October 27, 2012

India aspires to be a Superpower but must overcome incompetence, bureaucracy and corruption

Der Spiegel - Poverty is still rampant in India and chaos remains a defining characteristic. But the country is also a global leader in high tech, has become the world's leading weapons importer and is planning a mission to Mars. On the way to superpower status, India must first overcome deep-seated corruption and internal division.

So long as India has massive illiteracy, India will not be able to develop that portion of the population in any meaningful way. An India that is 60% undeveloped will not be a superpower. This seems unlikely to be overcome in one generation. India will then have at best an active and significantly developed population of about 500 million and 1 billion still undeveloped in say 25 years. India also has to demonstrate that they will develop the needed infrastructure (energy and roads and cities) that will enable a fully developed economy. Until this happens India will not develop as fast or as far as China.

There is no doubt that India feels that it has arrived. Some of its politicians and business leaders believe it has reached a status as a third superpower, alongside the United States and China. On August 15, the country celebrated the 65th anniversary of its independence from British rule with elaborate parades. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, 79, promised: "No power in the world can stop our country from achieving new heights of progress and development."

There is one India, the high-tech powerhouse of a rising global power, backed up by numbers and proof of its prowess. But then there is the other India: where one in three of the world's malnourished children lives; where two-thirds of the population lives on less than $2 a day; where half the population has no access to toilets and 25 percent still cannot read and write. It's also a country where the power supply is so scandalously unreliable that, in late July, almost 700 million people were without lights and electricity for two days, the railroads stopped running, factories stood idle and some hospitals were crippled.

Is India on the road to becoming a superpower? Or is it condemned to forever remain a developing-world power, on the outside looking in?

Lately, though, there has been cause for concern. The Indian economy, which grew at a healthy rate of 10.6 percent in 2010, has slowed, with just 6 percent growth expected for 2012. Even Prime Minister Singh warns that India's security will be in jeopardy unless the country achieves higher growth rates again soon. In addition, foreign investment is weakening, the budget deficit has grown and the Indian rupee has lost a substantial amount of its value.

Desperation and Despair

The village of Hasakothur, a three-hour drive from Hyderabad, is a case in point. Farmers there experimented with seeds sold to them at rock-bottom prices by international corporations. Red sorghum and the pesticide Protex, which was applied to the fields at the same time, were seen as miracle products because of the initially high yields. But, today, the villagers view them as a curse.

After three or four harvests, the soil is depleted and requires more and more fertilizer. By artificially pushing down sorghum prices and thereby forcing the farmers to take on more and more debt, distributors were the only ones to profit from the higher crop yields. Thousands of farmers committed suicide out of sheer desperation, many taking their lives by drinking the highly toxic pesticide that they had once hoped would bring them economic success.

More than half of Indians work in agriculture (generating about 14 percent of the gross domestic product), while some 2.5 million people work in information technology (generating about 6 percent of GDP). "We send our children to the city. Any job there is better than here," says Kiran, a farmer.

Kiran believes that he is about 60, but he doesn't know his exact age. He looks very old. Like everyone in the village, he is in debt to his distributor, and any farming profits are offset by the interest on the debt. "It's like a race against a clock that's ticking faster than you are," he says. Indian farmers are also harmed by New Delhi's policy of allowing major Indian corporations to lease agricultural land in countries like Ethiopia. For someone like Kiran, democracy doesn't translate into having an effective and competent government, nor does strong economic growth mean that he and millions of other people in rural areas are better off by an iota.

This realization has prompted others in the village to join the Naxalites. The Maoist insurgent groups, who use violence to combat large landowners and big industry, are currently active in about a third of India's more than 600 districts. In its July report, the organization Human Rights Watch accuses both the government and the Naxalites of violating human rights.

At War against Corruption

India has splendid programs for the poorest of the poor, but they exist only on paper. The government guarantees every economically disadvantaged rural household 100 paid working days. Rural schools are supposed to distribute free lunches to students. Just a few weeks ago, the prime minister promised that every Indian household would have electricity within the next five years.

But these are mostly theoretical promises. On the long road between greedy politicians in New Delhi and corrupt local officials, the money tends to disappear before it reaches the poor. Neither Maoism nor the constant danger of terrorism from neighboring Pakistan is the greatest internal threat to the subcontinent. Instead, it is poverty and, more than anything, corruption.

One man has declared war on this scourge. He is determined to win at whatever cost, even if it means risking his life. Kisan Baburao Hazare, 75, is India's most influential political provocateur. He is hated by some, admired by many and, most of all, seen as a force for change. Through his hunger strikes, the social activist with the honorific "Anna" ("big brother") is even likened to Mahatma Gandhi -- the ultimate honor.

Hazare's village is in an arid region of the western Indian state of Maharashtra. Bumpy paths lead past filthy tearooms that help to explain an angry outburst by Minister of Rural Development Jairam Ramesh, one of India's few plain-talking politicians, in November 2011. He complained that India remains "the dirtiest and filthiest country" in the world, adding that it was paradoxical that women were demanding cell phones rather than toilets.


When the country hosted the Commonwealth Games in 2010, it cost taxpayers at least 15 times as much as the original estimate. The country also lost about $40 billion when then Telecommunications Minister Andimuthu Raja allegedly sold a mobile wireless network for much less than it was worth.

But Indians aren't just outraged about corruption at the highest levels. In daily life, hardly anything happens anymore without paying bribes. According to an unofficial list, bribes are now commonplace in the capital. Residents can expect to pay bribes of up to $100 for a driver's license and $1,000 to register a private automobile. By comparison, the average $10 bribe expected by the police during routine traffic checks is a bargain.

Still falling further behind China

Amartya Sen, an Indian winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences who teaches at Harvard, wrote in a recent study that China makes far better use of its opportunities to advance social development throughout high economic growth rates, and that India is falling behind its rival in terms of life expectancy, education and infant mortality.

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