Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Four sets of interconnected numbers the 2014 Indian election should have been about, but wasn't

Image credit provided at end of this blog post
The largest of all democracies has been put through its paces.

The beast that was the 2014 General Election in India was aimed at an electorate of 814.5 million people, voting in more than 540 electoral constituencies.

With the votes now in, counting has begun and results will be announced on the 16th of May. The Electoral Commission of India has estimated that this exercise will cost the exchequer nearly £350 million.

By comparison, the UK general election in 2005 cost approximately £80 million.

Campaigning and public debate this time around have been particularly heated. Along with the incumbent party, who have controlled a coalition aided majority for the past ten years, and the leading opposition party, who some claim is enjoying a resurgence on the back of a divisive religious agenda despite serious malfeasance, we also have a new contender in the mix. The Aam Adami Party, literally translated as ‘the common man’s party’, is an anti-corruption movement that took much of middle-class India by storm in 2011.

Even though exit polling was banned,  permutations and combinations of how the seats in the lower house will be divided have abounded. And yet, there are several critical issues that have not featured the public debate.

Here are four sets of interconnected numbers the 2014 Indian Election should have been about, but wasn’t:

1. Gender equality - women in parliament

In the 15 times that the lower house of India’s Parliament has been formed since independence, women have only held more than 10% of the elected seats once – 11.4% in the most recent administration.

Compare this to Saudi Arabia (19.9%), Pakistan (20.7%), Sudan (24.3%), or Angola (36.8%). Such a low percentage is reflected in the forestalling of a constitutional amendment, which seeks to reserve 33% of seats for women, for the past 18 years.

2. The poor - over a third of the world's poor live in India

India’s “middle income” classification notwithstanding, it still accounts for the largest single share of the income-poor, 35% of the world’s $2 per day poor people are Indian.

More poignantly, an astounding 61 million children, that is nearly half of all children under five in India are stunted due to chronic under-nutrition.  This implies a child-stunting rate higher than much of sub-Saharan Africa (48% in India compared to approximately 44% in Chad, for example). One of the simplest answers to why this might be points to an unhealthy combination of the impact of open defecation (on average, a child in Chad is exposed to about seven neighbours who defecate in the same open per square kilometre, while in India over 200 people per square kilometre may defecate in the open), combined with a low status of women who lack the ability to influence child care and ultimately infant and child health outcomes.

A national election in India that does not place the poor and malnourished at the front and centre cannot be called ‘representative’, and is only reflective of middle and upper class priorities.

3. Law and Order - police is short on numbers and short on skills

The policing system in India is stretched thin - there is just one civil police officer for every 1,037 Indian residents, and roughly 85% of those police personnel receive next to no significant training in criminal investigation or crime fighting skills [See The Locust Effect: why the end of poverty requires the end of violence by Haugen and Boutros].

This is far below Asia’s regional average of one police officer for 558 people and the global average of 333 people.

Outrage over police malpractice and incompetence spilled out onto the streets as thousands demonstrated following the brutal gang rape of a young woman in Delhi in late 2012. That outrage seems to have now largely dissipated, and election manifestos are only geared towards the naming and shaming of police malpractice – a strategy tuned more towards gaining media attention, rather than looking towards systematic and sustainable solutions of police reform.

4. (Un)inclusive cities- the real story of urbanisation

For the first time, India has reported a higher population growth rate in its urban centres than in its vast rural landscape.

Over the last decade, India’s urban population grew by over 90 million, representing a 31.8% increase. This was 2.6 times the corresponding decadal rise for the rural population. In this, the focus invariably falls on India’s mega-cities, like Mumbai, where billions are being invested in large-scale infrastructure projects like new airport terminals and double-decker flyovers.

And yet, the real story of urbanisation in India may lie in the 54% increase in the number of small towns (from 5,161 in 2001 to 7,935 in 2011). These small and medium sized towns have tiny revenue bases, face low rates of investment, and are beleaguered by crippled basic service provisioning.

Furthermore, in the poorest quartile of India’s urban population, only 40% of 12- to 23-month-old children were completely immunised in 2004-2005, 54% of under-five year-olds were stunted, 82% did not have access to piped water at home and 53% were not using a sanitary flush or pit toilet. The urban challenge is therefore vast and multi-dimensional, but the election promises on offer (which revolve mainly around promising legal tenure to those residing in informal settlements) currently do not appear to come anywhere close to offering a sustainable solution.

Of all the electoral permutations, those based on righting the wrongs highlighted by these four staggeringly large sets of interconnected numbers should lead to easy majorities in a multi-party plurality (‘first-past-the-post’) electoral system. Alas, party politics and power have proven to be dangerous bedfellows.

Jaideep Gupte is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies. His research looks at urban violence, poverty and development and he has recently published Policing Urban Violence in South Asia and the impact of endemic urban riots on poor households in India.   

Image credit: By Furfur (https://commons.wikimedia.org/) [CC-BY-SA-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/1.0) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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