By Promod Puri
Republic Day on January 26 is an official colossal event in India every year to celebrate the adoption of its constitution marking the nation as an independent democratic republic. How the country looks after all these years since its Independence from the British Raj in 1947! Although, the statistics have changed as this article was written a few years ago, the overall picture of India remains the same. Maybe not! Especially when there has been quite an ideological transformation to reweave India’s social and secular fabric in the last just over four years.
The cliché that India is a country of extremes when explored make it so complex and contradictory that all the realistic but conflicting arguments and statistics just balance out each other.
And that leaves a juggernaut of overviews or images of the country, making it one of the most complex and hard to discern societies in the world.
The extremes of India can be as high as Himalayan peaks. Or these can be as deep as the Indian ocean. They cover all the aspects of the nation and its mass of 1.21 billion people brimful in the space of 3214 kilometers from north to south and 2993 kilometers from east to west.
These billion-plus people, growing at the rate of 1.34 percent per 2011 estimates, speak over 185 different languages. Twenty-nine of these are categorized as “official.” That means each one of them has over one million native speakers.
The linguistic breakdown continues with countless dialects as part of the family of each of the official languages. The plethora of languages and dialects result in multi- multicultural distinct communities retaining their ethnicities in India’s democratic environment.
In addition to the linguistic and cultural divide, India’s population is further splintered along the world’s major and minor religions. These religious affiliations are then sub-divided into hundreds of regional and ethnic sects.
Hindus dominate the religious demography with 80.5 percent of the population. Hinduism has the maximum number of sects within it. Muslims form the second largest group with 157 million followers. And that earns India the distinction of having the third-largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia and Pakistan.
India is the birthplace and cradle of four religions namely: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. Christianity touched its soil about 2000 years ago, almost at the same time, it entered Europe.
Whereas the religious, linguistic, and cultural plurality in the country seeks peaceful preserve under the nationalistic jingle of unity in diversity, occasional bursts of communal riots dampen that spirit.
But the realities of contemporary India lie in its voluminous changes and no change at all. It is a wide-open scene of extreme disparity in all fields and occupations along with overwhelming and mind-blowing figures, which offer cheers as well as despairs.
Among the top stars of the shine-India parade are the 57 Indian billionaires out of 1210 in the world. Per the Forbes annual list of ultra-rich, their net worth ranges from one billion dollars to 22.4 billion.
The Indian billionaire club membership includes industrialist Mukesh Ambani. He is top on the Indian list and 9th in the global rank. His $2 billion vertical palace has, besides luxurious features, quite a view of the reality of India at ground zero.
The place is a scene of sprawling slums whose dwellers represent 41.6 percent of India’s population living below the new international poverty line of $1.25 (purchasing power parity) per day, reveals the World Bank.
Leaving aside the Ambani family and the rest of the billionaires as their personal achievements, the nation itself produces impressive economic growth figures.
As such, India’s economy at $1.632 trillion is the 9th largest in the world by GDP (referring to the market value of all the goods and services produced in the country), and at $4.057 trillion is fourth-largest by PPP. The country’s GDP growth is being maintained at around 8 percent, while GDP per capita is $1371 with inflation at 9.72 percent.
India’s total merchandise and services import and export trade is worth $606 billion, and it has amassed $308.62 billion as a foreign reserve in the last decade or so.
The country, once “the brightest jewel in the British Crown was the poorest nation in the world regarding per capita income,” is now considered an economic powerhouse.
But the other side of the coin is, as per the World Bank figures, 75.6 percent of the country’s population is living on less than $2 a day (PPP) and where over 315 million people with their 50 cents a day income eat their hard-earned daily bread squatting on floor as dining chair and table are luxury items for the poor.
Despite the fact, the poor in India dispense 80 percent of their income on groceries; the spending does not buy them nutritive and protein-rich food.
India has the highest number of malnourished people, at 230 million, and is at 94 of 119 in the world hunger index. Forty-three percent of India’s children under five are underweight, the highest in the world.
The UN estimates 2.1 million Indian children die before reaching the age of five every year, which is four every minute.
Malnutrition often linked with diseases like diarrhea, malaria, and measles is due to lack of access to healthcare and medical services which are related to the problem of poverty.
On the poverty scene, India remains at an “abysmal rank” in the UN Human Development Index, it is positioned at a 132nd place in the 2007-08 index.
India does not hide poverty. Or to be more explicit it can’t.
Thanks to its vibrant and alert democratic system which allows social activists and groups, and the media to openly raise the plight of poor, their sufferings, exploitations, and struggles in the developing as well as stagnant India.
Whereas the poverty scene is quite extensively debated politically and socially, the government itself provides the statistics. And that is one bureaucracy which has earned its reputation internationally.
There are thousands of organizations in the country and a few political outfits exclusively working on many fronts to help the poor and creating awareness of the opportunities available to advance this section of the society to acceptable living standards. Thus, India currently upgrades 60 to 70 million people from the poor to the middle class every year.
An estimated over 300 million Indians now belong to the middle class, one third have emerged from poverty in the last 10 years. And with ambitious expectation, at the current rate majority of Indians will be middle class in 2025.
The question is who belongs to the middle class or how much income is needed to get into this section of the society.
The demarcation is so elastic that the World Bank has stretched it from $4500 to $20,000 per household per year. Whereas, an Indian agency, the National Council for Applied Economic Research, has limited the figure to $4000. And even some say an earning of just $1000 per household of four persons per year is ok to belong to the middle class.
For that inexact and somewhat ambiguous definition, the middle class can be divided into lower-middle-class, middle-middle-class, and upper-middle-class. Together this burgeoning part of the population is the major booster to the country’s economy exerting its influence on most aspects or facets of India.
The country is bursting with expansion on all fronts. With the ever-increasing population, India faces huge problems and huge challenges to meet the growing needs of its people whereby a mere glance at statistics provides some clues to discern the nation.
LITERACY AND HIGHER EDUCATION
In the field of education, despite its tremendous expansion, 25 percent of the population is illiterate. Only 15 percent of Indian students reach high school and just seven percent, graduate.
The 2011 census reveals “every person above age seven, who can read and write in any language, is considered literate.” As such, 75 percent of Indians are literate.
The higher education system in the country is the third-largest in the world. India has about 240 universities, three of them namely the Indian Institute of Technology, the Indian Institute of Management, and the Jawaharlal Nehru University, are listed among the top 20 varsities in the world by the Times Higher Education list.
There are hundreds of medical and engineering colleges churning out tens of thousands of graduates every year. Besides, there are as many polytechnic institutions, and thousands of primary and secondary schools dotting the country all over.
Still many of these learning places are running under-funded and under staff in shabby and disappointing conditions. In a recent study of 189 government-run primary schools, 59 percent had no drinking water, and 89 percent had no toilets.
India is on the move. Its rail network is the largest in the world with 63,465 kilometers of rail tracks. It is the fourth heavily used system in the world transferring over six billion passengers and over 310 million tons of freight annually.
The colossal rail system connects practically every nook and corner of the country. Still, there is a chronic shortage of trains which are mostly jampacked, and even offer a familiar scene of commuters riding on roof-tops of rail compartments.
The roads network is the third-largest in the world with 3,320,410 kilometers’ length including some recently completed national and regional highways. While most others are still very old, extremely narrow, and very poorly maintained. The latter are the backbone of local and inter-city transportation where except for airplanes, all other types of vehicles, from bullock carts to Mercedes and Jaguars run side by side along with two-wheelers, three-wheelers, cyclists, vans, buses, trucks, etc.
In a typical urban scene, pedestrians and moving vehicles share the street along with stray dogs and cows. And it seems everybody has the right of way. It is a matter of maneuverability as to how to get out of the traffic jams in India’s extended rush hours which start early in the morning till late evening seven days a week.
There is a lot of road construction and improvement going on all over India and that includes building new highways and flyovers to ease congestion. The star of modern India’s transportation infrastructure is the so-called Metro passengers-only rail which is amazingly very efficient in its operations and unbelievably clean including the tracks and stations.
Despite tremendous progress in the infrastructure, India has a poor record of road safety, around 90,000 people die from road accidents every year, and that is about 13 persons every hour.
Certainly, rails and roads dominate the Indian transportation system, but air travel is perhaps the fastest growing sector in the country with over half a dozen domestic airlines compared to only one not long ago.
As we move on to realize and comprehend India, corruption, black money, and unethical, dirty and criminally polluted politics blight the country giving a message of hopelessness if the nation will ever cure itself of these ills.
In 2010 India ranked 87th out of 178 countries in Transparency International’s corruption perception index. Corruption is the vehicle by which most of the bureaucracy at all levels of government move or resolve issues. Perhaps one of the biggest contributors to this aspect of the Indian economy is the trucker community who according to Transparency International pays $5 billion in bribes annually to get moving.
India’s black money or underground economy is estimated to be $640 billion in the year 2008, and certainly, it is growing thru corruption and under the table deals. Some news reports claim that “data provided by the Swiss Bank Association Report 2006, showed India has more black money than the rest of the world combined”.
The Swiss Bank Association as per its 2006 estimate suggests that India topped the worldwide list for black money with almost $1,456 billion stashed in Swiss banks, this amount to 13th times the country’s total external debt.
With those whopping sums of black money, it sure feels like “India is a rich country filled with poor.”
With corrupt and black money, there is the criminalization of politics as the nexus exists among criminals, politicians, and bureaucrats. Criminals enjoy the patronage of politicians of all parties and the protection of government functionaries. Gang leaders have become political leaders, and over the years, criminals have been elected to local bodies, provincial assemblies and even to the national parliament.
The corruption, the black money and the contaminated politics in the country along with pathetic and deplorable widespread poverty, while being denounced, resented and protested, are at the same time accepted as inevitable norms in the country. And these issues are as much tolerable as the open garbage littering the streets of India. Still, life goes on despite being intentionally ignored as visible realities.
However, equally striking realities are the whopping increase in cell phone subscribers and internet users running into millions. There are impressive, exciting and trendy big shopping malls. Several lanes modern highways, freeways, and flyovers are changing the urban and countryside landscape. Many five to seven stars hotels with fluently English-speaking staff; latest models of luxury cars and in plenty the visible realities.
Famous brand name expensive clothing and most household accessories; millions of barrels and bottles of finest wines, whiskeys, and scotch; multistory commercial and residential buildings with ultra-modern amenities and luxurious decor, and skyrocketing real estate values which are among highest in the world add to the cultural and architectural scene of modern India.
The whole landscape of urban India looks different not only in physical outlook, but the affluence has brought quite a change in the social culture of people as well. The American and European culture seems to be part of the Indian cultural mosaic especially among the young, educated and well-paid professionals and the business people.
That is the new reality of contemporary India which is represented by the rich and the middle-class sections of the population, but that creates an illusion that the nation is a land of enormous prosperity. And this illusion is reinforced by the media thru their various programming, commercials and advertising whereby India looks spotlessly clean, and people are quite well off and happy.
The current disparities, contrasts, and extremes of present-day India offer both apprehensions and challenges for the nation.
And keeping in mind the ever-growing demands of its surging population along with limited resources and limited land area, the Indian political, social and spiritual activists and leadership along with its educated and well-informed bureaucracy and intelligentsia, all must redefine to replace the popular concepts of progress, development and the standards of living, otherwise, the present insane race to seek super economic power status will eventually be disastrous for India and its environment.
The goal is to seek an egalitarian society with an even overview of India with fewer gaps between its extremes.
(Promod Puri is a journalist, writer, and author of Hinduism Beyond Rituals, Customs, And Traditions).