April 24, 2007
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
India is stirring after many centuries of torpor, and it has a chance of ending this century as the capital of the world, the most important nation on earth. You see up-and-coming cities like Hyderabad or Ahmedabad, and it’s easy to believe that India will eventually surpass China.
But here in rural Bihar state in northern India, there’s no economic miracle to be seen. And it’s difficult to see how India can emerge on top unless it takes advantage of its greatest untapped resource: its rural population.
The village of Khawaspur has no electricity. It has a school with 600 students, but — as is common in Indian state schools — many teachers show up only rarely. “We go to school, but the teachers don’t,” explained Doli, a second-grade girl.
On a typical day there will be just one or two teachers in the whole school, and the students learn next to nothing. “You have to bribe your way to be a teacher there,” explained Yogender Singh, who tutors children for payment.
No child I met in Khawaspur had ever been vaccinated for anything. And the local government hospital exists only in theory.
“There is a hospital,” said a villager named Muhammad Shaukat. “But there’s not even a door or a window. Forget about a doctor.”
That’s a common problem: the government pays for schools, clinics or vaccinations, but someone pockets the money and no education or health care materializes.
In a village in Gujarat that I visited on this trip, all the children were out of school because the teachers had decided to take a monthlong vacation. One sixth-grade student, Ramila, could not write her name, not even in Gujarati.
Another sixth grader, Janah, said that when it came time for exams, the teachers wrote the answers on the blackboard for students to copy so the exam results wouldn’t embarrass the school.
Then there’s the toll of malnutrition. India has more malnourished children than any country in the world and one of the highest rates of malnutrition, 30 to 47 percent, depending on who does the estimating.
Those malnourished children suffer permanent losses in I.Q. and cognition, and are easy prey for diseases. There is some evidence that widespread malnutrition lowers economic growth in affected countries by two to four percentage points a year.
So in the middle of this century, India will still be held back by its failure to educate, feed and vaccinate its children today. This failure will haunt India for many decades to come. Sure, China has many similar problems, with growing gaps between rich and poor and an interior that is being left far behind. But rural Chinese schools provide a basic education, including solid math and science skills.
India’s boom is real, and its overall growth rate puts India right at China’s heels. Its middle class is expanding, governance is improving, and the transformation is one of the most exciting things going on in the world today. The 21st century will belong to Asia, and young Americans need to study Asia, live in it and learn its languages.
But Indians refer to the “Bimaru” states — a play on the word “bimar,” which means “sick” in Hindi. The Bimaru states are Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, and Orissa deserves a spot as well.
In the Bimaru states, there is no boom. “We see nothing here,” said Vidya Sagar Gupta, a businessman who once operated many factories in northern Bihar. Now he has closed most of them down and is trying to sell his properties.
Electricity is unreliable, crime is growing, corruption is endless, the agricultural sector is in crisis, supplies are difficult to get, and criminal gangs and politics are so interwoven that it is difficult to foresee improvements, he says.
For anyone who wants to see this country succeed, a visit to rural India is a bitter disappointment. Ela Bhatt, who founded the Self-Employed Women’s Association, a union of poor women that now has nearly one million members, told me that India’s economy is profoundly limited: “It is like a car having one motorized tire, and the others are cart wheels.”
So in the great race of this century, the race to see which country will lead the world in 2100, I’m still betting on China for now. I’m having my kids learn Chinese, not Hindi (or Indian English, a remarkable language in its own right).
Until India’s economic boom becomes much more broadly based, and until Indian schools manage to teach their students, this country will continue to waste its precious brainpower and won’t achieve a fraction of what it should.
Please post your comments on this column on my blog. In particular, tell me which country you think will dominate the world in 2100, and why.