Friday, 18 January 2013

A wake-up call for the political class: India at the crossroad

Dr. Devendra K. Kothari
Population and Development Analyst,
Forum for Population Action

Wishing you a New Year filled with New Hope and New Beginnings!

No doubt, the people of India are angry. As 2012 made its exit, tens of thousands of ordinary people, mostly young girls and boys, converged around India Gate not only to protest on behalf of a 23-year-old student who was brutally gang rapped and assaulted by a group of men in a moving bus in the heart of the capital of India – New Delhi but also to shake the political class out of its deep slumber to draw attention towards harsh reality of emerging India – extreme poverty, low status of women, poor quality of education and pathetic governance and low and order.

In fact, things are going from bad to worse. India’s rank in the latest UN’s Human Development Report has fallen from 123 in 2001 to 134 out of 187 countries and territories in 2011. Further, India is simply not doing enough for its women either. The Global Gender Gap Report 2011, released by the World Economic Forum, reveals a stark and deep rooted gender gap in India. The country has fallen from 96th rank in 2006 to 113th in the last 6 years. In addition, recent studies paint a grim picture of education, posing the risk of eroding the long-term competitiveness of World’s fourth largest economy. A study by the Programme for International Student Assessment found that out of 74 countries, Indian school students at the higher secondary level ranked almost at the bottom, with only Kyrgyzstan faring worse than India. In yet another wake-up call for policymakers, the 2011 Annual Status of Education Report of Pratham recoded sharp decline in reading and mathematical abilities of children in the 6 to 14 years age category studying in rural India. Today, more children are going to school but what they are learning is not clear. Can they get any job in the market if they continue such education? Can industry get the professionals it is looking for?

All this is a rather   shameful reflection of the prevailing conditions in a country that is said to be on a growth song, and indicate that India is heading towards an unstable situation of extreme danger or difficulty that could lead to despair, social instability, political strife, policymaking paralysis and capital flight as well as a rapid collapse in growth rates. It appears that efforts made over the years to improve the quality of life have partially been neutralized by neglecting some basic issues. The next General Election is around the corner and our political parties are organizing or will organize some sort of     'Chintan Shivirs’ or brain storming sessions to work on a roadmap to win the election. In the changed situation, the measures like MGNREGA, the Food Security Bill or Direct Benefit Transfer scheme, Free Medicine, Free Electricity for Farmers, etc. will not provide balm. In fact they are hurting development. All these, to a greater or lesser extent, are examples of outdated populist measures to win the elections. The political class has to accept the fact that things have changed especially the voter profile and requirements.  As such, the political class has to keep pace with the changed situation and   focus on real issues[1].

One has to recognize that population is an important factor in development, especially when it is growing seemingly out of control since it leads to a significant diversion of national investable resources to consumption which could otherwise be used for increasing investment and productivity and for improving the quality of public services. India’s population has grown from 361 million in 1951 to 1210 million in 2011,  and is still growing by around 17 to 18 million every year. India’s population is projected to peak at 1700 million in 2060. The galloping population growth is mainly fueled by unwanted fertility. More than four in ten pregnancies are unintended/unplanned or unwanted by the women who experience them and half or more of these pregnancies result in births that spur continued population growth.  Around 26.5 million children are born in India every year and out of this about 6 million births have been classified as unwanted. It is estimated that around 450 million people out of 1200 million in India who are product of unwanted pregnancies, and most of them are from the lower economic strata. The consequences of unintended pregnancy are serious, slowing down the process of socio-economic development as well as process of change, and  is being  reflected in widespread hunger, poverty, unemployment, regressing governance as well as increasing scarcity of basic resources like food, water and space despite concerted developmental efforts since 1991.

Now question arises why unwanted childbearing? While India is witnessing galloping  population growth, 15 million currently married women in the reproductive ages in 2011, mostly in poor performing States, seek to postpone childbearing, space births, or stop having children, but are not using a modern method of contraception (that is having unmet need for modern contraception). Often, these women travel far from their communities to reach a government health facility, only to return home “empty handed” due to shortages, stock outs, and/or non availability of doctors and paramedical staff. When women are thus turned away, they are unable to protect themselves from unwanted/unplanned pregnancies.   Thus, there is an urgent need to revamp reproductive   heath services. 

India is simply not doing enough for its women to improve access to resources and freedom of movement as well as improving decision making power.  There is an urgent need to rethink as how to expedite the process of women empowerment in a patriarchal and traditional society with innumerable obstacles.  After the Delhi gang rape murder, crimes against women are engaging national attention like never before, and there is greater demand for effective crime prevention, strict implementation of law and expeditious justice delivery.  But this alone is not going to help. Let us not construe the problem so narrowly. To deal with a problem that has roots in social behavior and prejudice, mere legislation is not enough. To achieve the long-term vision, however, one has to create an environment where sons and daughters are equally valued.  For this, women must have access to education and training along with economic empowerment through property rights, favorable credit and entrepreneurial support as well as opportunity in paid employment. Insuring reproductive rights[2] and better living conditions could be another effective way to empower women in India.

Available data indicate that   sub-human living conditions haunt people[3].  Only 47% of households have source of water within the premises while 53% of households travel more than half-a-km in rural areas and more than 100 meters in urban areas to fetch their supplies in 2011.  This problem is further compounded by lack of access to sanitation. About half of total households in India still defecate in open. This situation is particularly piquant for women and girls.  It is estimated that around 290 million women in India in 2011, the worst sufferers of open defecation, continue with the age-old practice even after 20 years of economic reforms. In addition, only 28% of the households use LPG as a cooing fuel, and around two-thirds of total households have electricity as the main source of lightening in the country. This is a very sorry state of affairs for the country, which basks in its success as a growing business and technological mecca.

Another issue which needs equal attention is quality of education.Many Indians including policy makers believe that India has an inevitable advantage in its young “human capital”. Can India take advantage of this demographic window in the next couple of decades and garner its benefits? Unless education is rescued from quagmire of mediocrity, all talk about developing a skilled human resource pool and realizing the country`s demographic dividend will be without substance; and the country would be inching closer to demographic disaster. Many schools, especially government schools do not have enough classrooms, teachers and basic facilities such as toilets and water.  As such, investment in education has to be increased to improve the quality especially at the government schools and colleges where most of the students are from poor and rural families.

The political class is facing a very perplexing dilemma. It has arrived at a decisive movement of history where it must choose between the antiquated and dynamic options available to it. It is time that we take cognizance of the fact that antiquated measures does not help anyone.  As the country’s voter profile increasingly turns young, the political class has to focus on real issues to satisfy the interest of women and youth. And that would definitely be a rallying point to win the confidence of growing young population. As such, the political class or parties must adopt gender-sensitive and youth-driven agendas to spread reproductive health, education, infrastructure and economic opportunities to equip ever-larger numbers of youth not only for gainful employment and grassroots entrepreneurship but also deepen the democracy via inclusive growth, other wise India may soon witness the Tahrir Square like protests[4]. Hope the political class is listening!

[1] In this connection, see newspaper article by Jug Suraiya “For a Change”, Times of India, January 16, 2013.  Also see  post by author:  “To beat the gloom, India needs to focus on real issues” at link:,   dated January31,  2012

[2] For details, see Kothari, Devendra. 2012. “Empowering Women in India through better Reproductive Healthcare”, in Sheel Sharma and Angella Atwaru Ateri (eds.) Empowering Women through Better HealthCare and Nutrition in Developing Countries, New Delhi: Regency Publications, 2012, pp 68-86.

[3] See post on: “Quality of life and living environment in India” dated September 30, 2012 by the author at the link: Also see article by the author “West Bengal: Household amenities with special reference to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and their implications”, UNICEF West Bengal, Kolkata, 2012.

[4] The Tahrir Squar was the focal point of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution against former president Hosni Mubarak.


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