On the eve of the 75th Independence Day, several reviews on the state of affairs of the country were in public domain. Even senior Supreme Court judge Dr Y C Chandrachud had reminded last week on the need to ensure all citizens are given basic education to realise the value of vote. Such reviews point out lapses, gaps and tasks for India’s accomplishments. For a few years global rankings of India on democracy and development have been showing decline. We should be concerned about such trends with initiatives, not perturbed and engage in denying or accusing. For, such a reaction amounts to losing further and missing opportunities to mid-course corrections. Even on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs ), set by the United Nations for 2030 and accepted by the member countries, India has been slipping and considered as a “long way to go before all citizens can access a decent standard of living and opportunities.” The govt. on the other has been harping on India being the top five economies of the world and seventh in terms of GDP.
Only 9 more years left
India has only nine more years to attain the goals agreed upon to achieve at the United Nations as a part of SDGs. The concern now should be to realise the gaps and how well we catch up. With only nine years India must fast-track its efforts on all fronts to achieve sustainable growth with justice. Four critical parameters as per SDG are health, education, poverty and civil liberties.
Even after 75 years after independence, shortfall of doctors is 29 percent in the case of PHCs and 38 percent in rural. Only 58 percent in rural and 62 percent urban children are fully immunized. Our domestic expenditure on health is only 3.4 percent (against 8.9 in china, 22.5 in USA). India’s universal health coverage index is 55 (against 79 of china, 87 of UK). Will we be able to reach the desired level at least by 2050?
No official figures on poverty
India’s education status being beset with inadequacy, low quality and lack of inclusivity is too obvious. How soon we will be able to empower all our people? Although literacy rate has improved recently from 74.04 to 77.7 percent over all, the gender gap in literacy narrowed by only 2.3 percent. Near around 30 percent women in urban and rural left education either for domestic work or marriage. UNICEF reported that in 2021 1.5 million schools were closed and that 24.7 crore children were affected in India due to pandemic and lockdowns. The new education policy which took over two years to come up with is yet to take off in most states.
India has not been releasing official figures for poverty since 2011. India is viewed as having the highest number of poor people in the world. World Bank considered 20 percent poor in 2012 . With One percent of people holding 58 percent of total wealth, india is considered as the most “unequal country” in the world. In 2021 More than 9.2 lakh children were severely acute malnourished according the govt. itself. India is considered as backsliding in the democratic traditions and practices. World press freedom index ranked India at 142 out of 180 countries in 2021. The rank was 133 in 2014. In Democracy Index in 2020 India was at 53 out of 167 countries. It scored 6.6 in 2020 against 7.9 in 2014.
Assessment of independent global agencies
When the need is to widen discussion, involve our own experts and create awareness about relevance of such assessments, the govt. is doing exactly the opposite by avoiding a discussion even in the parliament and ignoring assessment by independent global agencies. The Govt. of course has every right to question any such rankings and even question the methodology as well as independence of such exercise. In mid-July the Law ministry wrote to the secretariat of Rajya Sabha to disallow a question of a member on the Indian position in the Democracy Index reported widely by the news media of the country. By doing so the govt. missed an opportunity of taking stock of the situation and also to rebut or counter the rankings of global agencies if it consider these indexes do not reflect the ground realities and with credible data. Instead, the letter of the Law Ministry to Rajya Sabha described the ranking of India in democracy index as ” flawed” by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU)of London, as “very sensitive in nature” but “trivial” to require an answer or discussion in the parliament.
The EIU has been ranking over 160 countries annually since 2010 having brought the first report in 2008. It has been indicating the parameters on which it has been ranking countries for Democracy Index. The five categories include 1. electoral process and pluralism 2. Civil liberties 3. Political participation 4. Functioning of the govt. and 5. Political culture . These include behaviour of leaders and parties during election campaigns, citizen participation, freedom of expression and free press etc. All this it does on its own independently based on information that is available and could be gathered from “public domain”. Even Harvard University was associated in developing the methodology. The Law Ministry letter however stated that basis for EIU Index was not known. More amusingly, that letter confessed that the Govt. had offered “official data” for its democracy Index rankings (which obviously meant trying to influence) but that EIU did not yield
Of two or three other rankings of countries on democracy, the one by Sweden based V Dem Institute is also referred more often and viewed as an independent initiative of Gothenburg University. It has also indicated broad parameters on which its index was based and it too conducts the study on its own with data or information available in public domain. All of them indicated backsliding from democratic traditions. One with unknown credentials, CIVICUS Monitor had even put India as “second worst category” of democracy along with Pakistan, Bangladesh etc. then there were of course other descriptions besides “flawed”,” illiberal”, “electoral autocracy”, “ethnic democracy” et
Justice Chandrachud’s comment
No wonder that senior Supreme Court judge D Y Chandrachud lamented that there is an Increasing trend of trying to manipulate data. “Hence, one cannot only rely on the state to determine the truth”. He considers “speaking truth to power as a right of every citizen which they must have in a democracy.” He found it relevant to “Speaking Truth to power..citizen and the law” for his M C Chagla Memorial Lecture on August 28 . All these assessments of the status of our democracy, reliable or not, independent or not, cannot be ignored by the country. They need to be addressed, countered and clarified, where required, and, even more importantly, correctives have to be evolved and availed to consolidate the democratic roots.
That is what my forthcoming book next fortnight, Rejuvenating the Republic, discusses the dilemma before the country, ambiguities in the fundamentals of democracy, points interventions which are a compulsion and suggests “transformational interventions”.
(Dr. N Bhaskara rao is a New Delhi based analyst of public policies of over fifty years standing. His recent books include Third Eye of Governance,Next Big Game Changer of Elections,Citizen Activism in India and two other books on Good Governance.)