The Changing Indian Society – Leaping Forward Yes, Staying Back Also Yes
PEKING UNIVERSITY – South Asian University President Prof. G. K. Chadha, distinguished scholar, educator and public intellectual, gave an inspiring talk about contemporary Indian society at Peking University.
China’s progress ahead of India
Prof. Chadha welcomed the professors, distinguished scholars, students, friends and guest on this hot day at Peking University Library. He started his talk by pointing out similarities of China and India. While India is a civilization, yet as a country it is only 60 years old; so too China is a civilization, yet only just 60 years old [Independence of India in 1947; Foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949]. Both China and India had their ‘land reform’ and started their economic march [China in 1978; India in the 1980s]. The whole world is looking at them. China’s progress has been more impressive, more people-oriented. When the ‘rice-bowl’ in China suddenly disappeared, people were responsible for themselves, and Prof. Chadha recalled when he was visiting many villages in China in 1982 where he saw huge factories building up, accumulating large surpluses. This impressed him very much.
In comparison, Prof. Chadha said, this was never done in India; in India the gap in rural lands is still there. When you study the developing economics in countries with big populations, you must understand that reform must start in rural areas. This reform has not been done (or completed) in India as thorough as in China. In India, we have very uneven income levels and rising inequality, explained Prof. Chadha, and elaborated: Economic and social divide is too big and unsustainable. The poor population living in absolute poverty is much higher in proportion in India. Therefore, Prof. Chadha concluded: China has achieved a decisive victory over poverty, while in India poverty is still a social reality. We could even say that in China poverty is just a marginal issue now.
“In fact, many Western observers argue that your economy is overheated, that you grow too fast.”
“BUT, democracy stood very well with Indian society. It not only survived but got stronger over the time. Every 5 years we hold elections, uninterrupted so since 1951. Our electorate may be uneducated but they are wise.”
Even the most powerful people get voted out of power if they misbehave: best example is Indira Gandhi. India has shifted from a single party to many parties. Multi-party politics came up both on a national level and in the 35 provinces.
The States have Autonomy
“Federal de-centralization” in India is a big way because provinces make demands.”
More power is now in the hands of the various states. But the states still rely on the central government. In China this is different because the Chinese provinces are often very rich, and money has to be transferred. In India a state can function as legal entity. So, effectively, the head of a state in India can officially shake hands with the President of the United States, in theory. This is called state autonomy.
Social segregation (the caste system) is a big issue in India, although it is on the decline. Still, India’s society in some places is highly divided along the caste lines (but also along tribes, religions, etc.). Prof. Chadha recalled when back in the 1980s it was still very common in some regions that lower castes could not build a house in the near of the upper-class.
Discrimination and Exclusion
Discrimination and exclusion (in any form) is forbidden by the constitution; yet still, explained Prof. Chadha, it would be very untrue if I’d say there is no discrimination. There is still discrimination even in its most violent, wildest forms. The status of women in Indian society is going up. As you all know, in the past when you “beat your woman” that was deemed alright. You visit India, you see yourself the differences of treatment of women in urban or rural areas. And Prof. Chadha continued:
“It is a harsh fact of life, in a poor family; the father will let the boys eat more. You can now imagine the dichotomy between urban and rural area.”
Social relations in India are opening. We may call it a cosmopolitan society. Still, many people have not the courage to intermarry between social classes (although they are technically protected by the law). Prof. Chadha mentioned two extreme examples of social violence: 1) the elected councils in some towns who can (and will) sentence women to dead sentences for misconduct; 2) the burning of widows.
Slums in India
India has slums. There are huge urban slums. That’s an area in which human beings live in subhuman conditions, no sanitary, no hygiene, nothing.
In sharp contrast to China, India’s economics has been slowly but gradually stepping up. We call it “Indian speed”: We started at 3% growth rate. Today we have seen as much as 9%, but such high percentage may last just maybe 4-5 years. In 1951 India’s GDP was 60% made up by agriculture. Today it isn’t more than 16%. But the productivity in the agricultural sector could not keep pace. It only rose from 54% to now 72%. This means that productivity of workers in agriculture is actually very low.
India and China should be proud. The sheer size of us! India will soon overtake China in population numbers. Because they are big countries, their share of the cake is getting bigger too. Now the United States is still Number 1, China already Number 2. That is global status. India has also increased its size of this cake. Very soon the world will shift from a unipolar to a bipolar and maybe tripolar order. Our negotiation power will increase exponentially. That’s why we have to come together, join power, and set the international agenda together: “When you are big you think big. China and India are also doing big. We are also highly spiritual societies.”
—The talk was held on June 10, 2013, at Peking University Library.
About Prof. G. K. Chadha: Before becoming the president of South Asian University, Prof. Chadha had been the vice chancellor of Nehru University and a member of India’s Economic Advisory Council. [See his CV HERE or HERE]