The hungry nation

By T S R Subramanian  (24 November 2017) –   India’s international financial rating was recently upgraded by Moody’s — a decision which recognises the reforms and structural changes initiated by the present government. A recent survey of the Pew Research Center refers to the immense popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi within the country — clearly indicating the high expectations citizens have of him. Both pieces of news have been rightly welcomed in the country.

However, the nation can’t pick and choose. It can’t say that all favourable reports are true, but deny the existence of unfavourable reports or claim that those are inimical to India. For instance, the Pew Research Center, some time back, had concluded that Indian school standards are among the worst in the world. Recently, the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) released the 2017 Global Hunger Index (GHI), in which India ranks 100 among the 119 countries studied. The country’s rank, in fact, had fallen by three places compared to 2016. Though these significant bits of information were not discussed much in the media, some sections close to the authorities ridiculed the Hunger Index, referring to it as a “half-truth” and questioned the credentials of IFPRI. A few others said the index really measured levels of malnutrition, stunting etc, and not “hunger”, clearly missing the essential point of the survey. In the 2017 Hunger Index, India falls behind war-ravaged Iraq, and the international “outcast”, North Korea. Only two countries in Asia — Afghanistan and Pakistan — are below India in the ranking. India is now ahead of only countries such as Sierra Leone, Madagascar, Chad and Yemen, all “one-party” democracies otherwise seen as dictatorships.

In recent months, a number of international and Indian studies have corroborated the GHI report. A World Bank report referred to the illiteracy rates in India; Thomas Piketty wrote about the top 0.1 per cent of India’s population having the same share of growth in income as the bottom 50 per cent; ASER has consistently referred to abysmal primary and secondary schooling standards; repeated studies on nutrition, and child mortality in India establish the critical situation in this regard. Clearly, there is no shortage of reminders of the terrible condition of the “common man”. It is no coincidence that the countries at the top of every economic and social index in the world are closely identified with high-quality education, public health and nutrition. The nation should stop fooling itself. The delusion that India is an aspirant to be a “world power” is like a donkey dressing itself up, imagining that it is a race-horse.

The current precarious social and human conditions were not created in a day — these are the wages of a corrupt political system, where the spoils were appropriated by a select few who ran the country during the past five decades, pursuing disastrous policies, deliberately with poor implementation to suit the needs of the ruling classes. Major changes relating to human affairs, including in education, infrastructure, public health cannot take place in days or weeks, or even years. As it is now, no one in the country will miss the ministries of education, public health, environment, childcare and agriculture at the Centre or the states if they are abolished. Surely, it is early to blame the current government for the disastrous situation the country finds in, but the current inaction will force them to own up the situation in a couple of years.

Major economic policies have been ushered in in the recent past. Demonetisation symbolises the formal recognition of black money — no country can afford to have a parallel economy eating its vitals. The GST, with all its teething problems, can transform the economy within five years. The Digital India programme, despite its current tardy implementation, can turn the administration efficient. These are valuable and significant steps, and have withstood concerted opposition from vested interests. However, major reforms in the social sector are yet to be ushered in. As and when it happens, trust entrenched interests to attack them.

There is inadequate recognition that the common man’s needs have to be the priority of a democratic government. Even a superpower will not remain stable if the bottom 25 per cent of its population lives in penury. There is not enough recognition of the power of the informal sector, currently numbering six crore, as a change agent, and the critical importance of making resources available to them at non-usurious rates. There is no awareness that primary and secondary education can be a major change agent in 10 years, if there is genuine reform. In short, with the technology available today, the country can be transformed in ten years — but this can’t be done just by speeches, and with good intentions alone.

It is the social sectors — education, public health, nutrition etc — which need the direct attention of the highest manager of the country. Policies concerning these sectors need to be reformed and necessary resources have to be provisioned to usher in change.

The writer is a former Cabinet Secretary. This article first appeared in The Indian Express.


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