The Extremes Of India


By Promod Puri

The cliché that India is a country of extremes when explored make it so complex and contradictory that all the realistic arguments and statistics just balance out each other leaving a juggernaut of overviews or images about this prominent South Asian nation.

The extremes of India can be as high as Himalayan peaks or as deep as the Indian ocean, and they cover all aspects of the nation and its mass of 1.21 billion people brimful in the space of 3214 kms. from north to south and 2993 kms. from east to west.

And these over a billion people, growing at the rate of 1.34 percent per 2011 estimates, speak over 185 different languages, 29 of these are categorized as “official” meaning each has over one million native speakers. In addition to that there are countless dialects associated with these languages. The plethora of languages and dialects result in multi- multicultural communities each seeking and struggling to retain individual identities.

In addition to linguistic and cultural divide in India, the population is further splintered filling in all the world’s major and smaller religions while hundreds of more sectarian complexions akin to these faiths endure to retain their individuality.

Although, Hindus dominate the religious demography with 80.5 percent of the population and comprising the maximum number of sects within it, Muslims form the second largest group with 157 million followers earning the distinction of being third largest Muslims population in the world after Indonesia and Pakistan.

While India is the birthplace and cradle of four religions namely, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, it was in 52 AD, about 2000 years ago that Christianity arrived in India about the same time it arrived in Europe.

Whereas, all the linguistic, cultural and religious plurality in the country seeks peaceful preserve under the nationalistic jingle of unity in diversity with occasional bursts of communal riots, the real excitement of present-day India lies in its both voluminous changes and no change at all, and in its extreme disparity in all fields and walks of life along with overwhelming and mind blowing figures, which offer cheers as well as despairs.

Among the top stars of the shine India parade are the 57 Indian billionaires out of 1210 in the world, according to the Forbes annual list of ultra rich. Their net worth each ranges from one billion dollars to 22.4 billion.

And this Indian billionaire club membership of course includes industrialist Mukesh Ambani, who is top on the Indian list and 9th in the global rank, whose $2 billion newly-built vertical palace has, beside luxurious features, quite a view of the reality of India at ground zero with sprawling slums whose dwellers represent, according to the World Bank, 41.6 percent of India’s population living below the new international poverty line of $1.25(purchasing power parity) per day.

Well leaving aside the Ambani family and other billionaire Indians as personal achievements, the nation itself produces impressive economic growth figures.

Accordingly, India’s economy at $1.632 trillion is the 9th largest in the world by GDP (referring to market value of all the goods and services produced in the country), and at $4.057 trillion is fourth largest by PPP. The country’s GDP growth is being maintained at around 8 percent, while GDP per capita is $1371 with inflation at 9.72 percent.

India’s total merchandise and services import and export trade is worth $606 billion, and it has amassed $308.62 billion as foreign reserve in the last decade or so.

The country, once “the brightest jewel in the British Crown was the poorest nation in the world in terms of per capita income”, is now considered an economic power house. And “India, once a recipient nation for foreign aid, could now become together with Brazil, Russia and China to form a fund to stabilize wobbling economies in the Euro zone”.

However, before it steps out to relieve the ailing cash-strapped Euronians, who are still managing to get their two square meals on dining table with glass of wine, there is a strong case that India needs to stabilize its own backyard dotted with, as per the World Bank figures, 75.6 percent of the country’s population living on less than $2 a day (PPP) and where over 315 million people with their 50 cents a day income eat their hard-earned daily bread squatting on floor.

Despite the fact the poor in India dispense 80 percent of their income on grocery; the spending does not buy them nutritive and protein-rich food.

India has the highest number of malnourished people, at 230 million, and is 94 of 119 in the world hunger index. Forty-three percent of India’s children under five are underweight, the highest in the world.

The UN estimates 2.1 million Indian children die before reaching the age of five every year, that is four every minute.

Malnutrition often linked with diseases like diarrhea, malaria, and measles, is due to lack of access in health care and medical services which are related to the problem of poverty.

On the poverty scene India remains at an “abysmal rank” in the UN Human Development Index, it is positioned at 132nd place in 2007-08 in the index.

India does not hide poverty. Or to be more explicit it can’t, thanks to its vibrant and alert democratic system which allows social activists and groups, politicians and the media to openly raise the plight of poor, their sufferings, exploitations and struggles in developing as well as stagnant India.

Whereas, both politicians and media extensively cover the poverty scene, the government itself provides the statistics, and that is one bureaucracy which has earned its reputation internationally.

There are thousands of organizations in the country and a few political outfits exclusively working on many fronts to help the poor and creating the awareness of the opportunities available to advance this section of the society to acceptable living standards. As a result, India currently adds 60 to 70 million people from the poor to middle class every year.

An estimated over 300 million Indians now belong to the middle class, one third have emerged from poverty in the last 10 years. And with ambitious expectation, at current rate majority of Indians will be middle class in 2025.

The question is who belongs to the middle class or how much income is needed to get into this section of the society. The demarcation is so elastic that the World Bank has stretched it from $4500 to $20,000 per household per year; whereas, an Indian agency, the National Council for Applied Economic Research, has limited the figure to $4000. And even some say an earning of just $1000 per household of four persons per year is ok to belong to the middle class.

For that inexact and somewhat ambiguous definition, the middle class can be divided into lower-middle-class, middle-middle-class and upper-middle-class. And together this burgeoning part of the population is the major booster to the country’s economy exerting its influence on most aspects or facets of India.

The country is bursting with expansion on all fronts, and with ever increasing population India faces huge problems and huge challenges to meet the growing needs of its people whereby a mere glance at statistics provides some clues to discern the nation.

In the field of education, despite its tremendous expansion, 25 percent of the population is illiterate, only 15 percent of Indian students reach high school and just seven percent graduate. According to 2011 census every person above age seven, who can read and write in any language, is considered literate”. As such, 75 percent of Indians are literate.

Higher education system in the country is the third largest in the world as India has about 240 universities, three of them namely the Indian Institute of Technology, the Indian Institute of Management and the Jawaharlal Nehru University, are listed among the top 20 varsities in the world by the Times Higher Education list.

There are hundreds of medical and engineering colleges churning out tens of thousands of graduates every year, beside that there are as many poly-technique institutions, and thousands of primary and secondary schools dotting the country all over.

Still many of these learning places are running under-funded and under staff in shabby and disappointing conditions. In a recent study of 189 government-run primary schools 59 percent had no drinking water and 89 percent had no toilets.

India is on the move, and its rail network is the largest in the world with 63,465 kms of rail tracks; it is the fourth heavily used system in the world transferring over six billion passengers and over 310 million tons of freight annually. Despite the colossal rail system connecting practically every nook and corner of the country, still there is so much chronic shortage of trains that not only these are usually jam-packed but a familiar scene of commuters riding on roof-tops of rail compartments is a continual and dangerous embarrassment for the Indian Railways.

About the roads network, it is the third largest in the world with 3,320,410 kilometers length and which include some recently completed national and regional highways while most others are still very old, extremely narrow and very poorly maintained. The latter are the backbone of local and inter-city transportation where except for airplanes, all other types of vehicles, from bullock carts to Mercedes and Jaguars run side by side along with two-wheelers, three-wheelers, cyclists, vans, buses, trucks, etc.

That is the typical urban scene whereby pedestrians as well as dogs and cows also share the street, and it seems everybody or nobody has the right of way, it is a matter of maneuverability as to how to get out of the traffic jam in India’s extended rush hours which start early in morning till late evening seven days a week.

There is lot of road construction and improvement going on all over India and that includes building new highways and flyovers to ease congestion. The star of modern India’s transportation infrastructure is the so-called Metro passengers-only rail which is amazingly very efficient in its operations and unbelievably clean including the tracks and stations.

Despite tremendous progress in the infrastructure, India has poor record of road safety, around 90,000 people die from road accidents every year, and that is about 13 persons every hour.

Certainly, rails and roads dominate the Indian transportation system, but air travel is perhaps the fastest growing sector in the country with over half a dozen domestic airlines compared to only one not long ago. Their rise can be judged that over $16 billion worth of orders are being placed by them this year for new aircrafts to meet the growing need of air passenger traffic.

As we move on to realize and comprehend India, corruption, black money and unethical, dirty and criminally polluted politics blight the country giving a message of hopelessness if the nation will ever cure itself from these ills.

In 2010 India ranked 87th out of 178 countries in Transparency International’s corruption perception index. Corruption is the vehicle by which most of the bureaucracy at all levels of government move or resolve issues. Perhaps one of the biggest contributors to this aspect of Indian economy is the trucker community who according to the Transparency International pays $5 billion in bribes annually to get moving.

India’s black money or underground economy is estimated to be $640 billion in year 2008, and certainly it is growing thru corruption and under the table deals. Some news reports claim that “data provided by the Swiss Bank Association Report 2006, showed India has more black money than the rest of the world combined”.

The Swiss Bank Association as per its 2006 estimate suggests that India topped the worldwide list for black money with almost $1,456 billion stashed in Swiss banks, this amount to 13th times the country’s total external debt.

With those whopping sums of black money, it sure feels like “India is a rich country filled with poor”.

With corrupt and black money, there is criminalization of politics as the nexus exist among criminals, politicians and bureaucrats. Criminals enjoy the patronage of politicians of all parties, and the protection of government functionaries. Gang leaders have become political leaders, and over the years criminals have been elected to local bodies, provincial assemblies and even to the national parliament.

Well, the corruption, the black money and the contaminated politics in the country along with pathetic and deplorable widespread poverty, while being denounced, resented and protested as part of the bigger issues facing the nation, are at the same time accepted as inevitable norms in the country, and are as much tolerable as the open garbage littering the streets of India. Still life goes on despite these intentionally ignored visible realities.

However, equally striking realities which are part of the shining India spectrum, are the 806.1 million telephone subscribers and out of this over 500 million cell phone users, escalating 40 percent annually; eighty million internet users; impressive, exciting and trendy big shopping malls; several lanes modern highways, freeways and flyovers; five to seven stars hotels with fluently English-speaking staff; latest models of luxury cars and in plenty; famous brand name expensive clothing and most household accessories; millions of barrels and bottles of finest wines, whiskies and scotch; multistory commercial and residential buildings with ultra modern amenities and luxurious decor, and skyrocketing real estate values which are among highest in the world.

The whole landscape of urban India looks different not only in physical outlook, but the affluence has brought quite a change in the social culture of people as well. The American and European culture seems to be part of the Indian cultural mosaic especially among the young, educated and well-paid professional and the business people.

Sure, that is the new reality of contemporary India which is represented by the rich and the middle class section of the population, but that creates an illusion as well that the nation is a land of enormous prosperity. And this illusion is reinforced by the media thru their various programming, commercials and advertising whereby India looks spotlessly clean and people are quiet well off and happy.

The current disparities, contrasts and extremes of present-day India offer both apprehensions and challenges for the nation.

And keeping in mind the ever growing demands of its surging population along with limited resources and limited land area, the Indian political, social and spiritual activists and leaderships along with its educated and well informed bureaucracy and intelligentsia, all must redefine to replace the popular concepts of progress, development and the standards of living, otherwise the present insane race to seek super economic power status will eventually be disastrous for India and it’s environment.

The goal is to seek an egalitarian society with an even overview of India with fewer gaps between its extremes.

Promod Puri is the founder and former editor-publisher of the LINK.