Has India really ‘risen’ or ‘emerged’? US President Barack Obama, on his first visit to India, regaled his Indian hosts with both these laudable terms. But despite the obvious delight at the characterizations, and although India’s economic growth is an extraordinary story, his comments may have been a bit premature.
A handful of relevant statistics underscore why India’s policymakers may not wish to bask in the glow of these adulatory remarks quite yet. According to even the most conservative estimates, close to a quarter of India’s population—or nearly 400 million people—live on less than $2 a day. According to the United Nations Development Programme, meanwhile, India has the highest number of malnourished children in the world. Maternal mortality statistics are worse in India than in Bangladesh and Pakistan.
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Consequently, robust economic growth, while a prerequisite for significant poverty reduction, is simply not enough to ensure that significant numbers of India’s citizenry aren’t left trying to eke out a miserable existence that robs them of their dignity. More to the point, as India seeks to assume a greater role in world affairs commensurate with its growing economic might, its policymakers can’t afford to remain oblivious to the plight of these segments of the country’s populace. Indeed, India will have to forge foreign economic policies that take into account primary education, basic health care, sanitation, rural and urban infrastructure and, above all, food security.
Unless India is capable of addressing the many ills that plague significant portions of its population, facile descriptions of India as a ‘risen’ or ‘emerged’ power will provide nothing but superficial comfort to those whose most fundamental human needs continue to remain unaddressed in many parts of this vast and complex nation.