India is Home to World's Largest Population of Poor, Hungry and Illiterates
As India celebrates its 63rd independence anniversary, it is very unfortunate that economically resurgent India still remains home to the world's largest population of poor, hungry and illiterate people. Tragically, hunger remains India's biggest problem, with an estimated 7000 Indians dying of hunger every single day. Over 200 million Indians will go to bed hungry tonight, as they do every night, according to Bhookh.com. Along with chronic hunger, deep poverty and high illiteracy also continue to blight the lives of hundreds of millions of Indians on a daily basis.
India ranks 66th on the 2008 Global Hunger Index of 88 countries while Pakistan is slightly better at 61 and Bangladesh slightly worse at 70. Though the problems of poverty and hunger in Pakistan are a bit less serious than in India, Pakistan also suffers from high illiteracy and low levels of human development that pose a serious threat to its future.
India has the dubious distinction of being among the top ten on two very different lists: It ranks at the top of the nations of the world with its 270 million illiterate adults, the largest in the world, as detailed by a just released UNESCO report on education; India also shows up at number four in military spending in terms of purchasing power parity, behind United States, China and Russia.
Not only is India the lowest among BRIC nations in terms of human development, India is also the only country among the top ten military spenders which, at 134 on a list of 182 nations, ranks near the bottom of the UNDP's human development rankings. Pakistan, at 141, ranks even lower than India.
India also fares badly on the 2009 World Hunger Index, ranking at 65 along with several sub-Saharan nations. Pakistan ranks at 58 on the same index.
A recent Oxford study on multi-dimensional poverty confirmed that Indians are far more deprived than Pakistanis and the poorest of the poor Africans. The study reveals that there are more "MPI poor" people in eight Indian states (421 million in Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh , Orissa, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal) than in the 26 poorest African countries combined (410 million).
Developed at Oxford University, the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) goes beyond income poverty based on $1.25 or $2 a day income levels. It measures a range of "deprivations" at household levels, such as schooling, nutrition, and access to health, clean water, electricity and sanitation. According to Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) country briefings 2010, 55% of Indians and 51% of Pakistanis are poor.
Access to healhcare in South Asia, particularly due to the wide gender gap, presents a huge challenge, and it requires greater focus to ensure improvement in human resources. Though the life expectancy has increased to 66.2 years in Pakistan and 63.4 years in India, it is still low relative to the rest of the world. The infant mortality rate remains stubbornly high, particular in Pakistan, though it has come down down from 76 per 1000 live births in 2003 to 65 in 2009. With 320 mothers dying per 100,000 live births in Pakistan and 450 in India, the maternal mortality rate in South Asia is very high, according to UNICEF.
The health problems in India are compounded by serious lack of sanitation. According to a joint study conducted by the World Health Organization and UNICEF, 665 million Indians, or nearly two-thirds of them defecate in the open. While a mere 14 percent of people in rural areas of the country - that account for 65 percent of its 1.1 billion population - had access to toilets in 1990, the number had gone up to 28 percent in 2006. In comparison, 33 percent rural Pakistanis had access to toilets in 1990 and it went up to an impressive 58 percent in 2006, according to UNICEF officials.
In its issue earlier this year, the harsh reality of hunger and malnutrition in India was described by the Economist magazine as follows:
"India-wide, more than 43% of Indian children under five are malnourished, a third of the world’s total. Over 35% of Indians are illiterate and over 20m children out of school. For all its successes, including six decades of elections and a constitution that introduced the notion of equal rights to an inequitable society, India’s abiding failure is its inability to provide aid and economic opportunity to millions of its impoverished citizens."
The reality of grinding poverty in resurgent India was recently summed up well by a BBC commentator Soutik Biswas as follows:
A sobering thought to keep in mind though. Impressive growth figures are unlikely to stun the poor into mindless optimism about their future. India has long been used to illustrate how extensive poverty coexists with growth. It has a shabby record in pulling people out of poverty - in the last two decades the number of absolutely poor in India has declined by 17 percentage points compared to China, which brought down its absolutely poor by some 45 percentage points. The number of Indian billionaires rose from nine in 2004 to 40 in 2007, says Forbes magazine. That's higher than Japan which had 24, while France and Italy had 14 billionaires each. When one of the world's highest number of billionaires coexist with what one economist calls the world's "largest number of homeless, ill-fed illiterates", something is gravely wrong. This is what rankles many in this happy season of positive thinking.
As India and Pakistan celebrate their 63rd independence day, it is time for both major South Asian nations to reflect and act on the urgent need for careful balancing of their genuine defense requirements against the need to spend more to solve the very serious problems of food, education, health care and human resource development for securing a better future of their peoples.
Here's a video clip showing grinding poverty in resurgent India:
Disaster Dampens Spirits on Pakistan's 63rd Independence Day
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World Hunger Index 2009
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India and Pakistan Contrasted 2010
Food, Clothing and Shelter in India and Pakistan
Introduction to Defense Economics