With 1.2 billion people and the world’s fourth-largest economy, India’s recent growth and development has been one of the most significant achievements of our times. Over the six and half decades since independence, the country has brought about a landmark agricultural revolution that has transformed the nation from chronic dependence on grain imports into a global agricultural powerhouse that is now a net exporter of food. Life expectancy has more than doubled, literacy rates have quadrupled, health conditions have improved, and a sizeable middle class has emerged. India is now home to globally recognized companies in pharmaceuticals and steel and information and space technologies, and a growing voice on the international stage that is more in keeping with its enormous size and potential.
Historic changes are unfolding, unleashing a host of new opportunities to forge a 21st-century nation. India will soon have the largest and youngest workforce the world has ever seen. At the same time, the country is in the midst of a massive wave of urbanization as some 10 million people move to towns and cities each year in search of jobs and opportunity. It is the largest rural-urban migration of this century.
The historic changes unfolding have placed the country at a unique juncture. How India develops its significant human potential and lays down new models for the growth of its burgeoning towns and cities will largely determine the shape of the future for the country and its people in the years to come.
Massive investments will be needed to create the jobs, housing, and infrastructure to meet soaring aspirations and make towns and cities more livable and green. Generating growth that lifts all boats will be key, for more than 400 million of India’s people–or one-third of the world’s poor–still live in poverty. And, many of those who have recently escaped poverty (53 million people between 2005-10 alone) are still highly vulnerable to falling back into it. In fact, due to population growth, the absolute number of poor people in some of India’s poorest states actually increased during the last decade.
Inequity in all dimensions, including region, caste and gender, will need to be addressed. Poverty rates in India’s poorest states are three to four times higher than those in the more advanced states. While India’s average annual per capita income was $1,410 in 2011–placing it among the poorest of the world’s middle-income countries– it was just $436 in Uttar Pradesh (which has more people than Brazil) and only $294 in Bihar, one of India’s poorest states. Disadvantaged groups will need to be brought into the mainstream to reap the benefits of economic growth, and women—who “hold up half the sky”—empowered to take their rightful place in the socioeconomic fabric of the country.
Fostering greater levels of education and skills will be critical to promote prosperity in a rapidly globalizing world. However, while primary education has largely been universalized, learning outcomes remain low. Less than 10 percent of the working-age population has completed a secondary education, and too many secondary graduates do not have the knowledge and skills to compete in today’s changing job market.
Improving health care will be equally important. Although India’s health indicators have improved, maternal and child mortality rates remain high and, in some states, are comparable to those in the world’s poorest countries. Of particular concern is the nutrition of India’s children whose well-being will determine the extent of India’s much-awaited demographic dividend; at present, an overwhelming 40 percent (217 million) of the world’s malnourished children are in India.
The country’s infrastructure needs are massive. One in three rural people lack access to an all-weather road, and only one in five national highways is four-lane. Ports and airports have inadequate capacity, and trains move very slowly. An estimated 300 million people are not connected to the national electrical grid, and those who are face frequent disruptions. And, the manufacturing sector–vital for job creation–remains small and underdeveloped.
Nonetheless, a number of India’s states are pioneering bold new initiatives to tackle many of India’s long-standing challenges and are making great strides towards inclusive growth. Their successes are leading the way forward for the rest of the country, indicating what can be achieved if the poorer states were to learn from their more prosperous counterparts.
India now has that rare window of opportunity to improve the quality of life for its 1.2 billion citizens and lay the foundations for a truly prosperous future–a future that will impact the country and its people for generations to come.