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Is India a Poor Country or Emerging Superpower?

Updated on July 20, 2015
Rich Smile of Poor kids
Rich Smile of Poor kids | Source

Why India has Twin Personality

After India’s partition – into secular India and Muslim India (Pakistan) – in 1947 and adoption of a secular constitution in 1950, the democratic India started its journey towards self governance. Although the colonial rulers wanted more divisions of the country but failed to do so. India started off with the trauma of partition (which led to mass scale Hindu-Muslim riots killing over 1 million people) and a Indo-Pak war, while the scars of the Bengal Famine of 1943-44 (when 3.5 million people lost their lives to famine or related epidemics) were barely healed. It was a country systematically and thoroughly drained of its resources during the 200 years of colonial exploitation, ordinary people reduced to serving their rent seeking landlord masters (zamindars) appointed by the White rulers to collect revenue or local kings doing the same duty for the British, and whatever rudimentary infrastructure facilities existed were only in those areas felt lucrative to serve the motherland of the colonial rulers.

Over 550 tiny estates of Hindu or Muslim local rulers (Rajas) had to be merged into the free republic to give the geographic shape of what is India today. Besides, there were numerous zamindars, holding vast tracts of lands given by the colonial rulers, in the social set up of the Indian society. Therefore, the society was clearly divided between the vast masses of the poor and the handful of landlords or royal rulers whose only task was to collect revenue for colonial masters. These elites naturally held significant influence and authority in the free India too. Land reforms were urgently needed on a mass scale but the efforts were sporadic, half-hearted and grossly insufficient.

The net result was a badly polarized society, where a tiny fraction of the population held most political power and controlled all the social and economical processes. Further, the elected governments focused mostly on the economic development of the power centers which happened to be in the urban areas; and the countryside, where over 85% of the population lived in the 1950s, remained neglected. It resulted in continued migration to cities; as a result the biggest business centers such as Mumbai or Delhi continued to be burdened with huge populations. Asia’s largest slum, Dharavi, exists inside Mumbai, the financial capital of the country. Hollywood finds special charm in the human suffering of Indian slum dwellers and excitedly calls them “slumdogs” !!

In India, cell phones jumped from 3 million in 2000 to 100 million in 2005 and 929 million in 2012. The number of television channels rose from 1 in 1991 to 150 in 2007 and more than 500 now. In 2006, 23 Indians appeared on the Forbes list of the world’s billionaires; in 2013, the figure had more than doubled to 55.”

Urban India is “ India”

Someone rightly described the economic growth of India – “it has several oasis of affluence in the vast desert of poverty.” The economic oasis are what the government wants to project to the world - as “India”. Whatever development leaders ever talk about happens here. In the past two decades of economic reforms and liberalization regime the economic growth has accelerated significantly. “India” is modernized and has all business infrastructure, the stock markets, the golf-courses and race-courses for the ultra-rich, the air conditioned metro trains, international airports, the IT industry has worldwide recognition, the call centers have mushroomed.

This is urban and metropolitan India; the vast middle class also lives here. Its headcount is comparable to the US population – about 300 million, but extending to 350 or even 400 million won’t change the argument. The business activities of the urban India make up most of the GDP numbers that the finance minister of India refers to and looks after. To be fair this urban India also supports a lot of poor who provide the manual labor to industries and businesses, sell vegetables and deliver milk, drive manual rickshaws, do all blue-collar and menial jobs and live in slums or slum-like areas. Educated youths from the countryside normally look for jobs in the urban centers and support their families “back home”.

The per capita consumption of everything is much higher compared with the “poor India” described in the next section. As “development” takes place, their consumption is also increasing. I wonder what would happen to the planet if the per capita consumption (of everything) in India and China begin to match the Americans.

God, save the planet from “consumption hungry” people of the world!

Rural India is “Hindustan”

The traditional names of the country are Bharat (in Hindi) and Hindustan (land of Hindus, in Urdu). Leaving beside the 300 – 400 million people of the urban India, the rest of 1.23 billion people live here in Hindustan. It is largely rural and people survive on agrarian economy. Most people work in the farms of the rich landlords, the rest may have their own small land holdings and minor businesses to survive.

Tribal People

Over 90 million (8% of India's total population) tribals live in their own communities in far off place where there is still abundance of natural resources and forest cover. The colonial rulers in the British India found it convenient to label these regions “excluded” or “partly excluded” areas (after all why invite trouble from the fierce fighters when there is rest of the vast colony can provide revenue and everything they needed to make Britain prosperous!) and appointed special administrators to govern them. Unfortunately these areas were left excluded even in the free India, Whether in the British India or in the free India, these simple, naïve and innocent tribal people have generally been exploited by the money lenders or forest officials and rarely felt the presence of government machinery in any positive manner.

Over the decades, the vacuum was filled by left-wing extremists called (Maoists or Naxals) who ideologically aim to throw away the democratic State and establish a Communist State; Chine is only too happy to support their violent activities in as many ways as possible. They are considered the biggest internal security threat for the Indian democracy. The poor tribals are now sandwiched between the Maoists and the security forces of the government, which is allocating the minerals and other natural resources of their regions to corporate house for “India’s” economic development. Presence of minerals and industrial raw material beneath their lands has become a curse for them – because the powerful corporations eye them. The rich elites need the only land and resources, but not people who preserved and nurtured the natural wealth since ages. The helpless tribals, displaced from their ancestral lands and deprived of the means of subsistence, are left to defend themselves and struggle for survival in the alien and exploitative “developed” societies. They have been the biggest victims of “India’s” “recent “growth story”. The worst forms of poverty and human suffering can be discovered among them – all because the state chooses to ignore them due to their different and most eco friendly simple lifestyle.

Lower Caste Communities

The lowest caste Hindu communities (officially called scheduled castes (SC)) form another major chunk of population, left excluded from the “development” process. Forming about 16% population (similar in proportion to Muslims in India) and twice the headcount of the tribals, they had traditionally faced the worst form of discrimination at the hands of the so-called upper caste people. While there is much change in the past half century particularly in the urban areas, they are not yet fully “equalized” in the rural regions. Western intellectuals love to cite the discrimination of the SC communities to beat the Hindus as a whole for the ills of the caste system, probably because it vibes well with the racial exploits back home.

Other Backward Communities

Other than the tribals and the SC communities, there are many other backward caste (OBC) communities (25 – 35% of the population) that has also remained rather disconnected from the mainstream processes of development and progress. Although never as severely discriminated as the SCs, they can be easily counted among the poor. Taken together these three sections make up well over 50% of country’s population (over 600 million).

This is the simplest picture of Bharat or Hindustan hardly ever considered important at the national level, except for the election times. The national media, inspired by the Western counterparts, loves to visit “Hindustan” when there are widespread floods, droughts, or other natural calamities to report the count of the dead. Then the economic experts love to make noise about losses to the nation in money terms. And leaders love to issue statements expressing sympathies and go for "areal" visits to show comradree, hoping to be remembered in the next election. Then, of course, nothing changes for the good and life comes back to “normal” until the next round of disaster.

International poverty experts holding the $1.25-a-day poverty line compare this “Hindustan” inside India with the sub-Saharan Africa. Their $2-a-day poverty line declared over three-fourth of the population poor just few years ago! All the pathetic numbers (from the Western standards) for infant mortality rates, maternal mortality rates, BMI, child deaths, malnutrition, stunted children, child marriages, adolescent pregnancies, and the scare of “population explosion” originate here. Hindustan is a poverty watchers’ delight and perhaps the biggest global laboratory of poverty researchers! Of course, poverty stays as usual.

Who says the poor or their poverty is useless! Who says the humanity doesn't care for the poor; it certainly cares in counting and studying them !!

My Vehicle my Family!
My Vehicle my Family!

Indian Population

The country occupies 2.4% of world’s land area but supports about 18% global population. At about 1.4% annual population growth India is adding about 18 million people every year. Its population reached 1.21 billion in 2010 and is set to overtake China by around 2026 and is expected to peak in the range 1.5 - 1.6 billion by 2050. Lack of development is the basic cause of rather high population and extreme poverty. In fact, at present the two are feeding each other.

Sixty years ago, India started the first national family planning program in the world. It was certainly a different world with different realities then. Indian population was just a third of what it is today and the average life expectancy was only 32 years (Today it is 67 years). The average number of children per woman was about six; today it is around 2.3. So, big family size is not the cause of population growth today. The real cause of population growth today is population momentum – there are too many people in the reproductive age group.

India has more than 50% of its population below the age of 25 and more than 65% hovers below the age of 35. It is expected that, in 2020, the average age of an Indian will be 29 years, compared to 37 for China and 48 for Japan.

A Rural School
A Rural School

India’s Growth Story!?

In early 1990s, the process of economic reforms and liberalization of economic policies was started. Consequently, in the first decade of the new millennium, India’s GDP grew impressively at 6 – 9% per annum. When the Western economies took severe downturn in 2008-09, India and China continued to grow on the strength of their large domestic markets. Looking at this impressive growth, many economists started seeing India as an emerging economic superpower and expect it to play a major role in the global economy in the 21st century.

Over a decade ago, a well known correspondent of the Financial Times wrote: “Economic futurologists at the CIA, in the investment banks, at western universities and in the business press all agree that China and India will at some stage in the 21st century come to dominate the global economy. In Washington’s various intelligence estimates, China will overtake the United States between 2030 and 2040 and India will overtake the US by roughly 2050, as measured in dollar terms.” He further added that “Add or subtract a couple of points from India’s annual growth rates and it could overtake the United States as soon as 2040 or as late as 2090.”

Then a few years later, Goldman Sachs became excited and predicted that India's GDP would overtake France and Italy by 2020, Germany, UK and Russia by 2025 and Japan by 2035, making it the third largest economy of the world, behind the US and China.

However, the growth rate is now slipping below 5%, largely due to a series of large scandals and mis-governance for last 10 years.

Urbanization is Not Development

Hunger Map of India
Hunger Map of India

Why Economic Growth did not Convert into Development?

This is the question Nobel prize winner economists Amartya Sen and his coauthor Jean Drèze tried to answer in their recent book on the Indian economy, An Uncertain Glory. The moot question is: why the stupendous economic growth of the past decade did little to reduce the widespread poverty in the country?

As Sen and Drèze point out, despite the rapid economic growth, India has fallen behind its neighbors on the social indicators, except perhaps Pakistan. For instance, in 1990 the life expectancy was the same in India and in Bangladesh but today it is four years higher in Bangladesh (69 years) than India (65 years). Similarly, child mortality in 1990 was about 20 per cent higher in Bangladesh than India, but in 2011 it is 25 percent lower than India.

About one third population does not have electricity, compared to 1 percent in China and half of Indian homes remain without toilets. Each year more children (1.7 million under the age of five) die in India from easily preventable diseases like diarrhea than anywhere else in the world. Of those who do survive, 48 per cent are stunted due to lack of nutrients. Child malnutrition in India is higher than in Eritrea.

Immunization of young children is the most basic health measure that a government can provide, but in India only 43.5 per cent of children are completely immunized, compared to 73.1 per cent in Bangladesh. In sub-Saharan Africa, only eight out of 25 countries have immunization figures as bad as India’s.

About a quarter of the Indian population still remains effectively illiterate. India’s adult literacy is not quite the lowest in the world but, at 65 per cent, it is the same as in Malawi and Sudan. Adult literacy in China, by comparison, is 91 per cent.

How and When India will be Superpower?


As Sen and Drèze also establish the currently Indian democracy is seriously compromised by inequalities and social exclusion because India failed to undertake rapid expansion of human capabilities – as done by the East Asian nations. Development of human capabilities is a goal in itself and also an integral element in achieving rapid growth. The solution lies in improving the quality and reach of education alongside providing food and health security to the poor of the country.


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      Mckinsey 11 months ago

      India will never ever become a successful and prosperous country due to a rampant corruption, vicious caste system, inadequate educational programmes and woeful state of India's health care. Game, set and match!

      There was a time when we the West compared India to China, China is currently the second most powerful nation in the world and India is still not just lagging behind but it is going backwards, an economic calamity, the poorest nation in the world.

    • readerssquare profile image

      Readers Square 2 years ago from Punjab, India

      Goodpal you have revealed some startling facts and it’s sad to see how our country was utilized by the foreign powers. The only way we can combat all the social evils and our disparity is by reducing the segregation line of the rich and poor and by spreading education and making food and health secure. The well developed nations have made education and health completely free to their citizens and when this is partly possible even we may show an inclined graph of growth.

    • profile image

      guru 2 years ago

      Corruption now in india its like roots .

      government vernss about . now what we are position our country in global economic .

    • profile image

      SANKARAN 3 years ago


    • profile image

      shiva kumar 5 years ago



      By the complete implementation of SARVA SIKSHA ABHIYAN in all parts of our country.

      By offering noon meals to the children coming from poor families.

      By conducting public awarness programmes about th outcomes of having lot of children.

      Construction of roads and bridges offers employment to large number of people.

      Setting up of more government colleges and schools in villages.

      Encouraging people to setup their own shops.

      Providng them loans at cheap rates.

    • pramodgokhale profile image

      pramodgokhale 5 years ago from Pune( India)

      India is a poor country after applying economic parameters but potential superpower , yes it may happen .The problem is the income disparity and regional imbalance,means backward states and developed states.We are a feudal country and society so it is difficult to share liabilities which any super power has to undertake.If growth continue for next decade ,India will be third economy in the world by PPP(purchase power parity) it is not enough.We should shed all our internal differences and proved to be one nation and to be practical and innovative in practice,so world can notice

      We have strong fundamentals such food self sufficiency, natural resources , so we can take up the global responsibilities ensuring peace and prosperity.

      India can dictate he her doctrine.

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