By John Richardson
SO far so good, perhaps: During the last financial year (March 31 2014 to 1 April 2015), 58.6 million new toilets were constructed in India, according to official government statistics. This compares with 48.9 million during the financial year 2013-2014.
Narendra Modi has thus made some progress towards tackling the “toilet test” that I set for him last July, shortly after he became prime minister.
He simply has to pass this test if India is to make any substantial economic progress, given that right now around half of the population do not have access to toilets. You cannot even think about attending school if you are sick with malnutrition and diarrhoea resulting from inadequate sanitation. And, of course, if you do not attend school, you have no chance whatsoever of escaping from poverty.
But Modi has a long way to go if he is to achieve his vision of a ‘Clean India’* by 2 October 2019, which is defined as providing access to toilets for every rural household by that date. This would result in bringing to an end the practice of open defecation.
(‘Clean India’ is also referred to as Swachh India, or Swachh Bharat Abhiyan).
“It will take 3,800 toilets to be constructed every day to get close to the vision of Swachh India, as this is a country where 90% of households are equipped with colour televisions and 70% with mobile phones – but the number of toilets stands at an abysmally low 30%,” wrote the New India Express in this article.
Let’s be optimistic, though, and assume that Modi and his government hit the October 2019 target. They must by then also make schools worth attending in the first place. This Financial Times article points out that:
- More than half of rural India’s fifth-year students could not read a simple story from a second-year book textbook fluently, according to a 2014 survey by an Indian non-governmental organisation.
- Around 75% of third-year students were unable to complete two-digit subtraction, whilst 20% of the students in the same year could not recognise numbers up to nine, said the same study.
- In 2009, India ranked 73rd of 74 participants in the OECD’s triennial testing of reading, maths and science skills.
- Why is India falling short on education? Because the main focus has so far been on building schools instead of paying enough attention to what is actually taught inside schools.
- Many rural schools are woefully understaffed, with just one or two teachers running mixed classrooms, with students of all ages and competencies sitting together in one classroom.
- Teachers have job security, but no real accountability for the performance of their students. As a result, surveys indicate that 15-25% of teachers are absent on any particular day.
If you are rich in India none of the above matters because you can afford to install a toilet and send your kids to a good private school. But if India is going to fully cash-in on its demographic dividend (50% of the population is less than 25 years of age and 65% less than 35), it has to deal with these challenges.
These are the challenges that must be constantly discussed right now, that simply have to be at the centre of every single debate about India’s economic future. It is entirely wrong to lose our focus on tackling these basic needs and instead get into over-simplistic discussions about how strong headline GDP growth and “the rise of India’s middle classes” will by themselves guarantee success.
It is also entirely wrong to use forecasts for headline GDP growth as the only measure of the pace of India’s chemicals demand growth and on this basis assume that India will quickly catch up with China (see the above chart as an example of the gap between the two countries). You must also look at how many people are escaping extreme poverty in India to get a real, worthwhile handle on growth in chemicals demand. And people can obviously only escape extreme poverty if basic needs, such as sanitation and education, are adequately met.
As is the case in China, this is all about three main final objectives in India: Jobs, jobs and more jobs. It should go without saying that there is no point in putting the cart before the horses in India: Trying to create millions of new jobs, through better roads, railways, ports, electricity supply and easier investment rules without, in parallel, dealing with these basic needs. Because if people are not healthy and educated, they cannot go to work.
India should follow China in making the provision of basic needs as its number one priority. This World Health Organisation factsheet shows how China has reduced the number of its people that practice open to defecation to 14 million. This compares with 626 million people in India.
And the chart below shows how China and India compare on improvements in school enrolment.
But India should not try and follow China in creating vast numbers of manufacturing jobs in the same sectors in which China already dominates globally – and will continue to dominate.
India has to instead be realistic about what kind of employment it needs to create over the next 10, 20 and 30 years. I will provide some thoughts on this in a later post.