Location India India

India: midnight’s children reach bitter adulthood

by Supriyo Chatterjee

It is said that for everything that holds true for India, the opposite is equally true. Seventy years into independence, India has returned to the big league of nations, where it was before becoming a British colony. But its achievements cannot conceal the shocking degradation of human life in the country over the past seven decades.

Life is undoubtedly better in independent India. Before 1947, the life expectancy at birth was 32 years, today it is 68.34 years, still very low for such a powerful economy. At independence, 83% of the population was illiterate, today roughly 74% are literate. Although the official figures are consistently massaged, the proportion of people living in poverty is very conservatively estimated at 22%. Per capita income has jumped in these years, the consumption of electricity and consumer goods has gone up like never before and its middle class is awash with wealth and goods.

There are as many as 101 Indians in the Forbes list of the planet’s richest people. India’s richest 10% have become steadily richer since 2000 and now account for about 75% of the country’s wealth. The top 1% is growing rich even quicker, holding almost half the national wealth. Income inequality in India, in fact, has doubled in the past two decades, with a savage capitalism setting in.

The country of three million square kilometres, almost half of it arable, holding the second largest population on the planet and home to at least 18 major languages, each with millions of speakers, also houses the largest number of hungry, poor and illiterate people for any country. The complete failure of the state health sector means that Indians of all social classes are forced into an unregulated private health market, and health care costs are the single biggest reason for people slipping into poverty.

India’s defence budget for 2017 is an estimated $53.5 billion. It is the world’s largest arms importer. It buys three times as much arms from the international market as Pakistan and China, its neighbours and rivals, accounting for 14% of all arms imports globally from 2009-2013. The USA is the largest provider (40%), followed by the Russians (30%) and the French (14%). Israel provides 4% of the imports but is growing in importance. India spends 7% of its budget on defence but only 2.4% of GDP on health and less than 3% on education. Meanwhile:

  • 200m people go hungry in India
  • 1.3 million children die a year before their first birthday
  • 1.6 m children die every year before age of 5
  • 43.5% of all under-fives are underweight
  • Infant mortality rate is 46.07 deaths/1,000 live births
  • Almost half of children drop out of school before 15 years of age
  • Maternal mortality rates are 200 deaths/100,000 live births
  • The top 10% of the population in 2005 had 31.1% of the national wealth while the bottom 10% owned just 3.6% of it
  • Only 46.9% of the total 246.6 million households have toilet facilities
  • Of the rest, 3.2% use public toilets. And 49.8% ease themselves in the open
  • 32% of the households use treated water for drinking and 17% still fetch drinking water from a source located more than 500 metres in rural areas or 100 metres in urban centres
  • 67% of households use electricity
  • 70% of households consist of only one couple
  • Indian families are overwhelmingly likely — 86.6% of them — to live in their own houses, but
  • 37.1% live in a single room
  • 30% of its population lives in urban centres
  • 52% of the labour force is employed in agriculture, 14% in industry and 32% in services.
  • Unemployment stands officially at 9.8%, but the real figure is much higher
  • Cycle remains the primary mode of transport
  • More than 135,000 road accident deaths are reported every year, most of them being cyclists and pedestrians.

India is lovingly described in the mainstream western media as the world’s largest democracy. It still retains the outward sign of a western-inspired liberal democracy with its parliament, its federal structures, its many elections and political parties and the ability of the ruling classes to transfer power among its factions peacefully. This does not mean that its common citizens are guaranteed rights that a democracy would provide. Every day, there are at least four custodial deaths at the hands of the police and in the prisons, the overwhelming majority of it from torture. Millions of people in large parts of India, be it Kashmir, the North-Eastern states or the aboriginal people have little or no human rights guarantees. For them, the repressive colonial state has been modernised, not replaced.

The Indian “economic miracle” and democracy is of limited reach. The main beneficiaries in these seven decades have been the urban, wealthy and upper caste Indians. For the rest, there is now religion on good days, and violence at other times.

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