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Fifty Years of Freedom
("How India Has Fared" by Amartya Sen in Frontline, Vol. 14, No. 16, August 9-22, 1997)

HOW has India fared since Independence? I am afraid we have fared only moderately well.

I recall the rousing speech that Jawaharlal Nehru gave on the eve of Independence, on August 14, 1947. If one considers the various things that he described as "tasks ahead", three commitments that come out quite clearly are, first, a focus on the practice of democracy and the guaranteeing of various freedoms of the citizens of India; secondly, the removal of the social inequality and backwardness that characterised British India; and thirdly, achieving economic progress, judged primarily in terms of how it affects the conditions of the poor in India. Our record in respect of these three commitments has been diverse; it is not bad in an unmitigated way, nor is it glorious in any sense at all.

I THINK perhaps the biggest achievement is in the maintenance of democracy: India has done very much better than most countries in the post-colonial world in being able to maintain democracy. The threats that came, particularly at the time of the Emergency in the 1970s, were defeated by the Indian voters, and defeated decisively enough for that issue not to be raised again. The fact that the press has remained largely free, civil rights have stayed in place and the military has stayed in the barracks rather than ruling our lives are achievements of considerable distinction. I think the maintenance of democracy and the freedom of mind is certainly a very important achievement.

I was very struck the other day by a statement that the great historian E.P. Thompson made about India. Thompson was a critical social commentator and a perceptive one, and was describing the most impressive aspect of India as he saw it. He said:

All the convergent influences of the world run through this society: Hindu, Muslim, Christian, secular, Stalinist, liberal, Maoist, democratic, socialist, Gandhian. There is not a thought that is being thought in the West or East that is not active in some Indian mind.

That is a major tribute to what has happened in India, and I think Thompson gets it exactly right: if I were to say what India's main achievement is, it is that it has maintained this aspect of the freedom of mind. It has been very successful in this respect and India's achievement here contrasts sharply with what has happened in many other countries, not just in the Third World but also in some of the rich countries.

By a current estimate, based on official data, the number of children in India in the age-group 6-11 years (that is, the primary-school years) not attending school in 1995 was staggering - about 36 million boys and 42 million girls.

IN contrast with the achievement in this field, I think what has happened in respect of social inequality and backwardness is very nearly a disaster - a disaster not in the sense of something going suddenly very bad but something remaining extremely bad without there being any change in it. Our educational progress has been incredibly slow, and also unbelievably unequal. Towards the end of the 1960s I gave a series of lectures on the inequities of Indian education. One of them, the Lal Bahadur Shastri Memorial lecture, titled the "Crisis of Indian Education", was published around 1970; in it I complained about the fact that far more resources were spent on higher education than on primary education. Unfortunately, the situation today, 27 years on, is even more extreme. Higher education has expanded dramatically, and India has one of the largest higher educated populations in the world - for every student that China sends to the university we send as many as six. In contrast, while China is getting close to universal literacy, we are very far away from it. Half the Indian adult population happens still to be illiterate, two-thirds of Indian women are illiterate. India is the only major country in the world that is trying to approach the 21st century with the bulk of the country illiterate. And given the fact that among the commitments that Pandit Nehru emphasised in his speech on the "tryst with destiny" was the removal of illiteracy and ignorance, our failure in this regard is quite amazing.

In other fields as well we see a similar pattern of achievement alongside great inequality. Life expectancy at birth in India has certainly gone up: it used to be below 30 years at the time of Independence and is well above 60 years now. Although that is a considerable achievement, life expectancy at birth differs sharply between classes and between urban and rural areas. Inequalities in survival between women and men persist and have, in some respects, become even sharper. It is not so much that women have a lower life expectancy than men at this time - in fact, they are marginally ahead of or close to men in terms of life expectancy. But we know that, given similar care and attention, women tend to live much longer than men in any society with gender equality, that is, gender equality at least in respect of nutrition and medical attention. In India that is not the case. So even if women live just as long as men at this time, that still represents a deprivation, because it indicates that women are not living as long as they could have had they received the same medical care and attention as men.

"Illiteracy, the lack of health care, the absence of land reforms... and pervasive gender bias make the problem of social inequality in India very large."

Some of us from time to time have tried to capture these magnitudes in figures that might translate these general concerns into concrete numbers. We have attempted, for example, to calculate the number of missing women, that is, to compute the number of women we would expect India to have given the general achievement of male life expectancy and compare that number with the number of women we actually observe. Depending on the exact method of calculation, the number of missing women in India is between 30 million and 40 million, which is really dramatically large. These are the women who would have been living but are not because they died prematurely, as they would not have if they had received care similar to what men receive in society. Again the pattern is of considerable achievement and tremendous inequality in that achievement. I think various other social areas show a similar pattern.

TO turn to the third issue, that of economic growth and, more generally, of economic development, India's record has been again a mixed one. The growth rate was rather slow initially, it quickened a little in the 1980s, it dipped after the economic reforms, and then went up, and it is now running at a reasonable rate of 6-7 per cent a year. This rate is not negligible in any sense, and is certainly among the faster rates of growth in the world. And yet, despite overall economic growth, there is evidence that economic expansion is not reaching the least fortunate in Indian society.

In this context it is useful to examine the programme of economic reforms and liberalisation. My attitude on this is mixed. I believe that liberalisations were due, in some respects overdue. I think the Indian economy was over-regulated in a counter-productive way. Many of the regulations were essentially of a feudal nature, even though they often were sold under a socialist slogan. They often serve people of vested interest. And yet in order to make use of liberalisation and the opportunities of globalisation and to open up to world trade, and in order to distribute their benefits evenly, what we need is a sharing of social opportunities that puts different sections of the community on a relatively equal footing.

That is, of course, exactly what happened in East Asia - beginning with Japan and including South Korea, Taiwan, post-reform China, Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore and so on. The interesting feature of East Asian economic growth is that it is founded on a shared base of general education, a high level of literacy being a common characteristic of all these countries. It is sometimes overlooked that at the time of the Meiji restoration in the middle of the 19th century, well before its industrialisation programme, Japan already had a rate of literacy that was higher than that of Europe. These are very pro-education countries and their education has not been, as in India, concentrated only on the elite. When Japan, South Korea, Taiwan or post-reform China proceeded to development, they were in a position to spread the opportunities of economic expansion very widely.

The case of China is particularly interesting to observe because educational expansion in China took place before the economic reforms of 1979. And it is one of history's ironies - Adam Smith, I imagine, would have described it as an unintended consequence of human action - that one of the beneficiaries of the Maoist programme of mass education was market-led economic development in post-reform China. Unlike in India, where market opportunities are concentrated in the hands of relatively few, in the Chinese case they can be much more widely shared, because the basic level of education was so widely shared.

No matter how they arrived there - whether through Buddhism, through a commitment of the state as in the case of Japan, or through a left-wing mass educational programme as in China - one shared characteristic in East Asia has been the relatively egalitarian distribution of social opportunities on the basis of a high level of literacy, a basic level of public health care and good social security systems. That general opportunity could make economic expansion much more participatory than it is, or can be, in India, given the tremendous inequality in social opportunity that we have.

Looking back, then, I would say that the real drag on the Indian economy is the continuation of social inequality and backwardness. Its direct effect is that lots of people have very few opportunities to lead a good life - to receive medical attention when they are ill, to be able to communicate with others in the country or the rest of the world, to read and write as they like, and so on. But on top of that, these deprivations in respect of human capabilities also restrain a large section of the community from benefiting from the economic opportunities that exist in the modern world.

The distribution of the benefits of economic expansion tends to be severely unequal. This is for a variety of reasons, in which, of course, the unequal ownership of capital is an important factor. In addition, however, the unequal distribution of social opportunities is a major factor; it divides not so much the very rich from the rest, which is what happens as far as the ownership of physical capital itself is concerned, but the middle classes, which are very large in India, from the even larger lower classes. We thus have an odd situation, in which the process of economic development is going ahead at a reasonably fast pace, but where a very large section of the community - indeed, the majority of the community - is not in a position to join in it.

The biggest failure in India is social inequality; it takes its toll both directly - in terms of the quality of life - and indirectly - in terms of reducing the economic opportunities that people have. I think it is illiteracy, the lack of health care, the absence of land reforms, the difficulty in getting micro-credit if you belong to the rural poor, and, of course, the pervasive gender bias between men and women that make the problem of social inequality so large in India. These are India's main failures and I think that our achievements - in particular, the maintenance of democracy and continued process of moderate economic growth - are enormously compromised by these factors.

DEMOCRACY gives us an opportunity not only to exert our will on matters that are dramatically nasty, like a famine. (It is, of course, a well-observed fact that famines never occur in a democratic country because no government in a democracy can afford to go to the polls or face the criticism of newspapers or opposition parties with an experience of famine in that country.) But we can use democracy also to press for more subtle failures - not that subtle anyway but more subtle than the gross failure of famine - and these are matters such as continuing illiteracy and the continued lack of health care. It is up to us to protest against such things; our great asset, namely, the survival of democracy, can be turned into not only an achievement in itself, which it is, but also as the means for further achievement by political agitation.

Politicisation is extremely important in order to translate the achievements of democracy into achievements in social and economic fields, and I hope very much that this will happen.

In politics as much as in economics, demand is an important influence on supply. We ultimately get what we strongly demand - that is why politics is so important and agitations are important; that is why drawing attention to deprivations is important and having a high-profile perspective in such matters as gender inequality is important. The more we bring the deprivations that blight the lives of many Indians into the political arena, the more likely it is that we will be able to overcome them and achieve what we really hoped we would achieve at the time when Independence came 50 years ago.

As told to V.K. Ramachandran.