India@75: Why Does Deprivation Still Exist to This Extent?

Is democracy about procedural routines such as elections and guidebooks such as written constitutions, or is it about the transformations wrought after its adoption as the form of government?

As the country waves flags and celebrates the 75th anniversary of India’s independence, it is also time to take stock. What did India’s founders and citizens dream of, how has India fared, what have been our challenges and successes?

The Wire’s reporters and contributors bring stories of the period, of the traumas but also the hopes of Indians, as seen in personal accounts, in culture, in the economy and in the sciences. How did the modern state of India come about, what does the flag represent? How did literature and cinema tackle the trauma of Partition?

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Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

Excerpted with permission from India’s Economy From Nehru to Modi, published by Permanent Black in association with Ashoka University.

As I had pointed out, international comparison of economic development indicators is often met with the criticism that we could be comparing across political regimes. However, this is irrelevant in a comparison within India where the states are all under the umbrella of one governance system, namely political democracy. What we found in such a comparison is that a wide variation in human development exists. While at least some states appear to be inching towards the global standard of development in some dimensions, democracy in India coexists with low human development in states accounting for a large part of the country.

In a country as large as India is, some regional variation may be expected. However, the divergence can be considerable and has been long lasting, not having been erased in seventy-five years. As all states function under a common set of rules, there must be something unique to the states that differences of such magnitude persist into the twenty-first century. Why is it that democracy has not been able to eliminate basic deprivation in large parts of India?

A clue may be found in the disquisition on democracy by the sociologist Barrington Moore, who has studied the transition to democracy across the world. Moore sees the prior revolutions that took place in Europe and the United States as crucial in the transition to a democracy there. When it comes to India, he says: “. . . the nationalist movement did not take a revolutionary form, though civil disobedience forced the withdrawal of a weakened British Empire. The outcome of these forces was indeed political democracy, but a democracy that has not done a great deal toward modernizing India’s social structure. Hence famine still lurks in the background.” Strangely, when it came to India, Moore seems to have inverted his thesis to suggest that democracy can alter the social structure, presumably through parliamentary means.

Pulapre Balakrishnan
India’s Economy From Nehru to Modi: A Brief History
Permanent Black in association with Ashoka University, 2022

However, his general thesis, that a social transformation is essential for democracy to attain its potential, is useful in understanding the regional variation that we observe in India. Arguably, the regions of India that have seen the most development, including the elimination of illiteracy and extreme poverty, are regions that have witnessed social transformation that eliminated the old order. This is most pronounced in the case of Kerala, where as early as 1957 an elected communist government initiated a process of improvement of the conditions of life for the mass of the population. This mainly involved the spread of health and education, resulting in a social emancipation of the lower orders of its society. A significant event in this transformation was the land reforms initiated within weeks of the installation of the government. This led to the ending of landlordism and the associated suppression of the labouring classes. So the social structure was altered, awareness grew, and with it an unstated but recognisable demand for a better life. Competing political parties had no option but to respond with policies that enhanced human capabilities if they were to survive. Though the culmination of the social transformation in Kerala was the installation of a communist party, the transition was long. Having commenced in the late nineteenth century, it had involved a caste-reform movement that initiated social mobility, the work of Christian missionaries that spread literacy, and an enlightened public policy of the princes who had ruled a large part of what is now Kerala.

A transformation of a kind took place in Tamilnadu too, though its origin was a caste-based movement aimed at eliminating the hegemony of the Brahmins. However, it could come to power only by riding on ethnic nationalism fuelled by the attempt to impose Hindi as the sole official language of the country. Since then the “Dravidian movement” has had great political success and parties that draw inspiration from it have now been in power in the state for over half a century. As with the rise of the communists in Kerala, so too has the Dravidian movement left its imprint on society. Tamilnadu has achieved relatively good development indicators, though they are yet to reach the levels achieved in Kerala.

Also read: Indian Economy at 75: Much Progress But Lingering Doubts Over Development Model

No social change comparable to that in Kerala and Tamilnadu has taken place in the three other states in our sample in Table 5.3. Not even Zamindari abolition in UP and the land reforms of the Left Front in West Bengal seem to have achieved a similar success in the social sphere, necessary to bring about development in the sense that we use the term. These states have higher poverty and poorer social indicators than Kerala, the shortfall in women’s literacy being particularly noticeable. The case of Gujarat suggests that overall economic prosperity may be insufficient to bring about the expansion of freedoms of the population. We saw in Table 5.3 that though it is one of India’s richest states, it harbours significant poverty and its social indicators are not much better than the national average. A change in social structure that redistributes power appears to be essential to widespread development in a society, including the elimination of poverty.

Interestingly, in his final speech to the Constituent Assembly, Ambedkar had recognised the role of the social structure in perpetuating social and economic inequality when he pointed out that, in the India that was to come,

“In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognising the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril.”

Ambedkar was prescient in seeing that political democracy is no guarantor of the expansion of freedoms, an insight that is crucial to our understanding of the history of both democracy and development in India.

Quite often, when it is suggested that India’s democracy is diminished by the presence of deprivation on so large a scale, it is asserted that democracy is really a form of government by discussion, and expecting it to deliver human development is to see it merely as an instrumentality. An antidote to this line of argument is offered in Moore’s recounting of the history of democracy. He sees its development as “a long and certainly incomplete struggle” to do three related things: (1) to check arbitrary rulers, (2) to replace arbitrary rules with just and rational ones, and (3) to obtain a share for the underlying population in the making of rules. He sees the ending of monarchy, the efforts to establish the rule of law and the power of the legislature, and, later, use of the state as an engine of social change as the best known aspects of these three aims. The definition of democracy as “government by discussion”, attributed to Bagehot, may well reflect a consensus on how it was intended to function, but remains ahistorical, and leaves us blind to its potential to improve the conditions of life for the mass of the population, a matter of urgency in India.

Democracy in India has received worldwide attention, especially from observers based in Western democracies. The cynic might observe that the admiration has turned particularly vocal ever since India’s economy has billowed out. Some recent congratulatory reviews of India’s democracy emanating from overseas have been those by Mathews (2015), Shani (2017), and Desai (2017). These observers have generally marvelled at one or the other of two features of Indian democracy – such as that a country of such great diversity has held together. Others have remarked upon not only the successful conduct of elections but also the peaceful transition once they are completed, both quite remarkable in a poor country which till recently had very low levels of literacy.

Also read: India Has Come a Long Way Since 1947, But Much Still Needs to Be Done

Surprisingly, none of them has wondered why poverty is tolerated to such an extent in India’s democracy. It is understandable that some in India should feel elated by the praise but it should also leave us circumspect. Is democracy about procedural routines such as elections and guidebooks such as written constitutions, or is it about the transformations wrought after its adoption as the form of government? To paraphrase Moore, how much has democracy done for India? The evidence on human development in the country implies that the praise needs to be tempered. Significant deprivation exists in the country even after seventy-five years of its formation. This has not received as much attention, but it is high time it does. Few democracies have tolerated so much deprivation for so long. The substantial divergence in the progress of human development across the country implies that it is possible to eliminate its worst forms through public policy. I conclude by asking to what extent India’s impressive Constitution can advance this outcome.