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Democratic India In
The Development Index 2004

By Sarbeswar Sahoo

17 July, 2007

Contrasts, sometimes extreme, are a characteristic feature of the beginning of the twenty-first century – contrasts which range from apparently boundless affluence to the most absolute destitution, contrasts between regimes marked by the rule of law, respect for human rights and participation of citizens – in short, democracy – and ones where lawlessness, exclusion and tyranny prevail. India is such a contradiction with high scoring on the board.

India is considered as the largest democracy in the world with fifty-five plus years of history in its democratic journey. Although today India can boast of its representative democracy, electoral politics, adult franchise, centralized planning, and comprehensive constitutional safeguards, the other side of the story tells the plight of Indian democracy. These political articulations do not necessarily acknowledge the exclusions that women and other marginalized members within local communities experience. Everyday we see the violation of fundamental human rights and violence against the weaker sections of the society. Treated as second-class citizens, women experience various kinds of discriminations, deprivations and denials, particularly when they bear the double jeopardy of class, caste, religious and sexual identities. More than one-fourth of the population are living below the poverty line and excluded from the economic sphere of public life, thereby denying them their right to entitlement and survival.

Almost 50 percent of the people are illiterate and do not have any information about the governance, and thereby act as a blessing for democracy to thrive. The representative Indian democracy (not participatory) has developed a bureaucratic authoritarianism based on patronage and corruption which the common man find difficult to access and gradually getting alienated from the system. The scuttling of the ‘welfare state’ and the collusion of dominant groups reinforcing a culture of violence are inimical to secular democracy and progressive changes to reduce disparities among different social groups. The ensuing jingoism justifies draconian laws that deny citizens their fundamental rights.

The paradox is that India and Indian democracy claim to be shining when its people look pale and dejected. This paper examines some of these paradoxes and the dismal position of democratic India in the economic development and social opportunity index after fifty-five plus years of its planned development and democratization, thereby examining the relationship between democracy and development.

The Human Development Index is a composite index that measures life expectancy, schools enrollment, literacy and income to allow a broader view of country’s development than does income alone. It is observed in the past few years that in the Human Development Index, India has slipped from rank 124 to 127 in a list of 177 countries and is placed at the bottom of the medium human development countries having a value of 0.595 in the index. It has a low GDP per capita of PPPUS$ 2,670 as compared to other South Asian countries like Maldives (PPPUS$ 4,798) and Sri Lanka (PPPUS$ 3,570). Norway which tops the list of HDI has a per capita of PPPUS$ 36,000.

Some argue that India has improved its performance in the human development index from 0.411 in 1975 to 0.595 in 2002. But Maldives, which tops the SAARC countries, has got a value of 0.752 in the development index and other SAARC countries have also improved their socio-economic condition and standard of human development and quality of life. Even Pakistan, which remains at the bottom of the all SAARC countries, has shown some sense of increase in the HDI ranking by improving its position from 144 in 2001 to142 during 2002. Nepal (from 143 to 140), Bangladesh (from 139 to 138), Bhutan (from 136 to 134), Sri Lanka (from 99 to 96) and Maldives (from 86 to 84) have shown upward direction in the development curve except India, which remains unvarying on its earlier rank of 127.

When people like Lakshmi Mittal, Azim Premji, Anil and Mukesh Ambani have successfully placed themselves within the 100 richest billionaires of the World in the Forbes listing, India has also placed herself as the 48th poorest nation with 31.4 percent value in the Human Poverty Index (HPI). Barbados tops the rank in the HPI among the developing countries with a value 2.5 percent. According to the report 16 percent of the population still remains and live with out having sustainable access to improved water resources and there is a probability at birth for 15.3 percent of the population of not surviving to the age of forty. In India 34.7 percent of the population live with an income below $ 1 a day and 79.9 percent below $ 2 a day. According to the planning commission report 26.1 percent of the populations live below the poverty line. Although we claim that the ratio of poverty has come down from 53.9 percent during 1958 to 26.1 percent during 2000 but the absolute number reveals the reality which depicts that the incidence of poverty has indeed increased from 220.6 million in 1958 to 260.3 million during 2000. Nearly nine out of 10 pregnant women aged between 15 and 49 years suffer from malnutrition and about half of all children (47%) under-five suffer from underweight and 21 percent of the populations are undernourished. India alone has more undernourished people (204 million) than all of sub-Saharan Africa combined. Recognizing the access to food, the former Prime Minister noted that 268 million people are still considered food insecure in India.

In India, as per the 2001 estimate, 0.9 percent of GDP is spent for the public health care facilities and 4.2 percent of GDP is spent for the development of institutions of private health care facilities. This signifies lack of concern on the part of the national government in improving the availability and accessibility of the public health care facilities for the poor and marginalized who cannot afford the expensive health care services in private hospitals, thereby denies their right to health. As per the data provided in the human development report, the total infant mortality rate for India is 67 deaths/1,000 live births and the maternal mortality ratio is 540 per 100,000 live births. Due to various causes also 93-children/ 1000 live births die before they reach the age of five.

As per the 2000 estimation only 28 percent of the populations have sustainable access to improved sanitation and 84 percent of the populations have access to water facilities where as other SAARC countries have performed better in these areas. Even in Bangladesh 48 percent and 97 percent and in Pakistan 62 percent and 90 percent of the population are utilizing and have sustainable access to improved sanitation and water facilities respectively. According to the HDI the life expectancy for the Indian people at birth is 63.7 years as against 81.5 for the Japanese who stands at the 9th position of the HDI. Instead of investing in the quality of life, the government spent 2.3 percent of the GDP for military expenditure by importing armaments in the year 2002.

The educational statistics of India has not been that encouraging to boast with a major chunk of the population outside the domain of education to enjoy the status of illiterate. According to the Census of India 2001 only 54.28 percent of the female population is literate while the literacy rate in case of male is 75.96 percent. It has secured a meager 0.59 in the education index (of HDI) having 61.3 percent of adult literacy (ages above 15 and above) rate as against Maldives which is having a high literacy rate of 97.2 percent with a value of 0.91 in the education index. The report says that the combined gross enrollment ratio for primary, secondary and tertiary schools is 55 percent and 38.7 percent of India’s adult (ages 15 and above) population is illiterate during the 2002. These figures question the efficiency of the state in achieving universal primary education. According to HDI the allocation and share of funds for the improvement of primary and pre-primary education has declined i.e. during 1990 the government spent 38.9 percent of the total educational expenditure on primary and pre-primary education, which has come down to 38.4 percent during 1999 –2001. Thus, this is high time for the government to realize the needs and importance of the development of human resources for a country and spend a substantial amount of the public expenditure especially on primary and pre-primary educational improvement and eradication of illiteracy to achieve cent percent literacy and development for the country in the new millennium.

The greater the gender disparity in basic human developments, the lower is a country’s GDI relative to its HDI. India is also one of the countries with the worst disparities between their GDI and HDI values along with Saudi Arabia, Oman, Pakistan, and Yemen indicating a need for greater attention to gender equality. India remains at 103 position having the value 0.572 while Norway secures the first position in the index with a value of 0.955. Different indicators measure and reveal the fact that there exists a high level of disparity and discrepancy in the socio-economic and educational life of men and women in Indian society. As compared to the previous years the status of women and the gender value has deteriorated to a small extent in the index. In 2001 India had got a GDI value of 0.574 (103 rank) but now in 2001 it has declined to 0.572 (103 rank). But, all other SAARC countries have shown improvement in their gender status.

As per the census, the disparity between male and female is very high (21.70 percent) in terms of the literacy status. According to the HDR there is 22.6 percent disparity in the male-female adult literacy rate where the literacy rate for male is 69.0 and for female it is 46.4 percent. So also in case of gross enrollment, the women are far behind (48%) than the men (62%) in their participation in the primary, secondary and tertiary level of schools. This reflects how women are deprived of their equal rights and access to opportunities, freedom of movement, human dignity, justice, and human rights all of which are the corner stone of democracy.

The largest democracy of the world is not free from the influence of traditional caste structure even while choosing the modern forms of government and governance. The recently finished general election validates the argument that dominant castes and family backgrounds are the kernel on which Indian democracy thrives. Crime-politics nexus also influences the democracy in India. Most of the ministers in the recently elected democratic government are from criminal background. They are entering into the political arena, influencing the decision-making at the highest level in their own favor and thereby increasing corruption through patron-client relationship. The reason for this pervasive political corruption, in spite of five decades of democracy, is because we, in India, do not elect representatives but patrons. The rich and the avaricious as well as the poor and the stricken, vote on this principle. Lack of transparency within the bureaucracy is also another important factor responsible for promoting public corruption. According to Transparency International – 2004 corruption perception index, India is the 91st most corrupt country with a rating of 2.8 in a list of 146 countries of the world.

More than fifty years have been passed; independent India has not fulfilled its promises for equal rights to its citizens. Although various democratic measures through special legislation have been taken, discrimination and atrocity among the people continues on the basis of caste and gender. The law and order of Indian democracy has not been able to save them from the torture, oppression and exploitation. We are alarmed by the fact that even after 50 plus years of survival after independence from colonial powers, every hour 2 Dalits are assaulted, every day 3 Dalit women are raped, everyday 2 Dalits are murdered, everyday 2 Dalit houses are burnt down. The NCRB: 2000 data show that there is 1.4 percent increase in the intensity of crime rate in 2000 as against 1999 i.e. 25093 to 25455. The NCRB: 2000, measuring the crimes against women, also points out that there is a 4.1 percent increase in the crimes against women from 135771 to 141373 in 2000. The incidence of Rape and sexual harassment has increased 6.6 percent and 24.5 percent respectively during the same period. Numbers of dowry deaths have also increased from 6699 to 6995. The incidence of rape and murder has also increased against the Scheduled Castes.

Not only caste, and gender but also religious violence or communalism questions the validity of the secular constitution of India (Article 15), which guarantees equality on the basis of caste, religion or sex. The state has been unable to protect the minorities and their rights. They have been subject to violence by the majorities. The National Crime Record Bureau: 2000 points out that 80456 numbers of people were affected in riots during 2000. The democratic state in India is not capable of protecting the life of its citizens. Discrimination and hatred continues on the basis of religion. The universal brotherhood and religious harmony of the father of the nation Mahatma Gandhi and the Article 15 of the constitution have become a daydream. The question comes to the mind is that, how successfully would Indian democracy be moving forward to fulfill the aspirations of the citizens and live up to its virtues and credentials?

Observing the contradictory achievements of Indian democracy in the past few years it becomes very difficult to generalize whether there exist any kind of positive relationship between democracy and development. Democracy, which believes in the sovereignty of the masses, in India, has turned into the instrument of certain classes or elites. Indian democracy which succeeded colonialism is itself practicing internal colonialism by excluding the people from the lower strata to participate in the political process of the country. The common citizens have not been benefited from it. India, thus, becomes a good example for those who claim that some kind of dictatorship is needed to get economic development going and maintain an order in poor countries. It is also often true to see that dictatorial regimes are more capable of maintaining stability, economic development and law and order in the society which some of the democracies like India have failed to do. To conclude, I am not suggesting a dictatorial form of government for India to achieve human development and maintain law and order, but what we require is, in the words of Rajni Kothari (2001), a ‘politics of performance’ rather than a ‘politics of deceit’.


Boutros-Ghali, Boutros (2002) The Interaction Between Democracy and Development, Paris: UNESCO

Mehta, A. K and Shah Amita (2004) Chronic Poverty in India: An Overview, Chronic Poverty Research Centre, IIPA, Working Paper-2

Kothari, Rajni (2001) ‘The Crisis of the Moderate State and the Decline of Democracy’, in Niraja Jayal (ed.) Democracy in India, Delhi: Oxford, Pp.101-127

Kumar, Anand (2003) “Political Sociology of Poverty in India: Between Politics of Poverty and Poverty of Politics” in Aasha Kapur Mehta (et. al) Chronic Poverty in India, New Delhi: IIPA
Human Development Report, UNDP, 2004

Sainath, P (2004) “The Feel Good Factory: A Government-Media Joint Venture” in FRONTLINE, Mar- 12;

Human Rights of Dalits: A Memorandum, RADICAL HUMANIST (359), February, 2000

The Census of India: 2004

Crime in India – 2000

The World Fact Book: 2004;

Sarbeswar Sahoo is a PhD Candidate, Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore,

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