The Dream of ‘An Asian Century’

24 January 2005

As we celebrate India’s fiftyfifth Republic Day, we should take a dispassionate look at the country’s achievements and failures. This is particularly necessary in view of the increasingly fashionable assertion that India is about to "arrive" as a Great Power and a leader of the coming "Asian Century". The term is used in the same sense in which the Twentieth Century was called the American Century. Look at some euphoric predictions.

In October 2003, investment consultancy Goldman Sachs forecast that by 2040, BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) will emerge as economies bigger than the US, Japan, Germany, France, UK and Italy collectively. Now, National Intelligence Council, a CIA think-tank, predicts that by 2020, India and China will "transform the geopolitical landscape" with their robust economic growth and military capabilities. This has generated a gung-ho mood amongst many Indian policy-makers and –shapers.

Before looking at the future, it’s necessary to summarise our past performance. This, by any standards, is modest, at best moderate. Over the past 55 years, India’s real per capita GDP has annually grown by 2.1 percent—by no means a dramatic rate. Despite growth, India saw its share of world output and trade shrink—in the latter case, from 2 to 0.6 percent. Average life-expectancy improved more impressively, from 38 years to 64 years. But this was attributable more to growing availability of modern medicines, especially vaccines, than to an across-the-board improvement in health and quality of life.

More than half our people still live in want and poverty, which prevents them from developing their basic human potential. India’s literacy rate has improved from 18.3 percent to 65.4. Yet, there are more illiterate people in absolute numbers than India’s entire population 55 years ago. India’s food production has almost quadrupled. Yet, recent per capita availability has been less than 50 years ago and of the same level as during the World War years, during which the Bengal Famine occurred.

Half a century ago, India held out great promise—of reinventing itself as a modern, egalitarian society free from blind faith and particularly odious and crippling aspects of social hierarchy, such as caste oppression and discrimination against Dalits, women and religious-ethnic minorities. It still remains mired in rigid casteist hierarchies. Superstition and religious dogma are spreading. Anti-Dalit discrimination persists, as does ruthless exploitation of the labouring poor. Women’s oppression remains pervasive and the minorities are menaced by militant Hindu-majoritarianism. A modern middle-class has burgeoned. But a majority of Indians remain in social bondage and economic servitude. In many aspects, today’s India is more divided and unequal than 55 years ago, with some of the highest indicators of income and regional disparity anywhere.

India’s greatest achievement is the stabilisation and energisation of its democracy, which has brought hundreds of millions of hitherto-excluded people into public life. No less important are our social movements, with their rich traditions of people’s self-organisation, innovative protest and daring questioning of power. An important component of India’s democracy is self-assertion by subaltern layers, especially Dalits and Other Backward Classes.

There is growing realisation that democracy must be open to the voiceless: the weak matter. The underprivileged Indian has time and again humbled the powerful by voting them out of power. In roughly three-fourths percent of all elections in three decades, ruling parties have lost to their opponents, who in turn are voted out in the next contest. Few Third World societies, and not many First World countries, match India’s record as a democracy—despite its aberrations.

Over the last two decades, India’s GDP growth has accelerated, to 5-to-6 percent a year—although its population growth eats into a third of this. This acceleration has created the delusion that a bright future awaits India despite its rulers’ failure to address the basic wants of the people, like land reform, employment, food, shelter and drinking water. Eight percent GDP growth is the latest mantra to create a prosperous, "developed" India.

Assume for a moment that India does grow at 8 percent. Even so, over the next 30 years, India’s per capita income will only rise to about $5,100 (from $ 460 in 2001). This is only a fraction of the US’s current level of $34,280, Japan’s $35,610, Western Europe’s $20,670, Singapore’s $21,500 or even South Korea’s $9,460. A majority of Indians will still be poor.

In aggregate size, BRICs might overtake the developed economies—provided many optimistic assumptions materialise. But their people’s incomes will still be far lower. There is a 1:20 income-differential between China and the developed world. There’s no way the China can make up the gap in a lifetime—even if it grows at a scorching 7 to 8 percent, and there are no ecological limits to such growth. The second assumption is dangerously mistaken. The earth’s resources cannot support a Western consumption pattern for the whole globe. Indeed, even OECD countries must cut back on their consumption.

The NIC’s latest report too is full of doubtful assumptions, including that the world economy in 2020 will be about 80 percent larger than in 2000, and per capita income 50 percent higher. This presumes that such growth is possible without catastrophic effects like global warming and that global petroleum consumption can grow at least as fast as GDP. (Expert opinion says global oil output has all but peaked.)

Even more dubious are the NIC’s political conclusions: China and India’s rise as Major Powers will be similar to the emergence of unified Germany at the end of the 18th century, or the US a century ago; and second, with Brazil and Indonesia, China and India will "render obsolete the old categories of East and West, North and South, aligned and nonaligned, developed and developing". Germany’s rise coincided with the colonial epoch in which Europe dominated the world more completely than any group of Powers does today. Similarly, the US’s ascendancy preceded the First World War and Europe’s ruin. That condition is missing. A century ago, today’s developed countries followed growth-paths of their choice, including protection of industry, not to speak of colonial plunder.

The second proposition is downright preposterous. The average North-South income differential has tripled over the past 50 years. Today, the world's 500 richest billionaires have more wealth than the total annual earnings of 3 billion, or half the global population. The top 200 multinational corporations control more money than all the world’s countries together barring nine. It’s also hard to see how India and China will become the world’s technology leaders. Most indicators, including the general state of their science, education, number of patents held, and IT capabilities, don’t support such rosy assumptions.

We need a more sober view of India’s (and China’s) likely future than the NIC’s analysis along the SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) model. This model is meant to help the White House prepare for "probably challenges" and "to extend its advantages, particularly in shaping a new international order... " But we should know better: India will emerge as a major global player only if it manages its social and political problems wisely and gives its people a stake and share in growth.

We must remember the larger reality relevant to people. High GDP does not mean a better life or more jobs for them. India’s 5-to-6 percent growth is not producing enough jobs. The organised-sector workforce has actually shrunk during each of the past five years. It shed 4.2 lakh jobs in 2001-02, and now accounts for a mere 7 percent of total employment. Today, it has 9.1 lakh fewer jobs than in 1997.

The fall hasn’t been made up by the informal sector, in which employment has annually risen by just 1 percent over the past decade. The population growth rate is almost double this. Over one-and-a-half decades, overall employment growth in India has decreased from 2.7 percent annually to just 1.1 percent. In the past, an additional output of 10 percent meant 6.8 percent more jobs. Today, it means only 1.6 new jobs—a shocking 76 percent decrease!

Just over a year ago, we witnessed a terrible spectacle. Indian Railways held recruitment tests for Category-D employees. There were a mind-boggling 55 lakh valid applicants for a mere 20,000 positions of khalasis/gangmen, the meanest of all Railway jobs—a ratio of 275 candidates per job. The competition was so fierce that candidates physically prevented "rivals" from other states from reaching examination halls. Over 50 people died in the orgy of violence in Maharashtra, Bihar and Assam.

That’s not the kind of growth we want. That model spells unspeakable social regression. This is precisely the kind of cesspool of inequalities, disparities and discontent in which extreme Rightwing politics thrives. Nazism and Fascism couldn’t have triumphed in Europe without the havoc wrought by the Great Depression.

This Republic Day is a good occasion to dedicate ourselves to a basic task: meeting elementary needs of all Indians, and build a compassionate, inclusive society in which citizens’ welfare counts more than Reasons of State. Only such an India can serve as a world model.

Copyright 2005

About the authors

Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a political columnist, social science researcher, and activist on issues of human rights, the environment, global justice and peace. He currently holds the Durgabai Deshmukh Chair in Social Development, Equity and Human Security at the Council for Social Development, Delhi, affiliated to the Indian Council for Social Science Research. 

A former Senior Editor of The Times of India, Bidwai is one of South Asia’s most widely published columnists, whose articles appear in more than 25 newspapers and magazines. He is also frequently published by The Guardian, Le Monde Diplomatique and Il Manifesto.

Bidwai is a founder-member of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (India). He received the Sean MacBride International Peace Prize, 2000 of the International Peace Bureau, Geneva & London. 

He was a Senior Fellow, Centre for Contemporary Studies, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi. Bidwai is the co-author, with Achin Vanaik, of South Asia on a Short Fuse: Nuclear Politics and the Future of Global Disarmament, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1999, a radical critique of the nuclearisation of India and Pakistan and of reliance on nuclear weapons for security.  

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