India, at 50, Tries to Fulfill Promises Still Unkept

As their 'tryst with destiny' continues, Indians realize that while democracy has firmly taken root, they still have a way to go in fulfilling most basic needs of some.

Romesh Chander, an octogenarian Indian Hindu, remembers well the few hours before midnight on Aug. 14, 1947.

For him, the independence of India (and Pakistan) from British rule was born in both hope and sadness, the same feelings he has 50 years later.

Hope was born when Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister gave a radio address that would inspire millions, including Mr. Chander. "The achievement we celebrate today," Nehru said, "is but a step, an opening of opportunity, to the greater triumphs and achievements that await us."

But just hours before that, Nehru had received a troubling phone call from Lahore (which is now in Pakistan), where Chander was living at the time.

Hindus and Muslims who had lived in harmony for centuries were butchering each other the caller told Nehru: His worst fear about the partition of British India into separate Hindu and Muslim nations had been realized. Hatred fueled by fanaticism on both sides had taken hold of subcontinent. Freedom at midnight was to be born in blood.

"Nehru's words were an inspiration.... But what hurts one now is to realize that how little of what he said has been translated into action," says Chander, who was eventually forced to join the millions of Hindus who fled across the newly created border.

Because he lived through those turbulent times, his feelings of pride about India's achievements are sprinkled with sadness and regret. Two generations have passed since that historic moment, and India has developed into a vibrant democracy and a major industrial power.

Today, he realizes that as a Hindu, it would have been fruitless to have stayed on in Pakistan, so deep was the divide at that time.

But as an Indian, he regrets how successive governments in his adopted country have broken Nehru's promises to end "poverty and ignorance and ... inequality of opportunity." "None of us expected any kind of rapid improvement. But we did expect that more measures would be taken to help the weaker sections of society," he says.

Chander is not alone in his mixed assessment of how India has fared over the past half century. Although this country of 960 million has made considerable progress since 1947, there are many areas where the changes have been almost negligible.

Some progress ...

One of India's greatest achievements, says Mahesh Vyas, executive director of the Bombay-based Center for Monitoring the Indian Economy, has been to eliminate the scourge of hunger. "We have gotten rid of the fear of famine and drought," he says."

Not only is India self-sufficient in food and most consumer goods, it has grown to become the fifth-largest economy in the world. Slogans of socialism and central planning have been replaced by the mantras of free market economics.

On the political front, the hegemonic hold of the Congress Party has slipped in favor of regional parties and Hindu nationalists, who are successfully tapping growing frustration with corruption and economic mismanagement.

In the field of foreign policy, India is actively wooing the fast-growing Asia-Pacific region after decades of economic dependence on the old Soviet bloc.

... but also some failures

But there are many areas where the wheel of progress has hardly turned at all. India now has more illiterate people than it had half a century ago, with two-thirds of all women unable to read or write. Just over half the population lives below the poverty line, and 62 million children under five are malnourished.

When ranked according to the UN's Human Development Index, India's largest state, Madhya Pradesh, occupies the same rung as Rwanda, 174 out of 175.

Economists drafting India's first five-year plan in 1951 confidently predicted that the country's real per capita income would double within 25 years. It has yet to reach that target.

"What has happened in respect of social inequality and backwardness is very nearly a disaster," says Amartya Sen, an Indian-born professor of economics at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "A disaster not in the sense of something going suddenly very bad, but something remaining extremely bad without there being any change in it."

End of socialist economy

Most economists now agree that India should have adopted a labor-intensive, high-growth industrial and agricultural strategy. Like the tiger economies of East Asia, says former Finance Minister Manmohan Singh, India should have also paid more attention "to improving standards of health and education as well as developing an effective family-planning."

India's galloping population-growth rate (approximately 17 million people, the equivalent of one Australia, are added every year) is only one of the many problems India will have to tackle over the next 50 years.

Economic growth, which has been running at an impressive 7 percent since the mid-1990s, is threatened by acute infrastructural bottlenecks, a legacy of decades of skewed government priorities. The present finance minister, P. Chidambaram, estimates India needs around $150 billion over the next five years to upgrade its telecom, power, and transport sectors.

But local capital required for such investment is scarce and foreign financiers have been put off by a series of policy backflips, unstable central governments, and an impenetrable bureaucracy.

Although the foreign investment has increased from around $100 million in 1990 to more than $2 billion in the last six years, it pales into insignificance when compared with the $30 billion China gets annually.

But if India's economic miracle is now looking more like a mirage, its commitment to democracy is as solid as ever, despite the declaration of a state of emergency in 1975 and the assassination of two prime ministers.

India's 590 million voters have shown a great degree of political acumen. They have thrown out governments they consider incompetent or corrupt in largely peaceful ballots recording an average turnout higher than in US polls.

The most remarkable aspect of the last 50 years has been the continuing faith of India's impoverished masses in the democratic process says Rajni Kothari, chairman of the Delhi-based Center for the Study of Developing Societies. "For the poor and deprived it is only through the democratic process that they feel their condition has any chance of improving," says Professor Kothari, who sees this rise in political consciousness as one of the great hopes for India.

His assertions are borne out in a recent opinion poll that found that 95 percent of Indians surveyed believed in the value of democracy.

Pull of regionalism

For people like Chander, however, the greatest challenge in the years ahead will not simply be remaining a democracy, but managing the pulls of regionalism.

"I see India 50 years from now as becoming a loose federation where individual states will have much more say in how resources are allocated and how they are managed. If they are given a great deal more autonomy, then I don't see India splitting apart," Chander says.

Successive governments have done all in their power to preserve India's unity, fearing that if one square inch of territory was to break away, the country would split along religious and ethnic seams.

But there are now signs that the strong pull of regionalism is gradually being accommodated within the existing political system. The 1996 general election saw regional parties walk away with one-third of all parliamentary seats. For the first time ever there is a coalition central government made up largely of state-based parties.

But satisfying the aspirations of the country's nearly 2,800 ethnic groups, speaking 321 languages, and worshipping the gods of a dozen different religions will require more than a willingness to share the fruits of economic growth.

The country's present leaders would do well to remind themselves of the advice Nehru gave to their predecessors exactly 50 years ago.

"If we do not realize the importance of our responsibilities, then we shall not be able to discharge our duties fully," he said. Poignant words on an auspicious anniversary.

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