Indian or foreigner, you will not be surprised to hear that one of the first and most shocking things I learnt when I moved to India recently involved toilets – or rather the lack of them. Jairam Ramesh, who was at the time the minister responsible for sanitation, explained that between 400,000 and 500,000 Indian children under five die each year from diarrhoea, the largely preventable result of poor hygiene.
There are two shocking things about this number: its magnitude and the gap between the upper and lower estimates. The range means either that up to 100,000 children are dying in addition to the known 400,000, or that they are still alive. Or perhaps the extra 100,000 do die annually, but not from diarrhoea, for the total number of under-five deaths is a still more chilling 1.66 million – roughly equivalent to the population of Qatar or Hawaii.
My purpose is not to criticise India or Ramesh – who has campaigned vigorously to end the health scandal of leaving 600 million Indians to defecate in the open – but to point out the terrifying scale of the challenges facing a country that will soon overtake China to become the world’s most populous nation.
Indians, like Americans, usually need no reminding of the qualities that make their country great. India is a cradle of civilisations, artistically innovative and culturally diverse. It is a nuclear power and it has a space programme. And it is, of course, the world’s largest democracy. Perhaps most remarkable of all is the fact that more than 1.2 billion people of different religions and languages, and of extreme disparities in wealth, manage for most of the time to live together peacefully in the very crowded space that is modern India.
Yet it is also a place of appalling and avoidable poverty, where nearly half of all children are malnourished; of daily environmental catastrophes; of substandard schools and hospitals; and of corruption so deeply entrenched in the police and the bureaucracy that Indians find it amusing rather than outrageous. Last month, one minister, defending a colleague accused of corruption, publicly mocked the notion that a central government minister would do something wrong for a mere $130,000.
Looking at these extremes of the inspiring and the depressing, it is no wonder that the historian Ramachandra Guha described himself as feeling “pride and embarrassment in equal measure” in an article for the Hindustan Times on Indian Independence Day in August.
The question now is whether India’s politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen – and there is no doubt that it is these elites that run the country – are up to the task of modernising and reforming India in a way that preserves the good and eliminates the bad.
So far, the signs are not encouraging. The rich invest overseas because it is easier, while politicians and civil servants – instead of looking abroad for successes to emulate – tend to look inwards and to the past, to be churlish rather than admiring of what neighbouring China has achieved in the past three decades and to assume that their own nation’s glorious past will ensure a shining future.
With annual growth having dropped below 6 per cent, Indian leaders insist that the country’s economic performance is respectable enough, given the global slowdown. India, however, needs to be more than a match for its peers because the existential challenges it faces are more severe. This is not simply a matter of the country’s weak international standing and its failure to contribute constructively to vital negotiations over the environment or global trade. (Indian commentators were forlorn when their country was not mentioned once in the televised US presidential debate on foreign policy.)
No, India needs to do better than the rest because no other country will add the equivalent of all the inhabitants of Europe to its population in the next 50 years; because no other densely populated country will be so affected by global warming, which is expected to increase average temperatures in north India by up to 5C in the lifetimes of children already alive today; and because no other country allows so many of those children to die for lack of clean water, toilets and basic education. With a peak population of about 1.7 billion expected by 2060, no other country will matter so much to the health of our planet.
Modernising India is no easy task. Shashi Tharoor, politician and author, echoed Charles de Gaulle’s famous complaint about the French and their cheeses when he asked in a recent speech: “How can one determine the future of an ageless civilisation that was the birthplace of four major religions, a dozen different traditions of classical dance, 85 major political parties and 300 ways of cooking the potato?”
But Tharoor is right to see promise rather than obstacles in India’s chaotic diversity. After all, other, less energetic countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America have managed to create jobs, improve child health, reduce corruption and lift their citizens out of penury. The only differences are that India is bigger and – it is true – a lot more complicated.
Victor Mallet is the FT’s India bureau chief