In India, development progress has not kept pace with economic growth

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the Bharat Vijay rally in Jamshedpur, Jharkhand. How should Modi prioritize development targets as his first year in office comes to a close? Photo by: Narendra Modi photostream / CC BY-SA

When Narendra Modi was sworn in as India’s 15th prime minister, one of his goals was to strengthen the South Asian country’s standing as a regional economic powerhouse and a strategic player in the international stage.

Not even a year into office and it seems the former chief minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat is on track to meeting this goal.

Despite a slow start in 2014, various reforms implemented at the start of the year have helped buoy economic growth not just in the country but across South Asia — which is now the fastest-growing region in the world, according to the World Bank. The multilateral financial institution also forecast steady growth in India’s gross domestic product, expecting it to outpace that of China’s in the next two years; while India’s GDP growth is expected to rise to 7.6 percent in 2017, China’s is anticipated to decelerate to 6.9 percent.

“India has certainly witnessed change in the last 10 months [or so] and Modi has promised so much more,” Manas Dowlani, country coordinator for the U.N. Youth Assembly in India, told Devex. “Where I understand that [the] global community plays a vital role in collaborative growth, India needs to walk this one itself but with partnerships for sure.”

But how has economic growth affected development progress in the world’s second-most populous nation?

India continues to deal with challenges constraining development, including poor governance, insufficient infrastructure and wide socio-economic disparity. More than 300 million people — or more than a fifth of the population — still live below the poverty line, and millions do not have access to safe water and proper sanitation facilities.

To ensure sustained and inclusive economic growth, how should the Modi administration prioritize development targets as his first year in office comes to a close and a new one beckons?

Align India’s development goals with the post-2015 agenda

One way that could help guide India is for it to align domestic priorities with international targets.

“I feel that India needs to align its development agenda with the post-2015 sustainable development goals,” Ram Boojh, UNESCO program specialist for the environment in New Delhi, told Devex.

Ensuring India’s education system is on a par with the rest of the world is one of the most important targets, Boojh stressed. The government needs to engage the private sector to meet this goal, but must take the lead — starting by encouraging skills development through vocational education and not through skills development centers, which according to the UNESCO program specialist are “grossly insufficient and not well-organized.”

“Most of these institutions themselves do not have competent educators and instructors,” he said. “It would be better if companies are mandated to provide such skills mandatorily.”

Other Modi-inspired programs that spur local capacity building and are in line with the post-2015 agenda, Dowlani noted, include the financial inclusion program Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana, or the Prime Minister’s People Money Scheme; Make in India, a national program to turn the country into a global manufacturing hub; and a program to encourage politicians to adopt a village or community “to grow” — similar to the global villages project of renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs.

Focus on water and sanitation

Water and sanitation are among the biggest development issues facing India, not only because they have a direct impact on health, but also because insufficient access to safe water and proper sanitation facilities are affecting the country’s global image and its tourism potential.

Indeed, sanitation has been Modi’s priority since he assumed office, promising to ensure every Indian will have access to a toilet by 2019.

The problem goes beyond access, however. People’s habits need to be changed as well, as many of them still prefer to defecate in the open even if they have latrines they can use.

Dowlani said the government is currently implementing sanitation programs — including Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, or Clean India Mission, and Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan, which was previously referred to as the Total Sanitation campaign — that are meant to encourage behavioral change and a “move away from [India’s] current image of lacking clean surroundings on streets and public places.”

“The campaign spread like wildfire within days of announcement and is still going strong,” Dowlani explained. “This has instilled a greater sense of responsibility in minds of every Indian and has certainly made the society conscious of the issue.”

Boojh noted however that these programs “should be complemented with education and communication at a large scale to reach out to intended target groups.”

Provide a sustainable source of clean, affordable energy

India’s energy supply has not kept pace with the growth of its economy, leaving millions with limited or no access to safe and affordable electricity. But the country shouldn’t turn to traditional energy sources such as coal and diesel to address this gap, Boojh noted.

“Wind energy along with hydro and nuclear must be pursued vigorously” to put an end to energy poverty, while at the same time provide a sustainable source of clean and affordable energy, he explained.

But governance issues should be addressed as well, according to Dowlani, particularly as it relates to implementation of reforms needed to spur growth. While these have generally been well-received, they’ve also garnered their fair share of critics, including those who believe the move to make it easier to acquire land for infrastructure and industry comes at the cost of farmers losing their land.

How should the Modi administration balance its economic targets with its development goals? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

  • Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.