Status of India~I

According to historian Angus Maddison, India was the richest country and had the world’s largest economy until the 17th century.

Status of India~I

Representation image (Photo:SNS )

‘No one saves us but ourselves.We ourselves must walk the path’ – The Buddha

Through most of its history, India has been an economic superpower. According to historian Angus Maddison, India was the richest country and had the world’s largest economy until the 17th century. In 1700, India under the Mughals produced a quarter of the world’s economic output. India’s catastrophic economic decline to ‘Third World’ status took place during the period of British rule.

By the time it ended, India’s share had shrunk to 4 per cent of global GDP. Shashi Tharoor spoke the truth during a debate at the Oxford Union on 28 May 2015. He commented: “India’s share of the world economy when Britain arrived on its shores was 23 per cent, but by the time the British left it was down to four per cent. Why? It was simply because India had been governed for the benefit of Britain. Britain’s rise for 200 years was financed by its depredations in India. In fact, Britain’s industrial revolution was actually premised upon the industrialization of India.”


On the eve of independence, the growth of the Indian economy was so low that it was considered as ‘stagnant’; income inequality between the wealthy and poor was very high; low per capita income and low national income were the reasons behind widespread poverty. The country possessed abundant stock of natural resources but those were either underutilized or unutilized. Most of the population was dependent on agriculture for an occupation as very few industries were there.

This resulted in widespread unemployment, poverty and hunger. Frequent famine and drought were common which caused shortage of food starvation. The Bengal famine of 1943 was one of the worst disasters in twentieth century South Asia. It was devastating in terms of its scale, causing three million deaths and it occurred during World War II. Under British rule, human development was not given priority.

So, social infrastructure was very poor. Infant mortality, maternal mortality and death rates were all high. Life expectancy was just 32 years. The level of education and literacy was so low that even after four years of independence (in 1951) only 18.3 per cent of people were literate, out of which male literacy was 27.2 per cent and female literacy was 8.9 per cent. On the eve of 15 August 1947, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of free India, in his historical speech entitled ‘Tryst With Destiny’ to the Indian Constituent Assembly reminded the country that the task ahead included ‘the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity.’ It was hoped that India would return to the front rank of global powers.

It is with this task that this article is concerned. Even after 75 years independence, it is not hard to notice that tasks Nehru had identified remain, alas, largely unaccomplished. Poverty is often defined by a one-dimensional measure, usually based on income. But no single indicator can capture the multiple dimensions of poverty. The poor themselves consider their experiences of poverty much more broadly. As such, a person who is poor can suffer multiple disadvantages at the same time.

For example, they may have poor health or malnutrition, a lack of clean water or electricity, poor quality of work or little schooling. Indeed, focusing on one factor, such as income is therefore considered insufficient to capture the true nature of poverty. However, the Global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) was developed in 2010 by the United Nations Development (UNDP) and the Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative (OPHI), an economic research centre at the University of Oxford, England.

The Index, a crucial global tool, takes into account a composite measure that tracks deprivation across three dimensions and 10 indicators: health (child health mortality, nutrition), education (years of schooling, enrolment) and living standards (water, sanitation, electricity, cooking fuel, floor, assets). If a person is deficient in at least one third (i.e., 33 per cent or more) of the weighted indicators (out of the 10 indicators), she or he is said to be multi-dimensionally poor. Extreme multi-dimensional poverty is defined as having a deprivation in at least one half of the weighted indicators.

The Global MPI is released annually by UNDP and OPHI and the results published in their websites. It releases MPI for all individual countries also. According to the Global MPI, the percentage of people living in multidimensional poverty in India is 16.4. One of the key findings about India as revealed in the Global Multidimensional Poverty Index Report 2022 is that with 22.8 crore, India has the world’s biggest population of poor people, followed by Nigeria with 9.6 crore. On the other hand, the think tank NITI Aayog, Government of India, in their latest report entitled ‘National Multidimensional Poverty Index:

A progress Review 2023’ (based on NFHS-5, (2019- 2025)), released in the month of July, 2023, considered that about 14.96 per cent of the Indian population is multi-dimensionally poor. In absolute terms, about 20.7 crore people in the country are poor. The difference of 1.44 percentage points is significant in absolute numbers considering India’s high population. In absolute terms, the difference seems to be around 20 million. Mahatma Gandhi was once asked: When we plan for country what should we remember most? Gandhi instantly replied: Think of the ‘last man’.

Experience has taught us that Gandhi’s ‘last man’ is invariably one in every nine women. Considering available data, it is said that the pre-pandemic poverty rate for women was 13.3 per cent vs 12.1 per cent for males. It was also projected that by 2021, 14.7 per cent women and girls would be in extreme poverty compared to 13.7 per cent men. As per the UN, poverty entails more than the lack of income and productive resources to ensure sustainable livelihood. Its manifestation includes hunger and malnutrition, limited access to education and other basic services, social discrimination and exclusion.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) publishes a Global Gender Gap (GGG) Index Report annually evaluating the status of Gender Parity across 146 countries. The GGG Index benchmarks countries on their progress towards gender parity in four key dimensions with sub-matrices. These four key dimensions are: Economic Participation and Opportunity, Educational Attainment, Health and Survival, and Political Empowerment.

On each of the four subindices as well as on the overall index, the GGG Index provides scores between 0 (zero) and 1 (one), where 1 (one) shows full gender parity and 0 (zero) is complete imparity. It is the longeststanding index, which tracks progress towards closing these gaps over time since its inception in 2006. Recently, the WEF ranked India at 135 out of 146 countries in the 17th edition of the Global Gender Gap Report 2023. India’s overall score has improved from 0.625 (in 2021) to 0.629, which is its seventh-highest score in the last 16 years.

The fact that the gender gap has closed by 64.3 per cent is an improvement, but this is hardly a reason for celebration. The country scores quite low in terms of ensuring equal access for men and women to economic participation and opportunity, with less than 40 per cent parity. On the other hand, though there are increases in salary and income parity, the percentages of women in technical and senior posts have decreased. In the words of Lainie Kazan: “The men may be the head of the house, but the women are the neck and they can turn the head any way they want.

Indeed, neck allows us to move our head in many directions and receive visual input from our surrounding and for balance. So, gender equality is a fundamental human right, it is also one of the gravest human rights challenges that our society faces today.”

JAYDEV JANA The writer is a retired IAS officer