Considered a rising economic powerhouse in addition to being a nuclear-armed state, India has lately emerged as an important regional player in world politics. With its approximately 1.3 billion population, out of which more than 834 million can vote, India is considered the biggest democracy in the world today. UN estimates indicate that India is expected to overtake China by 2028 to become the world’s most populous nation.
India’s rapidly growing population, however, faces a number of critical social, economic and environmental issues. The Global Hunger Index has ranked India at 67 out of 80 nations with the worst hunger situation, where the country falls even below Sudan and North Korea. One of the world’s highest demographics of children suffering from malnutrition, as per World Bank data, is reported from India which is said to be double that of Sub-Saharan Africa. Upon birth, 72% of infants in India suffer from anemia while 44% of Indian children under the age of 5 continue to be underweight.
In terms of education, a UNESCO study reveals, 37% of the global total of illiterate adults in the world (287 million out of India’s 1.3 billion) live in India; 92% of the government schools are yet to fully implement the Right to Education (RTE) Act while in terms of female literacy rate, India is ranked at 123 out of 135 countries where 47.78 % out of school children are girls.
With its many languages, cultures and religions, communal, caste and regional tensions also continue to haunt Indian politics, often threatening its long-standing democratic and secular ethos. A report by The Huffington Post reveals that 2015 witnessed more than 327,000 crimes committed against women, many of whom belonged to marginalized communities, while crimes against children rose by 5% compared to the previous year. A US State Department 2016 Country Report on Human Rights Practices in India has also highlighted restrictions on religious freedom, societal violence based on gender, religious affiliation, and caste or tribe, corruption and police and security force abuses as among the most significant human rights problems in India.
Between 2014 and 2016, as per The Times of India, a total of 2098 incidents of sectarian violence were reported in India with 278 people killed while 6,506 injured. In the same period, figures released by the Union Home Ministry indicated that Gujarat, the state infamous for its anti-Muslims communal riots of 2002 which accounted for the death of over 1,000 Muslims, registered 182 incidents of communal clashes killing 21 people while wounding 494.
More than 56,000 instances of criminal behavior occurred against scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, such as Dalits, in 2015. These included denying Dalits entry into public and social spaces, according to The Huffintgon Post. In 2016, a Dalit student named Rohith Vemula committed suicide, after desperately raising his voice against widespread caste-based discrimination and abuse, which led to nationwide protests. Since then, the government has alleged that the student was not Dalit, but belonged to “other backward classes” in an attempt to quieten the backlash.
As Teesta Setalvad writes, caste atrocity and prejudice is an everyday norm in India where the culture of ‘othering’ and discrimination against “untouchables”/Dalits by “non-Dalits” and “touchables” is perpetuated across the length and breadth of the country. If a Dalit does make it to higher education, professors often do not offer fair or decent guidance and, instead, freely and out of complete impunity discriminate against him to dash his academic prospects. So much so that on some campuses, separate days are earmarked for interviews of “general”, i.e., non-Dalits and for Other Backward Classes, ‘Scheduled Castes’ and ‘Scheduled Tribes’ candidates while posts are deliberately kept vacant based on the false claim that no candidate of merit is available.
Seeing India’s current prime minister, in the run-up to his stunning victory in May 2014, perpetually broadcast the fact that he hailed from a humble origin—a tea-brewing family, one would expect the stark differences between the “touchable” and “untouchable” castes to subside in India. On the contrary though, Prime Minister Modi’s sweeping victory was partially a result of the widely followed Hindutva ideology of his Bharatiya Janata Party which in fact is known to be unfavorable towards minorities.
In a society with such deep-rooted ills, expressing dissent with the government policy is also not permissible. More than a dozen Indians have been arrested in recent years under sedition laws for posting comments on Facebook which allusively raised objections at the government’s actions. When a writer, V.S. Naipaul, wrote in absolute disgust that “Indians defecate everywhere” in his book, Area of Darkness, in 1964 and when Arthur Koestler compared the smell of Bombay to that of “a wet smelly diaper” in his book, The Lotus and the Robot in 1960, the books were instantly banned in India. Similar outrage resurfaced when an article Holding Your Breath in India published in the New York Times in 2015 termed Delhi as “the most populous, polluted, unsanitary and bacterially unsafe cities on earth”.
Admittedly, the World Health Organization has also reported India as accounting for 90 percent of open defecation in South Asia and 59 percent of the practice in the world. In fact, India accounts for more than twice the number of open defecations of the 18 countries that come after it in the WHO list. Additionally, India has 13 of the world’s 25 most polluted cities.
Surely, India, whose establishment internationally projects the country as a secular democracy and a regional power, is internally faced with a number of challenges and paradoxes as a society and a nation. As Pramod Kumar, an Indian writer, puts it, “India’s filth is a metaphor for its overall ills that include poverty, inequality, castes, corruption, poor development policies and greed”; the country is in dire need of a fundamental social change.
The author Sitwat Waqar Bokhari is a programme consultant and research fellow at the Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS).