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Can India's growth tackle its ills?

India is witnessing a growing gender imbalance, abysmally low investments in education, high tolerance to corruption and poverty.  Delegates at the India Economic Summit discuss whether the path to high GDP growth can address such social and cultural issues.

Delegates at the World Economic Forum meet in Mumbai

The answer actually lies in the neighbouring Chinese economy where the GDP growth touched nearly 10 per cent on an average in the last three decades. Imagine China, known as the factory to the world, importing brides from neighbouring Laos, Cambodia and South Korea!  That is actually true.

So how will Indian values continue to be shaped by the country's distinct growth story?  Those questions were deliberated upon by the panelists and delegates from all over the world at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Mumbai on Sunday.

Going back to China's bride import example, many would happily put the blame on the Mainland China's "one child policy". But what motives could one put on India's recently declared worst sex ratio (914 females per 1,000 males) since its independence? India is just at the cusp of a China kind of growth in the next few decades. The soft statistics emanating from India are also not very encouraging.  For example, Punjab, the most prosperous state, has 893 girls per 1,000 boys. India, whose trade deficit touched a record high of close to $20 billion last month, will soon have to follow the Chinese footsteps of importing brides.

Shantanu Prakash, managing director of Educomp Solution, pointed out that research has proven that education is really a tool that opens up the mind. "India currently has  one of the lowest GDP-to-education spend amongst the ASEAN countries," says Prakash, citing India's biggest state Uttar Pradesh's example where almost 97 per cent of the education budget goes toward paying the salary of teachers and other staff.  So is education the answer?  

You may agree that as people become more educated and modernised the traditional fixation with male child would gradually decline.  But that doesn't seem to be showing on the ground. The worst sex ratio is in the South Mumbai Malabar Hill and Colaba where the most affluent and educated people live. "The ratio of perfectly normal if you step into the tribal areas around Mumbai," said Rajni Bakshi, fellow, Gateway House (India), a Mumbai think tank.

Bhagyashri Dengle, executive director at Plan India, a community development organization, is more blunt.  "We have a growing society which is killing girls in the womb," says a charged Dengle, while explaining that the conventional role of women hasn't changed much in the real India. So what's the model of prosperity for one of the world's fastest growing economy? "Education will (only) give you a platform, but you still have to take informed decision," reasons Educomp's Prakash. Spiritual guru Nikhilananda Saraswati of Chinmaya Mission pitches in by suggesting "we have to change the paradigm of education. We need value based and informal education today."

The other big hurdle before a healthy growth is the unstoppable corruption in the Indian society. One of the delegates asked how an Australian media outlet wrote about India being culturally corrupt. "We have a high tolerance to corruption. We don't denounce it," he says, while naming some of the politicians and even chief ministers coming back to power with majority despite corruption charges against them.  

There was also no clear cut answer at the policy level as to whether India should alleviate poverty first or focus on education or skilling? "Sustainable development actually means sustaining the values while we are developing," stresses the spiritual guru. There is a lot the private sector can do in many of the social and cultural areas. "Philanthropy is not new to this country. It goes back to years even before Europe took a lead," reminded Mario Marconi, managing director (family services) at UBS, asking why that has not gained momentum. "We have to balance the materialistic and the spiritual world," suggests Chinmaya Mission's Saraswati.

The growth juggernaut fuelled by consumption and investment won't wait for any of these issues. Somebody has to challenge it whether it is the political society, the business society or the civil society. Anti-corruption movement, for one, is taking a lead. But what's important is that the society has to embrace it.
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