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SOCIETY & CULTURE
societies - Wisdom and Challenges
SOUTH ASIAN FEATURE
and origin of Modern Art
Bengal's last roar?
Page 1 of 5
by Mira Kamdar
India’s most pressing problem in the 1950s was to feed its poor, who made up roughly half of its then burgeoning population of 350 million people. My father, one of the first Indians to come to America to study after India gained its independence in 1947, was working on a degree in soils analysis at Oregon State University. This was the era of the "green revolution."
Fueled by a mixture of Gandhian idealism and American can-do spirit, his plan was to complete his degree, return home, and do his part to help "Young India"--as it was often called in those days--improve agricultural production. But the attractions of making a decent living were irresistible. He decided to stay in America, switched his career to aeronautical engineering and got a job with one of the cutting-edge companies of the time: Boeing. My father became part of the "brain drain" that subsequently brought thousands of engineers, scientists, doctors and other professionals from India to America in search of a standard of living their country of origin could not afford to give them.
Half a century later, India’s most pressing problem is still how to deal with its poor. The green revolution did allow India to dramatically increase crop yields and become self-sufficient in food production. But India’s population more than kept pace with the country’s economic growth which ambled forward at the rate of 3.5 to 5 percent for many decades. Only after a balance of payments crisis forced India to take steps to liberalize its economy in 1991 did the country begin to achieve consistent growth of between 6 and 7 percent. But even this was not enough.
Today, more than fifty years after independence, India remains a country where 350 million people--a number equal to the entire population of the country in 1950--live in absolute poverty. India’s poor make up fully one third of its total population, which passed the billion mark on May 15, 2000. And India’s population is increasing by 15.5 million people each year. This means the country will need 125,000 new schools, 373,000 new teachers, 2.5 million new homes, and 4 million new jobs every year to meet the needs of its new citizens. With its current rate of growth, India cannot possibly hope to keep pace.
More alarming, even were India to move forward quickly with the next round of economic reforms and push growth up to the 8 to 10 percent range, and even if it were able to sustain this high level of growth over the next ten years, the lives of the poor would remain substantially unchanged. In fact, in this best-case scenario, per capita income in India would rise from the current $300 per year to all of $500 per year a decade from now. India cannot simply grow its way out of poverty.
The cost of the poor to India is inestimable. First and foremost, of course, there is the wasted human potential and the very real human suffering due to preventable contagious disease, lack of access to basic health care and education, even to sanitation and clean drinking water. Mass poverty is having a devastating impact on India’s environment, which is under attack from accelerated deforestation, overgrazing, and extremely high levels of air and water pollution, especially in urban areas. Mass poverty also affects India’s ability to compete against countries with better physical infrastructure and more educated populations for foreign direct investment, which India badly needs to face a fiscal deficit the IMF has recently deemed "unsustainable" and to jump-start badly needed infrastructure development in transportation, communications and power. Finally, mass poverty and the growing gulf between haves and have-nots poses a looming threat to India’s internal security and to its political and social stability.
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