Cities of Asia and the Pacific

UN Habitat and UN-ESCAP together released the report The State of Asian and Pacific Cities 2015, and its key finding is that the speed and scope of urbanisation in the region is unprecedented. Between 1980 and 2010, cities here grew by around one billion people, and another one billion will be added by 2040. The urban population at mid-year per region as defined in World Urbanisation Prospects (2014) illustrates this most dramatically:

Urban Population mid-year Region-wise

All Asia and Pacific sub-regions are experiencing urban growth at higher rates than overall population growth. While the region as a whole does not yet have the high urbanisation levels of North America (81.5%), Latin America and the Caribbean (79.5%) or Europe (73.4%), by 2018 half of the Asia and Pacific population will be living in the region’s towns and cities. By 2050, urban areas will account for nearly two out of three people. By 2050, cities in China and India alone will have grown by an additional 696 million – India by 404 million and China by 292 million.

Paradoxically, while the region is home to 17 megacities (which are starting to give way to huge mega-urban regions that encompass cities, towns, villages and rural areas), they only accommodate a little over 10% of the region’s urban dwellers and 7% of its total population. The bulk of urban dwellers live in small and medium-size cities, “… where much of the region’s urban transition is actually unfolding. Yet, despite their increasing significance, most small cities face their future with limited human, financial, and organisational resources.”

The Report is subtitled Urban Transformations: Shifting from quantity to quality and therein lies the rub.

If cities in Asia and the Pacific are to continue as the engines of growth for their national economies, they have to reinvent urban planning to make cities more sustainable and inclusive – and the fact that the world’s most polluted and disparate cities are all to be found in this region, underlines the urgency for a new planning model.

First of all, there is a need for new paradigms of urban governance, especially in the growing megaregions, which are extremely difficult to manage holistically. Perhaps the experiment in Tamil Nadu under the previous State Government of decentralising urban governance while centralising urban infrastructure may provide both greater efficiency in the delivery of services, and economies of scale in upgrading infrastructure.

Secondly, as advocated on this site time and again, perhaps the small and medium towns of countries like India (where the bulk of the urban population lives) could be reinvented as agricultural hubs, bringing both sustainability and prosperity to the agricultural sector, and creating new avenues of employment in the towns and cities by tertiarising the rural economy.

Finally, the biggest challenge for governments in Asia and the Pacific remains the growing urban poverty and vulnerability, often grossly underestimated, and therefore unaddressed. The Report estimates that a third of the region’s urban residents lack access to adequate shelter, clean energy, safe drinking water and sanitation while the urban informal sector continues to grow rapidly. Unless some attempts are made to formalize the informal sectors in both economic activity and housing, poverty and the omnipresent slum will continue to mar the Asian urban story in the foreseeable future.

Next time round we could perhaps take a look at the emerging challenges for cities around the world.



Schools and Skills

Two items of concern to all Indians. A Statista chart on the countries with the greatest skill shortages, with India in a disturbing second position:

Skill Shortage Bar Chart


And John Kurrien in the Times of India citing an Educational Initiatives study of 35,000 Class 2, 4 and 6 students in 300 municipal schools in 30 towns of 5 states, indicating that more than two-thirds of Class 4 children were unable to divide 20 by 5; and more than half of Class 2 students were unable to match an alphabet letter with its sound -­ a skill mastered by most children attending an average private pre-primary school.

The article goes on to lament that instruction in most municipal schools is extremely limited in quality and scope, confined as it is to the “… mindless teaching of languages and mathematics from prescribed textbooks, and a smattering of science and social studies…”

We must bear in mind that the parents who send their children to a municipal school are essentially domestic workers, rickshaw drivers, street vendors and other stalwarts of the urban informal sector, whose ONE aspiration is that their daughter or son will NOT follow in their footsteps, but get the education and skills to procure a secure, permanent and well paid job in the formal sector.

And this is exactly the type of student that programmes like Skill India should be targeting.

But if the municipal school education is as abysmally poor as the above report suggests, how successful will the government’s ambitious vocationalisation efforts be? Not very… and there goes India losing its demographic dividend, while countries like China and South Korea forge right ahead, especially in the small, medium and heavy manufacturing sectors.

While Japan may suffer a skill shortage because of the increasingly sophisticated technology of its industry coupled with an aging population, ‘younger’ countries like India, Brazil, Turkey and Mexico need to get their educational act together, if they are to overcome their respective skill shortages and the ensuing informalisation and deprivation of their urban economies.


Housing Dimension of Urban Poverty

UN Habitat estimates that 1.6 billion people today live in inadequate shelter around the world, and 1 billion of those live in informal settlements or slums. An additional 100 million people worldwide are homeless. It goes on to state that by 2030, an additional 3 billion people or 40% of the world’s population, will need access to housing. This translates into a demand for 96,150 new affordable units every day and 4,000 every hour. By 2050, 70% of the world’s population is projected to be living in urban areas, causing slums and unplanned settlements to swell. About one in four people on this planet, live in conditions that harm their health, safety, prosperity and opportunities. Estimates of homelessness in the richest country on earth, the United States, vary from 1.6 million to 3 million people. Most studies conclude that about one-third of the homeless are children.

In one of the most popular posts on this blog – Dimensions of Urban Poverty – it was pointed out that urban poverty had many dimensions such as income, education, health, housing and security and alleviation of urban poverty can only happen if all these dimensions are addressed synchronously. That has not happened. While globalization may have put more money in the pockets of the urban poor  (especially in the burgeoning and untaxed informal sector), the access of the urban poor to education and health remains questionable in both developed and developing economies, and of course, housing remains a major problem from Santiago to Shanghai.

It is now acknowledged by all development agencies, that housing poverty (especially in the world’s metros) has little to do with a lack of income, and everything to do with lack of access to land. In former colonies like India, urban land remains inaccessible to the poor for a variety of reasons:

  1. Retrograde laws and practices inherited from the former colonial rulers
  2. A preference for low form urbanization (again, an inherited western bourgeois aesthetic)
  3. Extremely stringent and outdated development control rules which militate against traditional forms of construction
  4. Absence of a reliable land record system rooted in the local ethos
  5. An inherent disconnect between western educated urban planners and ground realities
  6. Failure to reign in the avarice of private developers
  7. Rampant corruption in the housing sector, from the grant of building permissions, to undervaluation, to issuance of completion certificates, to housing loans and subsidies, to transactions under the table to avoid high registration fees and stamp duty.

And this denial of access to urban land continues to divide Indian cities into the haves and have-nots, even when the differences in income, services and assets between the ‘slum-dweller’ and the average urbanite are dwindling away, as these statistics from Census India 2011 clearly indicate:

Slum assets Census India 2011

Clearly, inadequate housing is the problem. Not inadequate income.

Activists across the world have taken a ‘rights’ approach to housing, but unfortunately, such ‘leftist claptrap’ doesn’t sit well with the Government in Delhi… Perhaps housing in urban areas will get more attention from the present government if its economic benefits are pointed out, as UN-Habitat does:

  • Adequate shelter is a critical foundation for breaking the cycle of poverty
  • Adequate housing is vitally important to the health of the world’s economies, communities and populations.
  • Home ownership is a form of wealth accumulation through equity and forced savings from mortgage repayment.
  • Good housing attracts economic investment and development.

Not to mention that in an India increasingly riven by social unrest, insecurity and increasing violence against women, decent shelter makes for safe homes and neighborhoods that help to build social stability and security.


Indian Diaspora

A rather strange picture of Indian women IT professionals wearing hijab, with the occasional bindi (the dot on the forehead worn by Hindu women) eagerly clicking selfies with a visibly discomfited Indian PM visiting that bastion of conservative Islam – Saudi Arabia! Oh what shapes and flavours does the Indian diaspora take!



Indians in the old days (like their Chinese contemporaries) had a taboo against overseas travel, as crossing the ocean meant loss of caste. So it was only the acute labour shortage in the colonies after the abolition of slavery, that saw large scale migrations of indentured Indian labourers, sent forth to sweat and build in the distant outreaches of the British Empire – from the rubber plantations of Malaya, to the sugarcane farms of Mauritius and the Caribbean, to the railways of East and South Africa… Indentured labour began in 1833, at the end of slavery, and continued until 1920. Most persons of Indian origin in these countries are descendants of these indentured labourers, 25-40% of whom would be women, allowing those who decided to settle in these distant lands to remain endogamous, procreate, and retain their distinct Indian ethnicity to this day.

In East Africa, after the efforts of these pioneers had opened up the countries and their vast resources, a second wave of Indian migrants headed that way from the western State of Gujarat – not to build railways, but build economies through trade, industry and business. The East African Gujaratis were to become immensely wealthy, powerful (and some would say arrogant) throughout East Africa, when Idi Amin burst their bubble by ordering out thousands of them in 1970. Most of those expelled migrated onwards to the UK, USA and Canada and only a few chose to return home to India. It is these families who are now most prominent in the medium grade hospitality sector in North America – often referred to as the ‘motel Patels’.

The next wave of migrants came essentially from Kerala to the Gulf, after the quadrupling of oil prices, post-1973. The first arrivals may well have been blue collar workers, but following the rapid socio-economic development of the Gulf countries, the demand grew for Indian professionals like architects, engineers and doctors. Back in India, the Gulf boom was to have a tremendous impact on the families of these workers (many from minority groups) who had their first experience of some financial security, enabling them to purchase property and educate their children. Thanks to the remittances of these hard-working folk, entire families could move up the social ladder from working to middle class in a single generation.

Of course, the IT boom was to push another generation of worker-migrants further afield to Silicon Valley, and along with the Chinese, the Indian diaspora ranks among the most successful communities in the US and Canada.

Whenever we talk numbers in India, comparisons with China are inescapable. The Economist had this very interesting infographic shading in the Diasporas of both countries:

Chinese Indian Diaspora

The Chinese spread in South-East Asia is phenomenal, although such a high presence in distant Peru is indeed intriguing. It is believed that the post-globalization surge that China witnessed was made possible only because of the heavy investment in the motherland by the Chinese Diaspora, already close knit, well networked, wealthy and influential. Sadly, the Indian Diaspora has not contributed even a fraction of this to India’s development.

In the CARIM report on “India´s Engagement with its Diaspora in Comparative Perspective with China”, Kathryn Lum points out that while China can claim success in attracting a significant number of “sea turtles” back to Chinese universities and research parks, and has also been very successful in attracting ethnic Chinese Foreign Direct Investment, the FDI figures from the Indian diaspora have been disappointingly low, although India is still the leading recipient of remittances worldwide. The challenge for India, according to the report, “… is to build upon its already significant diaspora infrastructure in order to attract higher levels of investment, business formation and to boost diaspora-related initiatives in Indian states that have been relatively deficient in this area to date.”

However, in my humble opinion, no amount of pop star type rallies or selfie-fests or ‘diaspora infrastructure’ are going to garner results for the most diaspora-friendly Prime Minister in Indian history, unless his government gets its act together to:

  • Enhance its human development ranking and shed the eternal Indian image abroad of inequity, poverty and injustice
  • Vocationalise its secondary and tertiary education to build up a highly skilled workforce
  • Ensure ethical practices throughout the supply chain in the manufacturing sector with tighter controls over child labour and forced labour, so that Indian goods do not get blacklisted abroad, and
  • Guarantee that the institutionalized corruption at Local and State Government level is rooted out completely – despite the election promises, the scale of graft has, if anything, gone up dramatically in scale…





Will the New Urban Agenda work?

“Habitat III” is shorthand for a major global summit, formally known as the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, to be held in Quito, Ecuador, from 17 to 20 October 2016. The United Nations has called the conference, the third in a series that began in 1976, to “reinvigorate” the global political commitment to the sustainable development of towns, cities and other human settlements, both rural and urban. The product of that reinvigoration, along with pledges and new obligations, is being referred to as the New Urban Agenda. That agenda will set a new global strategy around urbanization for the next two decades. Habitat III offers Member States an opportunity to discuss a New Urban Agenda that will focus on policies and strategies that can result in effectively harnessing the power and forces behind urbanization.

What will be the key elements to consider at Habitat III for creating a pattern of sustainable urban growth?

Firstly, it is expected that member states will realize that the future of this planet is inescapably urban, and a National Urban Policy is therefore necessary to establish a connection between the dynamics of urbanization and the overall process of national development.

Secondly, it is expected that a National Urbanization Policy will in turn result in the modernization and upgradation of the laws, institutions and systems of urban governance, creating the normative basis of action, the operational principles, organizational structures and institutional and societal relationships underlying the process of urbanization.

Finally, while there is a strong positive correlation between economic growth and urbanization, this potential relationship is not spontaneous and self-generating. Habitat III could be the means to place the central pillars for robust urban economic development, such as:

  • Urban Planning: The vision of the city, its physical configuration, the definition of technical solutions, and environmental considerations are all determined through urban/regional planning. A reinvigorated urban planning will optimize economies of agglomeration, promote sustainable density, encourage social diversity and mixed-land uses, foster inclusiveness, maximize heterogeneity, promote livable public spaces and vibrant streets, and thus make the city more functional, maintaining environmental balances.
  • Local fiscal systems: To change from being instruments of revenue generation and budget management, to vectors of change which generate real development outcomes.
  • Investment in urban basic services: Proper planning allows for less costly provision of basic services such as water and sanitation, higher resilience, climate change mitigation and adaptation, poverty reduction and pro-poor policies.

In short, the sponsors of Habitat III firmly believe that by embracing urbanization as a positive force and weaving equity into all development equations, sustainable urbanization may become a reality in our lifetimes, or at least by 2050, when two-thirds of humanity is expected to be urban.

But how realistic are these hopes of sustainable urban growth in a country like India? Along with China and Nigeria, India will account for 37% of the projected growth of the urban population between 2014 and 2050, and contribute the highest number of additional urban dwellers by 2050 – a whopping 404 million!

Let us examine the above UN aspirations in light of Indian reality.

Firstly, one of Gandhiji’s most quoted slogans that ‘India lives in its villages’ has had such a negative impact on India’s psyche and cities, that it still lacks a National Urban Policy – 68 years after Independence. In fact the hero of many a Bollywood epic often begins life as a virtuous villager and through trials and tribulations ends up as a hardened criminal, only because of the ‘evil’ influence of a city. The reality is rather different as the rural communities still reek of superstition, casteism, family feuds, vendetta, summary justice and social oppression; while cities may be the only place an individual can experience freedom. That aside, the fact remains that while only 60% of India’s land is under cultivation, it supports 67% of its population leading to smaller and smaller land-holdings, no alternative employment, declining agricultural production, distress, despair, migration and eventually, farmers’ suicides. So India needs to develop its urban mindset before investing blindly in infrastructure and smart cities.

Secondly, almost all the most crucial laws relevant to cities are a legacy of the British Raj with the Bombay Municipal Corporation Act dating as far back as 1888, which was to spawn offspring as far afield as Aden, Sri Lanka, Pakistan… The Land Acquisition Act too dates back to 1894. Therefore not only do the municipal laws need to be brought in line with the rest of the world, but power to manage cities must pass from a lethargic, permanent bureaucracy, to dynamic people’s representatives, as most successfully demonstrated by South American cities.

Thirdly, streamlining and modernizing land laws is crucial to any urban planning that Indian cities may indulge in. Otherwise they will continue in the present mode, where the people go and settle where they may, and the local body follows years later to charge tax, and perforce provide some basic services. The costs of retrofitting municipal infrastructure can be prohibitive, and entire ‘neighbourhoods’ may be born, live and decay, without even the solace of drinking water in their taps. So much for Indian urban planning…

Lastly, when the very raison d’être of great cities has been manufacturing, how can they survive de-industrialisation? They don’t. While de-industrialization may hollow out a western city, in India, de-industrialization ‘leaves the world to darkness and to me…’ The stalwart of the informal sector, living a life of quiet misery and departing life unmourned and unlamented. How and when will India reinvent its Bombays and Madrases? Perhaps by renaming them yet again?


HDR 2015: Work and Development

The UNDP’s Human Development Report 2015, looks at Work for Human Development. It points out that ‘work’ covers much more than a job and includes unpaid care work, voluntary work, or creative work. In this sense, work adds to the richness of human lives and has a synergistic relation with Human Development:

Work & HD Synergy HDR2015

The HDR 2015 points out that since 1990, the world has made major strides in human development, and the number of people living in low human development fell from 3 billion in 1990 to slightly more than 1 billion in 2014. “Today, people are living longer, more children are going to school and more people have access to clean water and basic sanitation. This progress goes hand in hand with rising incomes, producing the highest standards of living in human history. A digital revolution now connects people across societies and countries. Just as important, political developments are enabling more people than ever to live under democratic regimes. All are important facets of human development.”

The Report explains how work in various forms by 7.3 billion people has contributed to this progress:

  • Nearly a billion people who work in agriculture and more than 500 million family farms produce more than 80% of world food supplies, improving nutrition and health
  • Worldwide, 80 million workers in health and education have enhanced human capabilities
  • More than a billion workers in services have contributed to human progress
  • More than 450 million entrepreneurs are contributing to human innovation and creativity
  • Some 53 million paid domestic workers are addressing the care needs of people
  • Care work for children is preparing them for the future
  • Work that involves caring for older people, or people with disabilities, is helping them maintain their capabilities
  • Work by artists, musicians and writers is enriching human lives
  • More than 970 million people who engage in volunteer activity each year are helping families and communities, building social networks and contributing to social cohesion

Yet human progress has been uneven, human deprivations are still widespread and much human potential remains unused. Worldwide 795 million people suffer from chronic hunger, 11 children under age 5 die every minute and 33 mothers die every hour. About 37 million people live with HIV and 11 million with tuberculosis. More than 660 million people use an unimproved source of drinking water, 2.4 billion people use an unimproved sanitation facility and nearly a billion people resort to open defecation. Worldwide, 780 million adults and 103 million young people (ages 15–24) are illiterate. In developed countries 160 million people are functionally illiterate. Globally 250 million children have not learned basic skills – even though 130 million of them have spent at least four years in school.

According to the Report, the biggest deprivation in society today is the non-utilisation or underutilisation or misuse of human potential and capabilities. In 2015, 204 million people were out of work, including 74 million young people. About 830 million people in the world are working poor (living on less than $2 a day) and more than 1.5 billion are in vulnerable employment, usually lacking decent working conditions and adequate voice and social security.

The Report cautions that not all work can enhance human development, and some work actually damages it. For example, if the work is hazardous, where workplace violence is common, where women workers face harassment and abuse, where forced and child labour is tolerated, then work can hardly be said to contribute to either the quality of life or human development. In 2009, some 30 million EU workers experienced work-related violence, such as harassment, intimidation, bullying or physical violence – 10 million in the workplace and 20 million outside it! Obviously, such data is not recorded in other regions where work conditions are known to be much worse.

The world has around 168 million child labourers, almost 11 percent of the child population, some 100 million boys and 68 million girls. Around half are engaged in hazardous work. Similarly, in 2012 about 21 million people worldwide were in forced labour, trafficked for labour and sexual exploitation or held in slavery-like conditions. Forced labour is thought to generate around $150 billion a year in illegal profits. After arms and drug trafficking, human trafficking is the most lucrative illicit business worldwide. Between 2007 and 2010 trafficked victims of 136 nationalities were detected in 118 countries, 55–60 percent of them women. Paid domestic work is an important means of income for millions of workers, the majority being women; but exploitation and abuse are rife in this sector.

The following infographic illustrates well just how work can either enhance or diminish human development:

Global picture of Work HDR2015

I have quoted at such length from the Report, because I see how little attention is paid to the human development and sustainability aspects of work in all developing countries, while economists remain wholly obsessed with the number of jobs ‘created’ by a government in this quarter or that financial year. In reality, this age of digital technology and global trade has set new challenges: there has never been a worse time to be a worker with only ordinary skills and abilities. A more holistic and societal approach to enhancing the quality of all work (of which paid jobs are a mere subset) is needed, if our countries are not to become more unequal and divided – with pockets of wealth glittering among deprivation and despair.

The Report lists possible measures for a country to take to move towards sustainable work, and it is interesting to see how far the actual policies of a Government (such as India) diverge from the desirable:

  • Identify appropriate technologies and investment options, including leapfrogging opportunities. An interesting example is the spread of mobile telephony throughout Asia and Africa, where the landline networks were practically non-existent.
  • Set up regulatory and macroeconomic frameworks to facilitate adoption of sustainable policies. On the contrary, infrastructure and industrial projects are being cleared with such haste in India, that sustainability and the environment are getting chucked out of the window
  • Ensure that the population has the appropriate skills base combining technical and high-quality skills with core abilities for learning, employability and communicating. India with its highly stratified society has always shown a hint of elitism in its education policies – with world class institutions for ‘people like us’ and virtually nothing for ‘them’. This elitism is now being increasingly challenged and is the major cause for the growing unrest on Indian campuses.
  • Retrain and upgrade the skills of large numbers of workers in informal sectors, such as agriculture. As long as the farmers provide India with food self-sufficiency, who cares about upgrading their skills? Ironically, when sons of farmers graduate from a good Agricultural University in Maharashtra, their one aspiration is to pass the State or Union Public Service Exam and become a bureaucrat. So much for education…
  • Manage the adverse impacts of the transition by offering diversified packages of support and levelling the playing field to break the transmission of intergenerational inequality. No one has even noticed this impact of transition (creeping urbanization being an example), let alone frame a policy to deal with it…
  • Continue to build the skill base of the population. This will require a lifecycle approach that recognizes the cumulative nature of interventions that lead to learning. Large investments in the number and quality of health and education workers will be necessary, underscoring the continuing role of the public sector in transforming skills. Again, the desired investment in health and education is simply not happening. 

So perhaps it is time for the Indian PM to pay greater heed to Nobel Laureates like Amartya Sen and Kailash Satyarthi… and put his US-educated experts back in the multinational consultancy firms where they belong. Or watch the winds of unrest grow into a whirlwind…


The Digital Divide

The World Bank’s World Development Report 2016 looks at Digital Dividends. It explores the impact of the internet, mobile phones, and related technologies on economic development. The Report lists digital dividends as growth, jobs, and services. It explains how digital technologies help businesses become more productive; people find jobs and greater opportunities; and governments deliver better public services to all.

By reducing information costs, digital technologies greatly lower the cost of economic and social transactions for firms, individuals, and the public sector. They promote innovation when transaction costs fall to essentially zero. They boost efficiency as existing activities and services become cheaper, quicker, or more convenient. And they increase inclusion as people get access to services that previously were out of reach.

The Report lists the dividends of digital technology as follows:

Dividends of Digital Technology WDR2016

It goes on to point out that these dividends are not as widespread as expected because:

  1. Nearly 60% of the world’s people are still offline and cannot fully participate in the digital economy. There also are persistent digital divides across gender, geography, age, and income dimensions within each country.
  2. Some of the perceived benefits of the internet are being neutralized by new risks, such as vested business interests, regulatory uncertainty, and limited contestation across digital platforms, leading to harmful concentration in many sectors.

Risks of Digital Technology WDR2016


Moreover, quickly expanding automation, even of mid-level office jobs, could contribute to a hollowing out of labour markets and to rising inequality. And the poor record of many e-government initiatives points to high failure of ICT projects and the risk that states and corporations could use digital technologies to control citizens, not to empower them.

There is an interesting graphic of a typical day in the life of the Internet, which clearly tells you that even with extended connectivity, only a miniscule minority of the 40% of the world’s people who are on-line, are using the internet to its full potential:

A typical day in the life of the Internet WDR 2016


The Report concludes that enhanced connectivity is vital, but not enough to realize the full development benefits. “Digital investments need the support of analogue complements: regulations, so that firms can leverage the internet to compete and innovate; improved skills, so that people can take full advantage of digital opportunities; and accountable institutions, so that governments respond to citizens’ needs and demands. Digital technologies can, in turn, augment and strengthen these complements—accelerating the pace of development.”

As is its wont, the World Bank seeks solutions from governments and its institutions, never asking essential (if embarrassing) questions about the social milieu where development is a desired objective.

Take the case of India, where for millennia, society has been divided along caste, class, ethnic and religious lines, and where access to the basic elements of development – such as education and health – is often decided by one’s social status, often ascribed by birth and therefore immutable. The digital divide so clearly visible in India cannot be bridged without tackling the underlying social and economic divide throughout the country.

So perhaps a government given to pithy sloganeering should first promote a casteless India, an equitable India, an educated India, a healthy India and only then look for a digital India. Or  failing that, leave behind a legacy of greater inequality, greater marginalisation, concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, and greater social malaise, intolerance and deprivation than it inherited from its predecessors…

Happy Republic Day India – yet again…

Happy Republic Day India. Remember it not as yet another opportunity for Amazon and Flipkart to slash their prices, but as the day when ‘We the People’ defined our very humanity and quintessential Indianness – by giving ourselves a sublimely inclusive Constitution.

Exactly a year ago, I had explored just how far we had strayed from the spirit of the Preamble to the Constitution. This year I would like to remind Indians of their Fundamental Rights, which need to be fought over, cherished and nurtured, lest we lose them forever.

The Right to Equality is one of the chief guarantees of the Constitution. It is embodied in Articles 14–16, which collectively encompass the general principles of equality before law and non-discrimination, and Articles 17–18 which collectively further the philosophy of social equality. And yet, inequality in India has never been higher as these figures from the World Economic Forum indicate:


(Gini Coefficient as percentage, an indicator of income inequality. The higher it is, the greater the inequality)

Right to Freedom: Article 19 guarantees six freedoms in the nature of civil rights, which are available only to citizens of India. These include the freedom of speech and expression, freedom of assembly without arms, freedom of association, freedom of movement throughout the territory of India, freedom to reside and settle in any part of the country of India and the freedom to practise any profession. And yet, Indians from one part of the country continue to be branded as outsiders in other parts of their own motherland…

The Right against Exploitation, contained in Articles 23–24, lays down certain provisions to prevent exploitation of the weaker sections of the society by individuals or the State. Article 23 provides prohibits human trafficking, making it an offence punishable by law, and also prohibits forced labour or any act of compelling a person to work without wages where he was legally entitled not to work or to receive remuneration for it. Yet again, per WEF figures, India lags far behind when it comes to curbing forced and child labour, and providing productive work and adequate compensation to its people:


(Performance rated on a scale of 1-7, with India doing marginally better than only Pakistan)

The Right to Freedom of Religion, covered in Articles 25–28, provides religious freedom to all citizens and ensures a secular state in India. According to the Constitution, there is no official State religion, and the State is required to treat all religions impartially and neutrally. Article 25 guarantees all persons the freedom of conscience and the right to preach, practice and propagate any religion of their choice. How sorry then to find that the Government’s own National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) gives us a League Table of the worst communal incidents in Indian States and the death toll in such incidents for 2014-15:


The Cultural and Educational Rights, given in Articles 29 and 30, are measures to protect the rights of cultural, linguistic and religious minorities, by enabling them to conserve their heritage and protecting them against discrimination. The jury is still out on a number of such cultural practices considered inhuman or inhumane, while cultural issues continue to be politicised by all concerned – whether it is jallikattu or the beef ban.

So, on this day, let us all reinforce our faith in the Constitution as we “… continue to complain; to demand; to rebel…” as urged by the President of India in his speech today.

Jai Hind!




Child Labour and Youth Unemployment

The International Labour Organization in its World Report on Child Labour 2015, raises a very important issue: the incidence of child labour in a country, and its effect on youth employment in the long term. As the report points out: Some 168 million children remain trapped in child labour while at the same time there are 75 million young persons aged 15 to 24 years who are unemployed and many more who must settle for jobs that fail to offer a fair income, security in the workplace, social protection or other basic decent work attributes.

Which means that all those trapped in child labour and denied education because of endemic poverty and inadequate social security mechanisms, are unlikely to find decent work opportunities as they come of age and join the work force, and will sink further into poverty, and their progeny will again be forced into child labour … and so the downslide continues, generation after generation.

The Report provides a framework for addressing the twin challenges of eradicating child labour and providing opportunities for decent work to the youth in any country

ILO World Report on Child Labour 2015

It is hoped that any national government could meet these twin challenges:

By enacting tough legislation so that the disincentives for employing child labour far outweigh any economic advantages

By putting in place support mechanisms so that poor households can afford to send their children to school rather than to the job market

By strengthening the school system, especially in rural and tribal areas, with special emphasis on girls’ schools

By providing much greater access to vocational education after high school

By encouraging youth enterprise through easy access to credit from formal sector banks, which would also help in the tertiarisation of the rural economy

By encouraging public and private industry to run youth and apprenticeship programmes, by offering tax benefits and as part of their CSR activity

Sadly, none of these issues appear to be of immediate concern to the Indian Government, more interested in impressing the Indian diaspora than addressing domestic issues which have long-term deleterious consequences on Indian society and economy.

Some facts about India :

One in every 11 children in India is working, and more than half of the 5.5 million working children in India are concentrated in five states—Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. The first 4 States are considered ‘BIMARU’ or sick and this statistic is no surprise, but the presence of Maharashtra in this list confirms the assertion of activists that the urban informal sector is perhaps the worst exploiter of children.

Over 80% of working children are based in rural areas and three out of four of these children work in agriculture, as cultivators or in household industries, most of which are home-based employments. Which means that they will continue in this wretched cycle, thanks to the recent amendments in the relevant Act, which legitimises child labour in family enterprises which are deemed ‘non-hazardous’, such as agriculture and handicrafts.

While the incidence of hazardous work among adolescents is highest in Nicaragua, the number of adolescents in hazardous work is greatest in India (2.4 million) – and one would think that any Government coming to power in the name of development would squirm at this dubious honour, instead of coining a new slogan every day, and washing its hands of the bottom 30% of the population in every sense…

And sure enough, continuing child labour does impact the long-term youth employment prospects in India, as the Report predicts. Recent studies confirm that because of poverty and poor human capital endowment, Indian youth are forced to participate in the labour market at an earlier stage than in other countries. They cannot afford to remain unemployed for long and end up in the informal sector, in low productivity and badly paid activities. Most men end up in casual wage employment, while women may become self-employed or work in agriculture. Training and skill-building at this stage may be a case of too little too late, if the targeted youth were child labourers and missed out on a solid foundation of primary and secondary education.

At the risk of sounding extremely cynical, may one say that the only beneficiaries of all the skill building programmes recently announced are likely to be the middle classes (yet again!) and the politicians who will be granted licences to open more and more ‘technical institutions’ on prime urban land… So much for ‘skill India’…

Whither Indian Healthcare?

Spending most of December in hospital, fighting a life-threatening disorder like GBS and shedding 11 litres of one’s precious plasma, does tend to focus one’s mind on the necessities of life we so often take for granted – like health care. With 16 days in a private room in a private hospital (including 3 awful nights in intensive care) I was presented with a bill which was over 31 times the average monthly income in India in 2015. Lucky me – I recovered 77% of this from my (private) insurer, but the balance was still a bit of a pinch. But life and health being too precious to put a monetary value on… blah… blah…

So what happens to an average Indian when faced with a health crisis like this? Good question.

Healthcare in India is literally on the horns of a dilemma: with 80% of the health infrastructure in the private sector, the medical insurance coverage is a mere 5%, limited almost entirely to the urban, educated, middle classes in India’s larger cities. So where shall the twain meet? In the last few years, the Government has made it binding upon private hospitals to reserve a certain number of berths for low-income patients, whose treatment will be free and is often subsidized by government. Moreover, subscribers to group insurance schemes like Central Government employees can now be treated at the best private hospitals, unlike before, when they could only go to government-owned facilities.

But this coverage is still extremely inadequate, and likely to remain so, as India still spends only around 4% of its national GDP on healthcare. With the growth of medical ‘tourism’ and the proliferation of large specialty hospitals in the metros, the gap between rural and urban healthcare increases day by day, and this deprivation in rural areas is very debilitating for India, as two-thirds of its population still lives in rural areas. Moreover, even in urban areas with the best medical facilities, the high out-of-pocket expenditure can cause severe hardship especially among the working classes, where an illness within the family can impoverish an entire household, and send it crashing below the poverty line.

The public sector is handicapped by poor infrastructure in rural areas, unwillingness of trained medical staff to serve in villages, absence of standardized diagnostic procedures and information systems, and an underdeveloped medical devices sector. There are various panaceas on offer, depending on your ideological stance: the free market enthusiasts see immense opportunities for the private sector in healthcare in everything from insurance, to pharmaceuticals to diagnostics. Those with a more pro-poor bias call for much greater government investment and regulation, so that private insurance companies do not set the agenda for India’s healthcare, as they already do in the USA.

I personally believe that the Nehruvian mix of a public sector conscience and private sector expertise may be the honourable middle road towards a more just and equitable healthcare system in India – and out of its present quagmire. A happier and healthier 2016 everyone!