Predictions of India's impending global leadership are splashed across newspaper headlines regularly. There is fulsome praise from all quarters on India's ever increasing foreign exchange reserves, foreign direct investments and sustained levels of economic growth rates. There is awe tinged with jealousy among other developing nations as India inks military and economic pacts with United States and China. And the discussion about India's claim to a permanent seat in the UN Security Council has now assumed a sense of inevitability. Resurgent India now appears to be firmly in the driver's seat in the race towards development, and the final goal of becoming a global power.
While a seat in the UNSC may be a measure of global leadership, it may be worthwhile to look at other measures of global leadership as well. At the beginning of the new millennium the United Nations set a set of development goals - minimum standards that all nations should aspire to reach by 2015. These Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) were adopted by the UN in September 2000. These include eight very simple sounding goals like eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, universal primary education, reduction of child mortality and improving maternal health. In the context of the daily reports of a rapidly burgeoning economy and global leadership potential of India, these goals may appear to be irrelevant especially to a nation that aspires to be superstardom. However it may be worthwhile to do a reality check the status of these indicators at present and how far it may be possible to reach in the remaining ten years.
A quick review of the international data on the progress towards MDGs reveals that the South Asian region is perhaps the worst off. Extreme poverty was marginally more common in Sub-Saharan Africa in 1999 at 47% as compared to 37% in South Asia, but in absolute terms there is no comparison, because the South Asian region has twice as many people as the Sub Saharan region. But if we look at a few specific states within India like Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa, the population totals are comparable to that in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the figures are similar.
One of the eight MDGs is to promote gender equality and women's empowerment. On this count the global report card Women's Empowerment: Measuring the Global Gender Gap, released by the World Economic Forum recently gives India a lowly 53rd position out of the 58 countries surveyed. On the educational attainment front India is ranked 57 out of the 58 countries. It is worthwhile to note India is well behind oft-ridiculed Bangladesh, which is ranked 39th overall and 37 in terms of educational attainment.
It is a convenient argument that India is a very large country and the advances made in Bangalore and Hyderabad get negated by the situation existing in Bijnore or Hoshangabad. One hears that if one takes away these five states the country would have far better social and economic indicators. Perhaps, but it is silly to argue that one part of India should be overlooked in assessing the progress of the nation.
But one thing to be gained by such separation of haves and have-nots is awareness that the problems are concentrated in some areas. Indeed, it has been shown through an examination of sub-national data that the problems are far less widespread than believed.
Looking carefully at district level data one can easily detect the patterns of deprivation within the states. It has been shown that one fifth of the districts and villages in the country account for one half of all infant deaths, similarly three quarters of all out-of-school children are to be found in only a fifth of all villages. Thus Orissa has its KBK districts while UP has Bundelkhand, and likewise in the other states. If we consider the districts of Bundelkhand for example, most of the millennium development goal related indicators are in the doldrums. Much of it is due to lack of development services delivery. Poverty is high, literacy levels are low and health care indices are very poor. This is primarily because doctors are not available at their posts, school teachers are missing and in many places the law and order is maintained by 'dacoits' like Dadua and Nirbhay Gujjar. There were reports of a 'Sati' from Banda district towards the end of the month of May, and no action had been taken against any party by the district authorities.
The Prime Minister, at the recently concluded meeting with district collectors, called on them to pay particular attention to rural priorities, and discussed their role in Bharat Nirman - for which the Government has earmarked thousands of crore of rupees. But before reviewing what is possible with the initiative taken through different states it is worthwhile looking at what the present Government has done through its own initiative. Additional money from the educational cess introduced in last year's budget has not been earmarked for the purpose. A new National Rural Health Mission was launched with much fanfare in April by the Prime Minister; however the Finance Minister did not assign any extra funds. Those who have been tracking the Employment Guarantee Act as it emerged through different versions have commented that it has been considerably diluted.
Thanks to wide-spread confidence in the PM's integrity, the overall impression so far has been that the Government has the right intent, but lacks the political acumen to convert its intent to action. But as the failures mount, the opposite view will also gain believers - that the Government has no good intentions, but only the political acumen to convey some concern. Empty stomachs are a better indicator of leadership than all the accoloades one can muster.