India's multiple asymmetries

Strong governments from Stalin onwards unfailingly aim for Olympian heights: Their achievements are always the biggest, tallest, highest, fastest and so on (Stalin even claimed to have the world’s biggest department store, thumbing his communist nose at his capitalist competitors). Indians of a certain outlook are prone to making similar claims. Through the early noughties, for instance, Indian business delegations triumphantly touted the narrative of the “fastest growing democracy” at Davos and other global power talking shops. At least for a while, that claim had the virtue of being true. Now that we can no longer parade that line, we are left with such sundry claims as the world’s tallest statue, the world’s largest sanitation project and, of course, the world’s largest identification programme. Only one of those are worthy of praise as a solid achievement. 

Till the current self-created economic slowdown ends — exactly when is the subject of fierce debate among economists — we can safely wallow in India’s greatness in a mythical golden age when we apparently knew all about nuclear weapons and plastic surgery. Having attracted no small amount of derision for propagating these notions, Indian leaders have moved beyond those claims to talking instead about India’s impending transformation (and it’s always forthcoming) into a political and economic superpower. If we take at face value the claim that the world has suddenly started respecting India as a dynamic 21st century power, then the world must surely have been puzzled last week by the frenzied national attention on a Supreme Court verdict concerning a dispute predicated on claims clouded in the mists of history. 

The merits and demerits of the judgment aside, surely, there are other urgent pending issues that should be consuming the energies of the highest court in the land? The Ayodhya hearings were fast-tracked even as some 60,000 cases are pending in the apex court. Now that the issue has been settled largely to majoritarian satisfaction, let’s take a closer look at other asymmetries in modern, aspiring India that deserve focused governmental attention. 

Here’s one. The country has become a centre for upscale medical tourism. It’s not just the routine surgeries, Indian doctors can perform intricate medical feats that get feted in the media. The irony is that only rich foreigners and a minuscule proportion of very rich Indians can afford these services. The Ayushman Bharat medical insurance scheme has improved the access of poor and lower middle class Indians to better healthcare such as dialysis and surgical care. But access to basic healthcare in the shape of doctors, hospital beds, nursing care and even genuine medicines and so on remain depressingly low as the Economic Survey points out each year.

Here’s another. International Air Transport Association statistics put the growth in Indian domestic air travel at the fastest growing for the  fourth year in a row. Some 140 million Indian travelled last year, according to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, though this statistic may need to be deflated a bit since it could include multiple journeys.  India also boasts the world’s ninth busiest airport. This is certainly a sign of upward mobility — and is largely on account of cheap fares by fiercely competitive private airlines that made air travel affordable for the middle class. But several multiples of that number still travel by train — and the increasingly parlous state of India’s railway network and infrastructure has consumed much frenzied analysis over the decades without much change.   

And a third. IITs and IIMs churn out engineers and management students that global corporations rush to snap up at eye-popping salaries. Yet each year, surveys suggest that Indian children are unable to read and do math for standards several rungs below.

None of these problems have been created by the current regime — they’ve been around for decades. But for a ruling dispensation that has focused so acutely on progress and development, surely these are more worthy of focused political attention than a temple and a mosque.


Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel