0NLY India, whose riches of art, thought and sheer human potential boggle the imagination, could make the giant strides it has over the past few decades and remain a developmental tragedy.
The country still contains the largest single mass of human poverty in the world. Despite an annual agricultural growth rate of 2.6%, a doubling in recent years of gross domestic saving and investment, and an amazing drop in expenditure on basic imports, fully one-quarter of India's 650 million people suffer from severe malnutrition. Grain consumption, per person, is actually declining. But there is more food, per head, in the country than for many years. Bumper harvests have even allowed food aid to be sent to Vietnam. The food is there, but the poor can't afford to buy it.
Yet impressive anti-poverty and job creation policies are being implemented, some for many years now, by both state and central government. A recent business report on India even attributes the country's economic malfunctioning partly to 'the preoccupation of successive governments with a more equitable distribution of wealth'. This unwise (in the view of some businessmen) bias toward the poor costs dearly in rupees and involves millions of peasant families and millions of hectares of land in rehabilitation schemes. Such as:
• A state-run employment scheme in Maharashtra for the poorest which guarantees minimum wages for work in irrigation, afforestation and conservation.
• A small farmer development agency under which six million farmers with holdings under two hectares receive preferential loans.
• Operation Flood which is expected to reach 10 million families by 1985. High yield dairy cattle are provided and the milk bought at a guaranteed price by the government.
Economists believe these and other schemes could directly generate five million jobs annually - or almost the entire annual addition to the labour force. 'Eventually such programmes could cover the bulk of the poor' one expert states. But the mood is conditional. The massive social changes needed to permanently raise most Indians' lives above the poverty line are left unspoken.
Problems most often cited are managerial failure, a low rate of investment, and lack of effective politicization among the poor themselves. Many think that past policies have emphasized industrialization at the expense of rural development and the provision of cheap consumer goods. Industry has boomed but the growth it is supposed to generate has not yet been felt by the poor. Put another way, half the people of India still don't have enough money to eat properly, let alone join the ranks of the consumer society as their leaders hoped.