On the occasion of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent state visit to France (GDP per capita, $42,000) it was announced that India (GDP per capita, $6,000) would purchase 36 “ready to fly” Rafale fighter jets from French aerospace behemoth Dassault Aviation. Great news for France! This brings in revenue and creates lots of jobs. This is especially so as there have been difficulties getting customers; so far, until PM Modi’s proposed purchase, the only sale had been to Egyptian military dictator Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
The implications for India, however, are depressing: one more vivid illustration of misguided policies at the expense of the poor. 960 million Indians live on less than $2 a day. Reading the data is one thing; seeing the consequences, as I did recently driving through the slums on the outskirts of Jaipur, is heart-wrenching. Their plight could not be worse. Rafale jet fighters are about the last thing they need!
India will soon surpass China to become the world’s most populous nation, reaching 1.6 billion by the middle of the century. The demographic profiles of the two countries are totally different. Whereas China faces the challenges of a rapidly aging society, hence a decrease in the labor pool; with its huge demographic dividend (50% of the population is less than 25, 65% less than 35) India needs to create millions and millions of jobs. If hundreds of millions of Indians remain mired in poverty and the young fail to be educated, employed and motivated, the consequences could be truly dramatic for Indians, but also for the world in the 21st century. Not only will India have failed; humanity will have failed.
India matters to the world. With a civilization stretching back thousands of years, India has a great deal to contribute to global civilization. The richer India is not only materially, but also culturally and spiritually, the richer the planet is; this had been the case for centuries until the impoverishment of the country caused by 200 years of British colonialism. (But that should be a challenge, not an excuse!)
In short, India has a lot to offer the world; but to be in a position to do so it has to improve radically the lives of hundreds of millions of its own citizens. A country that has 44% of its children under five suffering from malnutrition – providing the world with one-third of the total population of hungry children – can perhaps become a world power (if it keeps on buying state-of-the-art French fighter jets), but certainly not a world role model: India’s purchase of fighter jets may be a means to achieve greater hard power, but in the process, as domestic social conditions of misery and injustice continue to fester, it is losing soft power.
There are structural and policy issues: education, apart from that for the elite, is appalling; infrastructure is equally so; there is widespread corruption; and widespread disease. Life expectancy in India ranks 167th (out of 228) in the world: at 68 years, it is significantly lower than China (75.3), but also than other developing countries such as Sri Lanka (76.5), Vietnam (73) and Indonesia (72.5).
But perhaps more fundamental is the problem of mindsets. In his thought-provoking book Being Indian, former diplomat, politician, author and thought leader Pavan Varma stresses that in the Indian elite “there is a remarkable tolerance of inequity, filth and human suffering”. He adds that “concern for the deprived and the suffering is not a prominent feature of the Indian personality. The rich in India have always lived a life quite oblivious to the ocean of poverty around them”. Less than ten minutes from the slums on the outskirts of Jaipur there are very nice upper income (heavily guarded) residential areas. One city: two universes.
There are change makers. At NIIT University (NU) in Rajasthan where I am visiting professor there is an admirable program known as Community Connect. Every single student has to be engaged, including in what is known as Each One – Teach One, whereby NU students are allotted a pupil from the poor rural areas to whom they must reach out and teach basic skills. The objective of the program is to enable NU students to appreciate and inculcate values like ‘sensitivity towards the under-privileged’ and a ‘humanitarian attitude’. Given the dismal state of Indian primary and secondary public education, students at the tertiary level are by definition privileged. In conversations with the students my impression is that they see the Community Connect program as an opportunity, not a chore, and are committed to continuing engaging in social activities post-graduation.
There are indeed many admirable initiatives emanating from academe, some businesses, and NGOs. There is the Housing and Land Rights Network, which fights for the rights of the homeless, especially homeless women who are the most destitute of the destitute. I got to know the Network during their courageous struggle against the brutal forced evictions of Delhi slum dwellers for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Another questionable priority!
Water distribution and access to sanitation in Indian villages are terrible; girls (and it is always girls!) need to walk huge distances to fetch water from wells, thereby missing out on school. Over a-third of females in India are illiterate; there are more illiterate females in India than in the rest of the world combined. Fighting female illiteracy should be a greater priority than buying French fighter jets. The plight of women is terrible, beginning with a gender gap in education of Himalayan proportions. Again there are private initiatives such as the impressive Mumbai-based Educate Girls Foundationwhich is actively engaged in seeking to reduce the gap.
Ultimately however all of the good work of corporations, universities, NGOs, foundations, philanthropists, religious institutions, etc will not lift hundreds of millions out of a life of desperate destitution. No country has ever succeeded in reducing poverty without having government actively engaged in creating the proper conditions and opportunities for individuals to rise from poverty. This is another one of the big differences between China and India: though China also has spent unseemly amounts on weaponry, it did at least get its social priorities right by virtually eradicating illiteracy, investing massively in primary education, including for girls, and thereby greatly reducing poverty. As author Pallavi Aiyar has written in her excellent book Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of China, if born rich it is better to be Indian, if born poor it is better to be Chinese.
Of course the Government of India needs to be concerned about security, especially as it is quite a combustible neighborhood. The greatest threat to Indian security, however, is domestic. India should be “attacking” its perceived external “enemies” with weapons of mass seduction – as a democratic, just, equitable, inclusive, gender empowering, and humane nation – rather than through weapons of mass destruction.
The greatest means to enhance security in South Asia is not more weapons. Member states of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) have one of the world’s lowest rates of intra-regional trade. This is especially the case of trade between Pakistan and India. As the early 19th century French political economist Frédéric Bastiat is alleged to have said: “if goods don’t cross borders, armies (or indeed Rafale fighter jets) will”. Both Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif should have his portrait and quote hung in their respective offices.
Think of the hungry children of India, give back the Rafale fighter jets to France (we’ll survive).