Date: 02 Mar 2007


47 percent of Indian children under the age of five are either malnourished or stunted. The adult literacy rate is 61 percent (behind Rwanda and barely ahead of  Sudan). Even this is probably overstated, as people are deemed literate who  can do little more than sign their name. Only 10 percent of the entire Indian labor force works in the formal  economy; of these fewer than half are in the private sector. The enrollment of six-to-15-year-olds in school has actually declined in  the last year. About 40 million children who are supposed to be in school are  not.
About a fifth of the population is chronically hungry; about half  of the  world's hungry live in India.
More than a quarter of the India population lives on less than a dollar a  day. India has more people with HIV than any other country.
(Sources: UNDP, Unicef, World Food Program; Edward Luce)
You get the idea.

The 2006 UN Human Development Report, which ranks countries according to a variety of measures of human health and welfare, placed India 126th out of 177 countries. India was only a few places ahead of rival Pakistan (134th) and hapless Cambodia (129) and behind such not-about-to-be-superpowers as Equatorial Guinea (120), and Tajikistan (122).

As these and other numbers suggest, Indian triumphalism (a notable 126,000 hits on Google) is not only premature, it is misguided. Yes, growth has been brisk, and of course growth is necessary to make a dent in poverty. But as Edward Luce, author of the excellent, "In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise  of Modern India," noted in a recent talk, poverty in India is not falling nearly as fast as its brisk rate of growth might anticipate.
The reason for this is that Indian growth has been capital-intensive, driven by the growth in high-value services such as IT. This is a good thing, but what it does not do is create stable and reasonably paid employment for not particularly skilled people - and this matters a lot, considering eight to 10 million Indians enter the labor force every year. Luce estimates that  there are 7 million Indians working in the formal manufacturing sector in India -and 100 million in China. India is awash in private equity 

To look at it another way, the 1 million Indians working in IT account for less than one-half of one percent of the entire working population. This helps build reserves (and national confidence, and tax revenues) but is not the poverty buster that labor-intensive development is. As Prime Minister Singh told Luce, "Our biggest single problem is the lack of jobs for ordinary people."

The problem with India's self-proclaimed (and wildly premature) declaration of superpower status is that it reflects a complacency about both its present which for many people is dire -and its future. Eight percent growth for four years is wonderful, but as the saying goes, past performance is no guarantee of future results. And India is not doing what it needs to in  order  to sustain this momentum.
Consider the postwar history of East and Southeast Asia. The comparison is appropriate because India started at about the same point, and has watched just about every country in the region get ahead of it on the economic curve.
All these places developed by being relatively open to trade; by investing in primary and secondary education; and by building pretty decent infrastructure (not only roads and ports, but health clinics and water supplies). India has begun to embrace one leg of this triangle - freer trade.
> Wireless Wonder: India's Sunil  Mittal
> Even here, though, many of the worst features of the swadeshi ("self-reliance") era remain intact, including an unreformed state banking sector; labor regulations that actively discourage hiring; abstruse land laws  (and consequent lack of land titles); misshapen subsidies that hurt the poor;  and corruption that is broad, deep and ubiquitous. Nothing useful is being  done about any of this.

As for the other two legs of this development triangle - education and infrastructure - these are still badly broken. About a third of teachers fail  to show up on any given day (and, of course, are unsackable); the supply of both water and power is expensive and unreliable. These facts of life too often go unremarked in the current euphoria about the state of the nation. "We no longer discuss the future of India," 

Minister Kamal Nath told the Financial Times in a typical comment. "The future is India."
Hubris, of course, is the stuff of politics everywhere. But the future will not belong to India unless it takes action to embrace it, and that means  more than high-profile vanity projects like putting a man on the moon or building the worldıs tallest tower. It means showing that the world's largest democracy  can deliver real progress to the hundreds of millions who have  never used the  phone, much less the Internet. And in important ways, that just isn't happening.

India has many reasons to be proud, but considering it remains a world leader in hunger, stunting and HIV, its waxing self-satisfaction seems sadly beside the point.