The author of Midnight’s Children is in the news, and the memory of that original chiming of the clock forms our starting point for this special commemorative edition of india today. I might preface this by recalling that I almost belong to that generation, having been born three years before our Independence and that too in Lahore. My family went through the agony of Partition when their whole lives were uprooted. I was too young to recall the early years of free India, but I can imagine the joy of the people at being unshackled from colonial rule after 190 years and emerging as a democracy. Indians have endured tyranny of some form or the other for hundreds of years.
Therefore, the fact that we have survived for 75 years as a democracy, in however flawed a form, is cause for celebration. I regard this as one of the miracles of modern history. The sheer diversity would have made the odds seem insurmountable. The 29 states that we have today, which devolved from the British-ruled provinces and 584 princely states, speak 30 major languages and hundreds of minor ones. That’s as complex as any continent. We are a Europe, so to say, and it took two major wars and another five decades for that continent to achieve some sort of union—that too with just one-third of our population. For the past 47 years that I have been in journalism, I have witnessed 12 general elections, countless state elections and a dozen prime ministers taking office, but our army has never come out on the streets and taken over the government.
If you trace an arc from Turkey to Japan, every country within that gamut has been through some kind of dictatorship or monarchy. Most African countries that came out of colonialism also descended into some form of totalitarian rule. Here in India, despite the centrifugal pull of language and ethnicity, we have not needed the iron hand of a military junta to stay together as a country. Often the more apathetic ones amongst us take this for granted—it’s only when you lose your freedom that you realise how valuable it is. Think of the people voting during elections, queueing up in the rain and cold and killing heat. They intuitively know the value of their vote because it empowers them and enables them to bring about a change of government without any force. Despite all the political chaos that we see around us, India’s polity is one of the most stable in the world. It is the most precious gift given to us by our freedom fighters. We need to cherish this and be truly grateful that we still have this right.
In these 75 years, India has made significant economic progress, although in fits and starts. The record of GDP growth for the first four and a half decades was dismal. They were the wasted years of the Indian economy as India’s first prime minister took the socialist route, a legacy that continued till 1991. India’s GDP growth rate registered an average of 3.5 per cent per annum till 1980. Derogatorily dubbed the Hindu rate of growth, it was the result of licence raj and the planned economy, which were miserable failures. It is difficult to imagine that we lived in a time of shortages where you had to wait for years to get a car, scooter or landline connection. In the 1970s, when I got my first paycheck, the maximum marginal rate of tax stood at 97.5 per cent (although I was not in that bracket). Such regressive taxation, along with other levies such as wealth tax, gift tax and inheritance tax, was probably why Indians got into the habit of generating black money. From the 1980s, growth accelerated—on an annual average of 6 per cent in the 1990s and around 5.5 per cent between 2000 and 2019. During this period, we had some mini-revolutions, which fuelled our growth.
There was, to start with, the IT boom built around outsourcing that began in the 1980s, followed by the automotive revolution that started with Maruti, and then by many foreign companies setting up shop here. Since the early 2000s, there has been amazing growth in telecom and digitisation, where India is leading the world, and the opening up of the financial sector to foreign investment. In these 75 years, India’s contribution to global GDP has grown from less than half a per cent to 3.5 per cent, while the world economy has grown from $9 trillion to $95 trillion. In terms of purchasing power parity, India has become the third-largest economy in the world. Today, we are in a sweet spot. The world is looking to move its supply chains away from China. It is for India to capitalise on this opportunity.
I BELIEVE IN INDIA, AND ITS PEOPLE. THEY ARE TALENTED, ENTERPRISING AND RESILIENT. GIVEN AN ENVIRONMENT WHERE OFFICIALDOM IS AN ENABLER, NOT OBSTRUCTOR, THERE'S NOTHING WE CANNOT ACHIEVE
Nevertheless, even after achieving and retaining universal political freedom for 75 years, we have not liberated all our people from poverty. At the time of Independence, India’s population was around 350 million and, being a poor country, we had over 200 million living below the poverty line. Despite over seven decades of economic development, which saw per capita income grow from a meagre Rs 365 to Rs 128,829 (still low by world standards), we continue to have over 240 million people living below the poverty line. Indeed, the population of the poor has dropped from 80 per cent to 20 per cent, but we still have as many poor people as the population of Indonesia. Also, the official definition of the poor is quite pathetic. A person who spends more than Rs 33 per day is not considered poor.
This, however, is not to detract from the enormous progress India has made in economic development by vastly improving the availability of basic necessities like food, housing, electricity, schools, water, roads and toilets. All this has resulted in life expectancy doubling from 32 years to 72 and the literacy rate more than quadrupling from 18.33 per cent in 1951 to the present 77.7 per cent.
The fact is that India straddles many centuries simultaneously. The country is divided into three layers. Experts say the upper crust has gotten wealthier over the decades. They have wellpaid jobs, inhabit fancy dwellings, drive posh cars, travel abroad, own the latest gadgets and send their children to private schools. Generally, they live the life of the upper middle class of a developed country. According to the World Inequality Report 2022, the top 1 per cent in India hold 22 per cent of the national income and the top 10 per cent own 57 per cent of the wealth. Think of them as a privileged club of about 50 million.
Below that is a vast middle class, stratified into many layers. It is a broad swathe starting from the bottom end of the first category to those who lead barely adequate lives, just about living from EMI to EMI, from month to month, if not exactly hand to mouth. They struggle to pay the bills and simultaneously fund their children’s education, but they have a roof over their head, plumbing, water, electricity, and all the basics. This segment is estimated to be about 400 million, more than the population of the USA. It is these two segments that drive India’s consumer economy.
Under them, forming the broad base of the pyramid, are our urban slums and many of our villages, where people live hand to mouth on their daily income. This is the largest segment consisting of 900 million people. Almost one-third of them live without reliable access to water, electricity, toilets or modern health facilities. This huge mass of our citizens suffers from a complete lack of equal access to life opportunities—thus, any means to improve their lot. Dark systemic inertia keeps them in a place where children grow up stunted for want of proper nourishment. The numbers are getting less stark, but very slowly. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2022 report, conducted by a clutch of UN agencies and released in July, said the number of undernourished Indians had declined by 10 per cent over 15 years—but still to 224.3 million—in 2019-21. This is a shameful statistic for any country to have. This tragedy, too, is part of India. Therefore, the next 25 years must be unequivocally about economic growth and equity.
In this special issue, we look back at our passage through the decades with pictures and statistical snapshots of then and now— and celebrate our milestones in infrastructure, our remarkable progress in science and technology, agriculture and defence, our exotic tourism locations and exuberant cinema, and all the rest of what makes us tick as a people. But we also temper our enthusiasm with the sobering facts.
I believe in India. I believe in the people of India. They are talented, enterprising, creative, aspirational and, above all, resilient. Given a conducive environment where officialdom is not an obstructor but an enabler, there is nothing we cannot achieve. India has its own momentum and is changing rapidly. We have overcome food shortages, survived five wars, an Emergency, communal riots, separatist movements, terrorism, currency devaluation and demonetisation, venal politicians and chaotic politics. India is bigger than any party or politician. As we have seen in the past, it has its own self-correcting mechanisms. We live in a unique country. Let us celebrate our diversity and protect our hard-won freedoms.