More on India’s Future

Stephen DeAngelis

April 27, 2007

Last month I wrote about how India’s infrastructure (or lack of it) is adversely affecting its ability to develop as rapidly and productively as it would like [India’s Future]. I concluded that there is a mixed picture in India. Some areas are prosperous, but other areas are poor and terribly undeveloped. I noted that proper investment in education is needed to generate a bright, healthy, and hardworking labor force that will be attractive to businesses. I further noted that public/private partnership investments in India’s infrastructure are needed to make India a more efficient place to do business. Finally, I noted that investment in good governance and transparency is required to make India a beacon in Asia and the hope of billions of people now struggling in poverty. New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, found exactly the situation I described during his recent visit there [“In Its Match with China, India Penalizes Its Own Team,” 24 April 2007]. Kristof writes:

“India is stirring after many centuries of torpor, and it has a chance of ending this century as the capital of the world, the most important nation on earth. You see up-and-coming cities like Hyderabad or Ahmedabad, and it’s easy to believe that India will eventually surpass China. But here in rural Bihar state in northern India, there’s no economic miracle to be seen. And it’s difficult to see how India can emerge on top unless it takes advantage of its greatest untapped resource: its rural population.”

Kristof describes villages without electricity, schools without teachers, and hospitals without equipment or doctors. Although these are all infrastructure challenges, they all represent a lack of investment in people. Kristof reports:

“That’s a common problem: the government pays for schools, clinics or vaccinations, but someone pockets the money and no education or health care materializes.”

Corruption is an evil that corrodes both the soul of the perpetrator and the fiber of society. The even greater tragedy is that corruption most often takes advantage of the impoverished because they have fewer tools in their kit to protect themselves from it. In addition to corruption, Kristof reports that malnutrition is robbing the poor of their future. He laments:

“Then there’s the toll of malnutrition. India has more malnourished children than any country in the world and one of the highest rates of malnutrition, 30 to 47 percent, depending on who does the estimating. Those malnourished children suffer permanent losses in I.Q. and cognition, and are easy prey for diseases. There is some evidence that widespread malnutrition lowers economic growth in affected countries by two to four percentage points a year.”

Despite all these problems, Kristof remains cautiously optimistic about India’s future. He predicts that America’s children will be studying more in Hindi and Mandarin and less French and German if they want to be connected to the greatest economic opportunities in the future.

“So in the middle of this century, India will still be held back by its failure to educate, feed and vaccinate its children today. This failure will haunt India for many decades to come. Sure, China has many similar problems, with growing gaps between rich and poor and an interior that is being left far behind. But rural Chinese schools provide a basic education, including solid math and science skills. India’s boom is real, and its overall growth rate puts India right at China’s heels. Its middle class is expanding, governance is improving, and the transformation is one of the most exciting things going on in the world today. The 21st century will belong to Asia, and young Americans need to study Asia, live in it and learn its languages. … In the great race of this century, the race to see which country will lead the world in 2100, I’m still betting on China for now. I’m having my kids learn Chinese, not Hindi (or Indian English, a remarkable language in its own right). Until India’s economic boom becomes much more broadly based, and until Indian schools manage to teach their students, this country will continue to waste its precious brainpower and won’t achieve a fraction of what it should.”

The problem, of course, is that if you are not keeping up you’re falling behind — and India is falling behind China. It must be discouraging for India’s leaders when they look at the size of its population, the vastness of its territory, the plethora of its challenges, and the limited resources it has. To succeed, India’s challenges must be addressed both from the top down and the bottom up. Nobody cares about your problems like you do, so those most affected must be empowered to address the challenges they face. That empowerment will come from local leaders, businesses, religions, NGOs, community groups, and families as well as the national government. The old question asks, “How do you eat an elephant?” And the answer always remains the same, “One bite at time.” That is exactly how India must tackle its challenges.