In the final lap of General Election 2019 with electioneering at fever pitch, a major plank of the ruling BJP-led NDA coalition at the Centre is that during its tenure, India has become the fastest growing major economy of the world. That may be so, but the BJP and its predecessor Congress-led UPA government have failed miserably in the social sector. Nowhere else in the world, except perhaps sub-Sahara Africa, does one witness such glaring inequality, festering slums next to gleaming steel and glass skyscrapers and dirt-poor people jostling with multi-millionaires. It’s a disgraceful situation of which all Indians should be ashamed.
Within the social sector, I shall highlight only three areas — primary education, primary health (including sanitation) and family planning. All are inter-connected. Without good quality healthcare and high literacy, a country can’t implement a successful family planning programme. The much proclaimed ‘demographic dividend’ of India — one-third the population is below 24 years of age — could easily transform into a demographic disaster if the great majority in a rapidly growing population is either illiterate or so poorly educated that they are unemployable.
The demographic dividend has been realised in some countries including Thailand, South Korea and Taiwan, even Indonesia, because their governments built strong foundations, providing good primary education and healthcare. As a result, they have an educated workforce that can be gainfully employed in the manufacturing and service sectors, which are the engines of growth in a modern economy.
Provision of quality healthcare results in the survival of children and longer life spans. When couples comprehend that the children they bear are very likely to survive childhood, they tend to have fewer children, perhaps two or three at most (fertility rate). But they need to be sufficiently educated to understand that, and ways and means to access a variety of contraceptives.
India has failed under all these social parameters. Ever since Sanjay Gandhi’s disastrous mass sterilisation programme during his mother’s notorious Emergency rule, a programme that was partly responsible for the Congress Party’s electoral rout in 1977, family planning has become a dirty word. Both the Congress and BJP have steered clear of it and the popular contraception option is female sterilisation.
Consequently, India’s population growth rate especially in states like UP and Bihar, remains much too high. An unsustainable 20 million people — an Australia — are added to the Indian population every year. These 20 million have to be fed, housed, educated and employed, and India has not been up to the task. Even largely Muslim Indonesia has made greater strides in family planning, together with better healthcare and higher literacy. When India and Indonesia became independent nations at approximately the same time, India’s social parameters in terms of literacy and health were much better than Indonesia’s. Today, it is the other way round.
But perhaps our greatest failure has been in primary education. Year after year the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) surveys have been warning that the learning outcomes of young Indian children are abysmal, especially in government schools. Consequently, even the poorest households prefer to send their children to private fees-levying schools rather than free-of-charge government primaries with rock-bottom learning outcomes.
Fortunately in recent years, far-sighted entrepreneurs such as Azim Premji have committed several billion rupees to philanthropic foundations whose main objective is to fill the vacuum created by government in providing poor children good education and healthcare. The result is that some 50 percent of India’s children are now in private schools. Educating them is primarily the government’s responsibility, but it has lamentably failed to discharge it.
Against this backdrop, it’s a greater shame that Bangladesh, written off as a “basket case” when it wrested its independence from Pakistan in 1971, is a shining example of social progress. Today it is ranked #91 among the world’s healthiest countries by the Bloomberg Healthiest Country Index 2019. If you’re unimpressed, India and Pakistan are ranked #120 and #124. An average Pakistani’s life expectancy at birth is 66 years, while that of a Bangladeshi is 72 years. While Pakistan has spent its resources on its military, nuclear weapons and breeding terrorists, Bangladesh has spent them on giving a better, happier life to its people. Dhaka has got its priorities right.
(Rahul Singh is a former editor of the Reader’s Digest and author of Family Planning Success Stories: Asia, Africa and Latin America)