Constitutional Values in Danger Say Former Civil Servants
Open statement on India’s plummeting rank in key global indices
India’s rank in the list of countries in the world across different indices has been slipping and that is a matter of enormous concern. Not only because the rankings, when taken cumulatively, show that the socio-economic situation in India has been steadily deteriorating, but also because the very things that make India an important democracy are slowly getting extinguished.
Sadly, the Government of India (GoI), instead of expressing concern at such a decline and attempting to stop the deterioration, has been more concerned with attacking the reports and surveys and stating that they are wrong or deliberately misleading.
The latest such report showing a fall in India’s ranking among countries is the Global Hunger Index, 2021. The Global Hunger Index (GHI) is prepared by European NGOs of Concern Worldwide and Welthungerhilfe and measures and compares hunger in different countries of the world. According to earlier reports of the GHI, India had ranked 55 in 2015, but slipped to 94 in 2020 with Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, all doing better than us. Even worse is the fact that, in 2021, in the course of a year, we have gone from rank 94 to rank 101, with only 15 countries ranking lower.
The GHI measures hunger through four indicators, viz. undernourishment (i.e. the share of population whose caloric intake is insufficient), the percentage of wasting of children under 5 (i.e. children who have low weight for their height), the percentage of stunting for children (i.e. those children whose height is low for their age) as also the mortality rate for children under 5 years of age.
While the index may have some limitations, the argument by the GoI that it is “devoid of ground reality” and is based on “unscientific methodology” is misplaced. Government’s own data from the National Family Health Survey, the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy and from academic studies broadly confirm the statistics which are contested by the GoI.
Several other reports which rank the different countries of the world also do not show India in a very happy light. The Human Development Report of the UNDP measures three basic scales of human development: education, life expectancy and per capita income and ranks countries on that basis.
The Human Development Index of 2020 shows India at rank 131 out of 189 countries, having slipped two spots from 2018. In fact, there has been practically no improvement since 2014, when, too, India ranked at 131.
As regards the status of women, the 2021 Global Gender Gap Report placed India at the dismal rank of 140, a drop of 28 spots, much below the 65th rank that Bangladesh is at.
Moreover, the child sex ratio has fallen from 983 girls per 1000 boys in 1951 to 899 per 1000 in 2018, underlining the strong and pervasive male child preference in Indian society.
The World Happiness Report which is brought out by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network measures subjective wellbeing by relying on life evaluations, positive emotions and negative emotions. The World Happines Report of 2020 also places India very low. It ranks India at 139 out of 149 countries. As per this report Pakistan is a happier country than India standing at rank 105. The ten countries behind India in 2020 are Burundi, Yemen, Tanzania, Haiti, Malawi, Lesotho, Botswana, Rwanda, Zimbabwe and Afghanistan.
The March, 2020, ‘Democracy Report’ of the widely respected V-Dem Institute in Sweden noted the increasing challenges for the media, civil society and the opposition to function freely under the current regime and observed that “India has continued on a path of steep
decline, to the extent it has almost lost its status as a democracy.” In an unflattering grouping of India with Hungary, Poland and Brazil, the report argues that the “first steps of autocratisation involve eliminating media freedom and curtailing civil society.” The report could not have been more explicit when it says: “…the dive in press freedom along with increasing repression of civil society in India (is) associated with the current Hindu nationalist regime of Prime Minister Narendra Modi”.
V-Dem Institute is not alone in its assessment. The Democracy Index of the Economist Intelligence Unit noted a precipitous decline in India’s position, which fell by 26 places from rank 27 out of 167 countries in 2014 to rank 53 in 2020. The United States Commission for International Religious Freedom flagged India as one of 15 “countries of particular concern” for the treatment of its minorities and has continued that label for this year as well.
Finally, in the judgement of Freedom House, an NGO based in the US, India was described as “partly free”, downgraded from an earlier characterization as “free” and more specifically, Jammu and Kashmir was downgraded from being “partly free” to “not free”. The GoI sidestepped a discussion in Parliament on the Democracy Index’s findings on the grounds that the issue was both trivial and also too sensitive. It dismissed the allegations of the US Commission for International Religious Freedom as “biased and untrue”, and brushed aside Freedom House’s political judgments as “inaccurate and distorted”.
India has become known internationally for criminalizing dissent and using laws relating to sedition and terrorism against those activists, media persons and opposition politicians who stand up against the ruling dispensation. Human rights violations continue apace and constitutional institutions like the Election Commission and the judiciary are undermined and eviscerated by all manner of means including the lure of post-retirement sinecures, intimidation and threats.
India has not done well with respect to levels of education, life expectancy, the status of girls/women and per capita income. Hunger and malnutrition stalk the land. Moreover, democracy, freedom of speech, the right to protest and secularism, all basic features of the Indian Constitution, are in grave danger.
There has to be a vigorous push back. These challenges have to be met head on by a vigilant civil society, the media, political opposition, people’s movements and revitalized Constitutional institutions like the Election Commission and the judiciary. What is at stake is no less than the life and liberty of the poor and the disadvantaged and the hard won rights of the people of India under the Constitution.