Independent India has been experimenting with a multitude of projects. The persistent drawbacks in execution make the country’s unprecedented allocation of resources for socio-economic development a tragic story of non-inclusive economic growth almost a mirage in the desert of poverty, malnutrition, disease, unemployment and deprivation of livelihood to the larger multitude of people.

Why doesn’t India shine despite well intended and well formulated innovative policy interventions? Why does the concept of Sab Ke Saath Sab Ka Vikas elude the firm grip of India’s public administration and end up like a development chimera of jobless economic growth? Though the planned economic growth model of the Planning Commission was replaced by the much-hyped NITI Aayog to transform India, isn’t it time for the discerning electorate to ponder over these core issues and decide which party is to be voted to power to form a government to recast the destiny of the nation, learning from the lessons of independent India’s failures to carve out a better and mighty India?

The Oxfam Inequality Report, 2019, Public Good or Private Wealth? reveals the real tragic story of India’s growing inequality in income and wealth consequent to poor governance and a non-inclusive economic model pushing hundreds of millions of people to poverty, while one per cent of those at the very top enjoy rich rewards. Since the 2008 global financial crisis, the number of Indian billionaires has nearly doubled.

The economic opportunities enable the rise of a new billionaire in every two days and a total of 2208 billionaires worldwide in 2018. The wealth of the world’s billionaires increases at the rate of INR 175 billion a day, while the wealth of the poorest half of humanity of 3.8 billion people fell by 11 per cent. Concentrated wealth of 26 people now equals the same as the 3.8 billion people.

In India, wealth inequality, as shown by the Gini wealth coefficient has gone up from 81.2 per cent in 2008 to 85.4 per cent in 2018, threatening the social fabric of the nation with agrarian distress, social unrest and rising crimes. The wealth of India’s top one per cent increased by 39 per cent, whereas the wealth of the bottom 50 per cent increased at a dismal rate of 3 per cent. It is known to the governing class that the high levels of wealth disparity subverts democracy.

The rich-poor gap suggests that the economic distribution model is skewed against the poor and favourable to the richest one per cent of the population. But who wants to get into the root causes of increasing wealth and income disparity and do something for the development model? Different social groups have different growth trajectories.

Poverty, inequality, unemployment and diseases cripple the majority of the people. They have to accept it as destiny or curse and not the consequence of lopsided economic policies. Growing inequalities between regions, states, urban and rural, gender, caste and community may have to be checked by effective implementation of thousands of central, states, and urban, rural flagship programmes, centrally and state sponsored projects, schemes and socioeconomic and educational programmes to keep India integrated socially and economically inclusive.

If the legal, economic, educational, health and other social gaps between the rich and the poor, the men and the women can be plugged by investing in universal free public services, social protection and human resources for all, India’s GDP will surely grow in double digits. Inequality in income and wealth in India has a helpless female face.

Women are paid less for the same work compared to men. According to the latest available data for 2011-12, the Gender Pay Gap was 34 per cent, making women accept 34 per cent less wages than their male counterparts for the same work. The caste, class, religion, age and sexual orientation have impacted adversely the women’s plight in India.

When elections are in progress nobody seriously champions the cause of women except an expression of lip sympathy. A fair, just and equal society must offer equality in all respects and opportunities to all citizens, irrespective of differences in gender, caste, religion, community, race, tribe or region. The economic status or social identity must not be an indicator to dictate the people’s destiny. Forty-two per cent of India’s tribal children are malnourished and underweight.

A Dalit woman lives 14.6 years less than her high-caste counterpart. While the literacy rate in Kerala, Mizoram and Lakshadweep is over 90 per cent, Bihar is just above 60 per cent. There is an acute shortage of doctors and health specialists in villages. In 2012, the World Bank data showed that India had 0.7 doctors per thousand people as against 2.8 in the UK and 1.8 in China per 1000 persons.

Public spending on health continues to hover around 1.3 per cent of GDP. The National Health Policy, 2017 aims at 2.5 per cent of GDP by 2025. India spends Rs 1,112 per person on public health per capita every year, which is less than the cost of a single consultation at the country’s top private hospitals. Growth of private provisioning results in social stratification with children of the rich and poor in India growing up in parallel and exclusive universes.

The World Bank’s study in UP shows that the gender gap in enrolment in private schools is increasing. Further, the private providers in health and education are under-regulated, resulting in exorbitant exploitation and equally exorbitant profiteering. The participation of the female labour force is indicative of the country’s potential for growth.

The low female labour force participation is caused by economic and social disparity, level of education, fertility rates, and various social norms. Violence against women deprives them of their fundamental human rights and values. A study in 2008 revealed that women victims of domestic violence in India experienced higher rates of malnutrition and this is reflected in underweight and anaemic conditions.

India has no dearth of laws to deal with violence against women, but their implementation is problematic in a chronically patriarchal and oppressive social system. Funds budgeted are underutilised. As regards the Rs 3100-crore Nirbhaya Fund dedicated to the victim of the Delhi gangrape and murder in 2012, only 30 per cent has been utilised. In the workplace, despite the law to deal with sexual harassment enacted in 2013, #MeToo movement in India shows the sad state of women’s equality and empowerment.

India needs to invest much more in human capital development for greater economic and social progress. But no political parties want to touch India’s regressive taxation system that is heavily reliant on indirect taxes. The rich know how to evade taxes. The Goods and Services Tax (GST), which subsumes most indirect taxes, can be further balanced to reduce inequality. Personal income tax in India is considered to be progressive; but tax payers comprise a tiny fraction of the workforce.

The corporate taxation rate is moderate, but there are many exemptions and lobbying by corporates for further reductions in rates. The government tries to phase out the exemptions. Accumulation of more private wealth may worsen inequality in India. Low tax GDP ratio points to limited resources for public services and expanding the social protection net.

Progressive taxation measures like the wealth tax, agriculture tax and inheritance tax have the potential to generate revenue for the government as well as to arrest growing income inequality. While women constitute 49 per cent of the population, the Lok Sabha has only 12 per cent women’s representation. Greater representation of women in Parliament is imperative for formulating fiscally viable schemes for women.

Gender Responsive Budgeting (GRB)) was adopted in 2005-06; women-specific allocations and the number of women beneficiaries is increasing. Corruption enhances inequality in different ways. Transparency International data shows India as one of the ‘worst offenders’ in the Asia-Pacific region, which is below the global average of 43.

The 2018 CMS-India Corruption Study found that the level of corruption in public services has increased or remained the same. Inequality in wealth and income of independent India cannot be attributed to the British colonial administration. The results of independent India’s inappropriate economic models and their inefficient and ineffective implementation ought not to be ignored.

It is for the country and its people and leaders to have the right policy choice to make India a more inclusive society. It is time for the people of India to elect a new government which may factor in its development policies pertaining to a citizencentric SMART livelihood, sustainable inclusive development concerns encompassing air, water, food, health, housing, sanitation, education, employment, electricity, roads, and infrastructure for a new India.

(To be continued)

(The writer is a former DG in the Office of the CAG of India. Views are personal)