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India at 70 - reflections by UEL international development academic Dr Meera Tiwari

Students in discussion

A native of India, Dr Tiwari has mixed thoughts on India's present and future

As an Indian woman and academic focused on international development, India’s independence day is a cause for celebration and pause for thought. I was born and raised in Lucknow, the birthplace of India’s first movement for independence in 1857. 

Nehru’s famous ‘tryst with destiny’ speech just before the clock stuck midnight to usher in August 15 1947, announced the dawn for an independent nation, the world’s largest democracy. It also signalled the beginning of the end of all of Europe’s empires and the end of the biggest colony of the British Empire.

Nehru became the first prime minister of the new sovereign India. Despite the uniqueness of its independence movement through non-violent principles and civil disobedience led by Mahatma Gandhi, India was plunged into a violent bloodbath post-independence. 

British India was divided into a Hindu dominant India and a Muslim dominant Pakistan. It is estimated that 15 million displaced people moved in opposite directions across the new India-Pakistan border amidst carnage, fear and hatred resulting in the loss of nearly two million lives. 

Several million Muslims though decided to stay back in India, with the country committing itself to a secular constitution and an independent judiciary within a parliamentary democracy. 

A tale of two Indias

The seventy years since August 15 1947 are often described as the story of two Indias. Starting with a population of 350 million with just 12 percent literacy in 1947, it is now a burgeoning population of over 1.2 billion with an overall literacy of 75 percent represents current India. 

It is increasingly finding entry into debates on expanding social and economic inequalities, as the country settles into the club of middle income countries with growth rates of between nine and six per cent in the last decade. 

It boasts of its own Space programme worth billions, crafted by its own highly skilled intellectuals. India also continues to be home to the largest number of $1.90 a day poor, the highest number of malnourished children in the world, and dismal child and maternal mortality figures. 

Furthermore, it is also home to the world’s sixth largest number of billionaires. It is these contradictions that have captured the imaginations of not just India’s own Bollywood film industry but award winning western producers such as Danny Boyle. Bollywood itself churns out over 1000 movies each year, far exceeding the Hollywood productions. 

Perhaps India’s strongest achievement is respecting the change of political regime through the ballot by holding free and fair elections in all of its seven decades. And Poverty reduction has been and continues to be the central goal of all political regimes, albeit with mixed outcomes. Religious minorities enjoy far greater freedoms than in many other countries though marginalisation and discrimination are widespread. However, Indians minorities are to be found among India’s science, politics, literature, sports and film industry stars. 

India’s missing girls 

India launched her constitution in 1952 guaranteeing universal suffrage and equal rights to men and women in all walks of life, irrespective of caste, culture or religion. While it has robustly delivered on the promise of universal suffrage, perhaps the most ignominious failure has been in respecting the rights of women.

During 1990 the ‘missing girls’ trend was brought to the attention of the world by the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen.

The study showed that when compared with male-female ratios in developed countries and translated into numbers in India there were a million women who would be alive if the ratio was normal.

While male child preference and the prevalence of infanticide in Indian society has existed for centuries, modern India society with rising literacy of male and females has yet to reject it completely. As Sen has noted, ‘natality discrimination’ - pre-natal sex selective abortion continues to target baby girls. 

In the last three census data points child sex ratio in the country continues to decline from 927 girls born in 2001 to 918 per 1000 boys born in 2011 (945 girls born to 1000 boys in 1991). 

National policy makers, researchers and the civil society have engaged with the issue and continue to do so through legislation, policy, media and literature. Shifts in the tenacious cultural norms and traditions are proving slow and difficult despite criminalisation of these activities by the law.  

India’s demographic dividend 

At seventy then, India has many reasons to be proud of, many reasons to have remorse and much work to convert some of the challenges into opportunities. The biggest of these is its large pool of aspirational young workforce which if educated, skilled and healthy could give India a competitive edge at the global level.

Amidst declining skilled young labour force elsewhere in the world this could be India’s demographic dividend. However, without the necessary investment in her vast human capital, India would remain a divided society where the opportunities are harnessed by the elite and the majority ‘have nots’ are represented by the Indian lumbering elephant. 

Dr Meera Tiwari is Reader in  International Development, and teaches on the MSc NGO and Development Management