A country united by its divisions

November 21, 1997

Anyone who needs to communicate with India from abroad knows there has been a revolution in the past few years. Not long ago, it was difficult even to transmit a fax to India, let alone receive an answer. Now, even government servants have been known to reply quickly by email, and it is routine to make instant international telephone calls, not only to the big cities but also to the small towns where foreigners seldom go.

Much of this progress has been achieved by Indians themselves, rather than by importing technology, and in a range of industries. India now designs and builds first-class satellites for communications and remote sensing, and launches some of them too, on behalf of organisations such as Intelsat. At independence 50 years ago, the country had to import even sticks of chalk - as the physicist and former chairman of India's University Grants Commission, Yash Pal, reminds us in this week's special issue on India, 1947-97 (pages 29-39).

But, as he also says sombrely, India is still a country without safe drinking water for a large proportion of its people, where half the adults have never been to school, where many regions are without electricity, where highways are grossly inadequate, vehicles belch clouds of noxious gases, rivers are becoming sewers and millions are jobless and hungry.

The liberalisation of the economy that began in 1991 was a good start. But without improving the physical infrastructure and the nation's record in education and public health, India stands no chance of "taking off" economically and fulfilling the potential shown by its entrepreneurs, scientists and other professionals when they work outside India (not to speak of in Bangalore, India's version of Silicon Valley). On these foundational indicators, India compares most unfavourably with China and the "tiger" economies of South-east Asia.

The current state of India politics is not hopeful in this respect. "Political as well as daily life in India is becoming volatile, violent and precarious," says another of our key contributors, the LSE's Meghnad Desai. He identifies as a key problem the excessive control over the Indian states exerted by the central government, which has had the effect of stoking up secessionist tendencies. To counter this, he argues controversially for a major amendment of the constitution and the inauguration of India's Second Republic. "Indian citizens have a vibrant political life at the state level where their primary identity often lies, but they want to remain of the Indian union. After 50 years, the fears of balkanisation can be laid to rest."

The record in different states certainly varies vastly. The Communist-ruled southern state of Kerala has 94 per cent male literacy, 86 per cent female, and life expectancy has reached 69 for males, 74 for females. In Uttar Pradesh, literacy stands at 56 per cent for males, 25 per cent for females, and life expectancy at 55 for males, 57 for females. From such figures, economists such as Amartya Sen have argued for less "state action" in protecting the economy and more state action on health, education gender equality and land reform. Sussex University's Michael Lipton gets to grip with these complex issues in a review of Sen's latest book.

Linguistic, religious and cultural differences underlie everything in India, and are perhaps its most fascinating aspects - as shown by the spate of successful novels and films about India. Does the English language divide or unite India? What does the mantra "secularism" mean in a land imbued with religion? Is Indian culture being swamped by western popular culture, through satellite television and Hollywood movies, or are Indians creating their own new forms of art and entertainment, in their mother tongues? All these issues are addressed in this special issue too.

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