Just before he stepped down as governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), Raghuram Rajan candidly observed: “We (India) are still a relatively poor economy and to wipe the tear from every eye, one would have to at least want to be a middle- income (country)."
To become a middle-income country, India, with a population of 1.2 billion, will have to achieve a per capita income of around $6,000-7,000 from the current $1,500. And if India aspires to be rich, Rajan added in an interview to The Times of India, it will have to touch $30,000 in per capita income. According to the former RBI governor, even managing the first over the next two decades will take a lot.
Throw in another variable in the mix: India’s demography.
At present, it is in a sweet spot with 65% of its population less than 35 years of age and the proportion of those above 60—when one presumably becomes dependent on others, although this too will change with growing incomes—is about 9%. According to Helpage International, a global non-profit, this proportion will increase to 12.5% by 2030 and 19.4% by 2050.
Actually, this is an underestimate. Sociological changes in the Indian society—marrying at an older age, restricting the size of the family and atomistic living—are accelerating this aging process. In short, India will grow older faster than what most people think.
Take the two together and you have a tantalizing question: Will India grow old, before getting to be rich?
The answer depends on what it does in the next two decades. Ideally, this surge towards higher incomes should have happened earlier.
Unfortunately, the two consecutive terms of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in office ended up being a lost decade for the country.
The UPA left behind an economy in crisis and its enduring legacy was the fallout of crony capitalism—at its worst, this has taken the form of a pile of bad loans on the books of banks.
A lot, therefore, will depend on the ability of the government of the day from now on, starting with the current Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance, to put in place a new institutional framework to resolve legacy issues revolving around trust in society.
Given the broad consensus on the direction of reforms, it will presumably be easier for subsequent governments to sustain the desired changes. But the key to the country’s prospects will remain political will.
The good news is that technological disruptions are forcing a paradigm shift, making the economic process more participative in India.
The growth of the share economy (epitomized by the likes of Airbnb and Uber) and e-commerce is spawning an entirely new ecosystem at the core of which is trust (for example, in Airbnb, people open up their homes to strangers).
At the same time, it is also bringing informal workers (for example, Uber drivers need a bank account to be able to operate their taxis) into the formal economy.
Better still, many such disruptions are socially neutral. Barriers to access a smartphone are not determined either by social or gender status.
Together with the rapid emergence of low-skilled jobs as new-age businesses hit overdrive, there is relatively greater economic opportunity—leading to social mobility of the kind unheard of in India previously.
While the enabling environment is evolving, it is incumbent on the government to foster institutions which encourage this participative transformation on a greater scale. This is especially true when it comes to encouraging the participation of women in the workforce.
Anecdotally, we are seeing this change in urban areas, especially in new industries, but it has to extend to all of India, if the country is to exploit the remaining years of its demographic window.
It is apparent that India is in a good spot at the moment, but time is not on its side.
About 400 million Indians (more than the population of the US, the world’s richest country) still live in abject poverty. Improving their lot is not going to be easy and can lead to social schisms, too, as the disenfranchised are likely to be restive and disruptive (this is already visible in the spate of agitations across the country).
Still, the difficulty of the task, or the fact that it hasn’t been done so far, and in a democratic framework, does not mean it can’t be. Self-belief is important, sure, but, ultimately, success will depend on what the country makes of the opportunity collectively.
To answer the question posed by the headline: it depends on what all of us, including the government, do.
Anil Padmanabhan is executive editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.
His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus
Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org