right places, and for that it must be commended.
For a country that is soon to become the world’s most populous nation, public health remains woefully ignored. Even though in the last seven-and-a-half decades, India has managed to eliminate pandemics such as small pox, yaws, and polio, the last big public health crisis during the second-wave of COVID-19 in 2021 revealed just how much more needed to be done. Easy access to oxygen cylinders, a scarcity of hospital beds and ventilators, and poor last-mile medicine delivery were just a few of the realities that had the public and medical experts on edge. The Indian public health system has been plagued with structural weaknesses since 1947, chiefly due to political apathy and faulty budgetary prioritisation.
Even today, India spends a pittance on its public health needs—a mere 1.29% of the GDP (in 2019-20), which is lower than most other countries. In fact, such was the gulf between what we have and what’s needed that the finance minister, Nirmala Sitaraman, increased the allocation to health in the 2021 financial budget to about $30 billion, a straight up doubling of previous allocations. This, however, is still not enough. What we need is for the ‘Right to Health' to be declared yet another of our fundamental rights, something that was proposed by a high-level group on the health sector constituted under the 15th Finance Commission in 2019. India has international commitments to legal treaties and conventions that are binding with regard to citizens’ healthcare. Yet, we fall severely short as we continue to struggle with malnutrition, low immunisation rates, hygiene, and sanitation. Life expectancy in India today has leapfrogged to 70.8 years from 32 years in 1947, a remarkable feat given the current global average of 73.3 years. Yet, the healthy life expectancy of 60.3 years, as per the World Health Statistics Report from last year, places India last amongst Southeast Asian countries. In India, health budgets include not just medical operations and processes but also water, sanitation, nutrition, and air pollution, which take away huge chunks of the allocated budgets. As India adds to the middle-class with each passing year, so does the number of those suffering from lifestyle and mental health diseases that are alarmingly reaching almost epidemic levels.
In what can be the biggest miss of all, it is the health of women and children that has remained high for several decades. Although the success of the National Rural Health Mission in 2005 has stymied this increase, the maternal mortality rate today is still at 113 per 100,000 live births when compared to the global goal of 70. These are just a few of the reasons why healthcare is a big problem for the Indian nation. We are making changes now, but we need to do far more to ensure we avert crises that occur as black swan events in an increasingly unpredictable world.
India’s growth story, from a beaten down nation sucked dry by the British colonialists on the eve of August 15, 1947, to the fastest growing economy in the world in 2022, is one of the best thrillers that could ever be inked. The country began its journey on the banks of Nehruvian Socialist Economics, modelled on the erstwhile Soviet model, but uniquely adapted to a 'mixed economy'. The legacy of those economic policies would riddle a young nation with bureaucratic red tape, unbridled state control, an archaic licence raj and a protectionist environment that treated entrepreneurs as perennial outsiders. Coupled with an overreaching nationalisation of industries, rapid industrialisation, high inflation, and famines, India needed a few miracles to save the day. Those came in the form of the Green and White Revolutions that put India on track to eventually achieving its food security decades later.
Then India got embroiled in wars that quite nearly brought it to bankruptcy. After that began a period of great political uncertainty, the Soviet collapse, and a balance of payment crisis that forced India to go to the IMF and humiliatingly pledge its gold as collateral. This was the biggest turning point in the economic life of the country as it opened up to liberalisation. Since then, India has steadily improved with a healthy rate of growth and gone on to become a $3.04 trillion economy, making it the 6th largest economy by GDP and 3rd largest by PPP.
Along the way, India faced many shock and awe moments, such as during demonetisation, when countless Indians stood in long queues to exchange the now defunct old currency notes of 500 and 1000 rupees, introduction of the GST; and even the COVID 19 pandemic shutdown. We faltered, but continued with confidence with robust schemes such as “Make in India.” India is the pharmacy capital of the world, accounting for over 50% of the global demand for vaccines. The IT industry has clocked revenues of over $196 billion in revenue, while tourism contributes to over 9.2% of the GDP. Our telecommunication industry is the world’s second largest by the number of mobile phones, smartphones, and internet users, and our PM has set his sights on making India a “developed nation” in another 25 years. Our foreign reserve coffers overflow. We have a lot to be proud of as we relook at taking our place in the comity of nations. For much of history, India has been the world’s largest economy. With the right push, India looks to relive those glory days. “Sone ki chidiya” will fly.
Of the many systemic problems that India suffers from, the stalling of police and judicial reforms may actually have the greatest ramifications for the way that our democracy functions. Both come loaded with legacy issues and stymie the smooth functioning of our institutions at large.
It is well known that, according to the constitution, law and order is a state subject. The federal structure of our nation thus ensures that policing is often incompetent and influenced. To put such a sweeping statement into perspective, as per the latest revelations, there are only 144 police officers for every 100,000 citizens, making India’s police force one of the weakest in the world. The police to-population ratio lags far behind most countries; in fact, the UN recommends a ratio of 222. Being a cop in India isn’t easy: you need to not just enforce daily law and order but also conduct long term criminal investigations. To add to the woes, the police force is under-resourced and overburdened. The issue of police reforms has been discussed at length, but the sole reason that it hasn't been flagged off is a lack of political will. There is often a nexus between criminals, politicians, and the police. Also, most crimes today are either related to finance or technology. As time goes by, Indian police systems need to reform not just to be sensitised to the public at large but also to keep up with the changing nature of crime and law and order.
Another issue that is mostly spoken about in hushed tones is the urgent need for judicial reform in India. Indian courts suffer from both internal and external criticism. Court cases linger for decades, almost half the judicial benches remain vacant, there are issues of nepotism and corruption, and the current collegium system is known to be very opaque. While the reformation of the judiciary is the one issue that even the Opposition vehemently supports, the most resistance comes from the judiciary itself. Twice, the directives for basic reformation have been discarded at the feet of the court, and in recent times, confidence in the system has been shaken. It is imperative that for us to progress as a society, our courts continue to be impartial, predictable, consistent, and accountable. No other “institution” takes as many holidays as the judiciary does. I.e., the courts take 238 days of holidays, i.e., 7.9 months in a year, even as 60,000 cases languish in the courts. Judicial reforms are a need of the hour.
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