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Is India a developed country?

With so many metrics available, how do we measure development?
With so many metrics available, how do we measure development?

As India undertakes the largest exercise in democracy that the world has ever seen, Stanley Ellerby-English asks whether discussions of development in the country ultimately miss the point.

India is vast – both in terms of population size, and the diversity of languages and traditions across its 28 states. Economic growth over the past 30 years has been similarly large, but has sadly left many behind. World Bank statistics show that in 2011 over 59% of the population lived on less than $2 a day, compared with less than 20% in neighbouring China. When taken together with other issues, like extraordinarily high levels of malnutrition, it is clear that whoever is elected will face serious challenges.

This high growth combined with widespread poverty has led to fierce debate about whether India should still be considered a developing country. Perhaps the most prominent example of this was the 2012 decision by the British government to completely stop aid to India by 2015. Most recently, it has appeared in a Guardian article titled “Is India still a developing country?” In it a number of experts use a range of different criteria to discuss whether it is better to class India as developed or developing.

Measuring development

Whilst economic growth is a fairly consistent theme in the article, it is by no means the only criterion that is used. One commentator chooses the chaotic and dangerous nature of India’s roads, and the high number of fatalities this causes, as a possible indicator. Another proposes the widening divide between rich and poor throughout the country.

All these measures offer a different perspective on what it means to be developed and what development constitutes. Few people who have ever been in India would argue with the urban planner Raka Choudhury, when she says that India's roads provide a particularly obvious and chaotic challenge. Fewer still would argue that the huge income and health discrepancies between different sections of the population paints a troubling picture of inequality. However, there are also numerous other metrics that could equally be applied.

Family from our emergency relief programme in Murtypudukuppam India 31366
The dangerous state of India's roads is used by some experts as a means of measuring development
China, for example, attempts to measure and chart the happiness of its population as sign of development. This has been adopted elsewhere as well, including in the United Kingdom. Measuring progress towards the United Nations 12 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which include fighting HIV/AIDS and lowering maternal mortality rates, could provide another means. Other indicators could include levels of democratic participation or incidences of corruption. Focusing on each would present a very different snapshot of India's past, present and future.

The unattainable goal

The sheer breadth of possibilities for measuring development demonstrates the inherent difficulties of answering the question “Is India a developing country?” Each method of measuring development requires a different understanding and perspective on what it means to be developed. Even within each particular perspective the answer often remains somewhat unclear. On the MDGs, for example, India is making rapid progress towards ensuring equal educational opportunities for all children, whilst at the same time falling behind targets for reducing levels of hunger.

This does not mean that these indicators are pointless, but on their own each offers a very limited insight. What is actually problematic is the implied end point that the idea of development invokes. Implicitly the suggestion is that countries must emulate the route of early industrialised nations, mainly in Europe and the North America, and reach a set end point in order to be considered 'developed'. In the reality change is messy, confusing, and, most importantly, continuous. Asking whether India is developed or developing wrongly assumes that there will come a time when the country has reached its destination, regardless of what criteria, or set of criteria, is being applied.

Whilst labels of developing and developed is an easy way of talking about the similar challenges many countries around the world face, they are not particular good tools for analysis or action. India certainly has similar problems to other countries, but it also has many of its own as well numerous unique opportunities. The question should not be about whether India is developed, but rather whether any country is definitively developed. Each will always have unique challenges and opportunities. Only by recognising this can the former be overcome and latter embraced.

SOS Children supports 32,000 children across India and this year we are celebrating half a century of work in the country. Find out more.

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