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Monday, Aug. 6, 2012

Fundamental hits to India's brand


CANBERRA — The hits just keep coming. In recent weeks, credit rating agencies have downgraded India's investment status, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been described by Time magazine as an underachiever, U.S. President Barack Obama has raised concerns that corporate America is worried about India's investment climate and protectionist sentiments, and The Independent (London, July 16) rudely asked if Singh is Sonia Gandhi's poodle instead of India's savior.

And now the biggest power failure in history: Almost 700 million Indians in 21 of 28 states were left without power as three major electricity grids collapsed for two consecutive days. Whole cities, hundreds of trains and other transport systems and industrial production ground to a halt.

Unbelievably, the power minister, Sushil Kumar Shinde, has since been promoted to the post of home minister, one of the top four Cabinet posts.

Clearly, the restriction of the Peter Principle — that one is promoted to one's level of incompetence — does not apply in India. The poor often steal electricity while politicians compete at election time to promise "free power" to key voting groups like small farmers.

Compared to the world average of 2,400 kWh per capita power consumption, India's per capita consumption is just over 700 kWh. Even this is beyond the capacity of India's rundown and nonexistent infrastructure.

For many years, India was routinely touted as a big emerging market and a rising global player. Many statistics and anecdotes back this up and the progress made has been truly remarkable. But for years many have pointed repeatedly to the desperate need for major investment and upgrading of India's infrastructure across the board, especially energy, road, rail, air and sea networks.

India also has the world's biggest pool of poor, sick, starving and illiterate. It ranks 134th in ease of doing business, 119th in human development, 122th in gender equality, and 87th in perceived levels of corruption.

As reported in the pages of The Hindu, with 14,027 taking their lives in 2011, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, the total number of farmer suicides since 1995 has climbed to 270,940.

The annual road death toll is around 150,000 — thrice as many as the U.S. or, on a per vehicle basis, almost 20 times the U.S. Most of those killed in India's traffic accidents are pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists and pillion riders — that is, those from the poorer end of society, not the more affluent car owners.

Even this single statistic is a proxy for several ailments, including inadequate infrastructure that adds to road risks and public corruption that ensures weak compliance with driving skills and safety regulations.

Most of India's electricity infrastructure is run by bureaucrats. A report in January by the Hong Kong-based Political and Risk Consultancy rated India's bureaucrats the most inefficient in Asia with a score of 9.21 out of 10, below China (7.11), Philippines (7.57), Indonesia (8.37) and Vietnam (8.54). Singapore was judged the best (2.25) followed by Hong Kong (3.53).

The business executives surveyed also highlighted onerous and complex tax, environmental and other regulations, and a time-consuming, costly and unpredictable court system.

In January, the Program for International Student Assessment published its findings of comparative national academic performance of 15-year-old school students in math, science and English. In the 73 countries tested, India came second from last, just ahead of Kyrgyzstan.

Yet another study in January found that 42 percent of India's children are underweight and 59 percent suffer from stunting. Singh called this a "national shame."

In February a government committee concluded that Indian Railways have been responsible for thousands of deaths. Some 15,000 people are killed every year trying to cross unfenced railway tracks, half of them in Mumbai alone. The report called for urgent investment to prevent this "unacceptable massacre."

But when the railway minister announced a fare increase in the March budget to raise the revenue base to invest back in railways for modernization and upgrade of services and safety, he was forced to resign by his own party which is in the coalition government.

Singh meekly accepted the diktat from his mercurial and economically illiterate "ally" who was herself previously the federal railways minister and let standards slide dangerously during her tenure. Recently a carriage caught fire and around two dozen passengers were burnt to death.

In June, a global poll of experts concluded that, based on infanticide, child marriage and de facto slavery, India is the worst country in the Group of 20 in which to be a woman.

Considerations include the abhorrent practice of sex-selective abortion.

India today has more cellphones than toilets. According to a UNICEF survey last year, 58 percent of the world's population practicing open defecation lives in India.

Not all the perfumes of Arabia will wash away the stench of these sorry but credible statistics. Each set is distressing in its own right. Their combined effect when collated is devastating in the picture they paint of the country overall.

Incredible India, indeed. No wonder the Chinese are openly disdainful of efforts by Indians to compare themselves to China.

All these help to explain why Manmohan Singh's stature and reputation seem to diminish by the month. The last BJP-led coalition lost in 2004 in large part because their campaign slogan of "India Shining" was so out of touch with everyday reality. The Congress-led coalition government is risking a similar comeuppance in the next general election.

Truly, India has an unmatched and awe-inspiring record of looking every opportunity firmly in the eye, turning around, and walking off resolutely in the opposite direction.

Ramesh Thakur is professor of international relations at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University and adjunct professor at the Institute for Ethics, Governance and Law, Griffith University.


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