Lessons to be learned from Seventy-Five Years of Progress in Independent India

Dr. Pushpa Ranjan Wijesinghe
15 Min Read

“Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history when we step out from the old to the new when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. It is fitting that at this solemn moment, we take the pledge of dedication to the service of India and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity.”

On the fateful day of 15th August 1947, Sri Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India, said these words in his famous declaration of independence speech, Tryst of Destiny. When the country was divided by a pencil line by Sir Cyril Radcliffe in a room in the far west of London, in a context where humanity ran out the back door. India’s freedom was earned by paying the price in rivers of blood across Hindustan. Where does that hard-earned independence stand after seven and a half decades? How has Sri Nehru fulfilled his responsibilities along with the pledge of commitment to the country, religion, and humanity that he proudly did? In the same way, what are the achievements of Pakistan, the twin who was born on the same day as India, and Sri Lanka, which was liberated by the influence of India’s independence movement a year later? Aren’t these all great case studies of history, economics, and the likes for interested scholars?

According to the latest report by the International Monetary Fund, India owns the fastest growing economy in the world in the financial year 2022. India’s gross domestic product is projected 8.2 per cent growth. At the same time, the projected gross domestic product growth rate for 2022 for India’s neighbour Sri Lanka, which is suffering from a financial crisis, is 2.6 per cent. When Sri Lanka, which is ahead of India in terms of social indicators such as life expectancy, health indicators, and Human Development Index, falls into such an economic abyss, it is timely to look into the facts of India becoming a significant economic power in the world in 75 years after independence.

There are two views on India’s economic development achieved in the post-independence period. According to one view, India has achieved many things but has not yet reached its full potential. The above argument is also valid for Sri Lanka. Compared to India, Sri Lanka, which is ahead of India in terms of human development, could have gone a long way in terms of economic development, but in reality, it is lagging behind India. On the other hand, it should be analyzed why Sri Lanka, a country that was ahead of many Asian counties at one point, is lagging behind the economic achievements of Asian countries such as the Republic of Korea and Singapore. It is important to understand whether it is a problem related to policies and plans or a problem with their implementation. India made dynamic changes reviewing her journey in the last 75 years and her experience will also help Sri Lanka to design its economic way forward.

The other opinion is that compared to the stunted economy, widespread illiteracy and extreme poverty of pre-independence colonial India, her current achievements in science, technology, infrastructure, education, and economic growth are gigantic. Those who hold this view believe that although it will take some time to reach the economic, scientific, and technological levels of the developed countries, what India has managed to already achieve is not insignificant.

Economists divide India’s economic growth into two phases. The first phase was the period of socialist orientation with the public sector taking precedence over private enterprises during the first 45 years after independence. The libertarian economists F.A. Hayek and B.R. Shenoy were the first scholars to criticize the centrally planned state-led economy. The state’s five-year plans as well as mass industrialization plans were condemned by them. Padma Desai, who was the first Asian woman to receive a doctorate in economics from Harvard University, also severely criticized this five-year economic plan. Later, due to the fiscal deficit created by the war with China and Pakistan, India had to turn from five-year plans to one-year plans. The futility of policies during the public sector-led economic tenure is thought to have contributed to the slowdown of India’s economic momentum. Food shortages, inflation, and dependence on foreign loans and aid brought risks to the economy. Parallel to this, in Sri Lanka, the economic policies of the Unity Alliance government, which was influenced by the left-wing parties in Sri Lanka, initiated many problems in the country.

In 1991, signs of an impending severe economic crisis hit the last nail in the coffin of socialist India. Dr. Man Mohan Singh, the Finance Minister in the Narasimha Rao government, introduced a series of economic reforms. Thirty-one years from today, was the beginning of the period when the free trade economy took hold in India. Thus, India broke the planned state-led economy and introduced privatization and liberalization, and consequent economic policies. These economic reforms added new life to the economy of India. The flexible industrial licensing policy and foreign direct investment policy paved the way for a continuous flow of foreign investment into India. These increased foreign investments, the integration of information technology into the economy, and the increase in domestic consumption are considered to be the factors that increased the economic growth rate after the economic reforms.

During this period, telecommunication and information technology were prioritized in the service sector. As a result, given the development of these sectors, many multinational companies outsourced their services in these sectors to India creating many job opportunities. As a result, domestic consumption increased and foreign direct investments poured into India to meet that demand.

However, Sri Lanka, which entered into a free trade economy even before India, failed to maintain sustainability as India did. Was it due to a lack of policies, plans, or strategies, or due to the shortcomings of implementation, or due to the effects of other factors including the prolonged internal civil strife? This needs to be examined.

Our issues in investment, management, and use of information technology are far ahead compared to India. Although Sri Lanka has a human resource with higher education and university degrees to match information technology compared to India, why has Sri Lanka few Business Process Outsourcing (BPO), Knowledge Process Outsourcing (Knowledge Sources Outsource-KPO), and Information Technology Enabled Services (ITEs) compared to India? How can it be said that these are not the reasons for the decrease in new job opportunities, low domestic consumption, and lack of foreign investments to meet the existing consumption rates? How can it be said that these are not the reasons that block the way for financial sources that can strengthen our foreign currency reserves?

The growth of the agricultural sector also contributed immensely to the post-independence economic boom in India. The expansion of agricultural land and the use of high-yielding crops were the main factors that contributed to the agricultural growth in India. As a result, India was able to end its dependency on imported grains. Prioritizing agricultural research, credit development, land reforms, and improving rural infrastructure were the foundations of the agricultural revolution in India. Another very special new trend in India’s agricultural revolution is that India is moving beyond conventional agriculture and entering into the agro-bio technology sector.

As far as Sri Lanka is concerned, the cultivated land is converting into arid land. Questions such as whether there is experimental agriculture like India, whether there is a trend towards crops that give more yield, etc. should be raised. The cost of production keeps rising and Sri Lanka has to depend on imported food as India once used to. Although conventional agriculture exists, the challenges of developing it into a profitable industry are great.

Importantly, India even tries to match their infrastructure development to their industrial growth. Considering the industrial growth, their inter-state and district road networks have been expanded. The energy sector is being developed to cater the energy requirement for industrial growth. That attention is so much that, India is the third strongest power-generating country in Asia now.

Sri Lanka has also been involved in the expansion of the road network in the past period. But it is wise to evaluate whether they are contributing to the economy or burdening it further. In the face of increasing consumption, we have failed to assess the need for electricity generation and prepare generation plans to meet the energy demand. Apart from its indirect effects, the direct effects of electricity shortage have slowed down the country’s industrial growth and thereby have negatively affected the economic growth as well.

In terms of health, India has succeeded in increasing the production for domestic consumption by locally producing medicines, vaccines, biomedical technology equipment, and other medical consumer goods. India is currently generating foreign currency by supplying drugs and bio-medical technological equipment to foreign markets.

India, which was the poorest colony of the British Empire before becoming an independent state, has made many commendable advances in the field of science in the past 75 years. They range from launching satellites to space travel. India today uses satellite technology to expand horizons in many fields such as agriculture and telecommunications. India is keen on nuclear power for energy and it has strengthened its national security agenda by developing nuclear energy as well as warheads. The reasons for her success and progress in all these areas are the projects of cooperation with the countries and organizations that are leading in science and technology. Through these projects, they have implemented policies to transfer technology and increase the professional competence and capacity of the local workforce.

Although governing parties change from time to time, India’s basic policies are carried unchanged thanks to strong and empowered administrative service. That is one of the major pillars of the progress India has achieved over the years after its independence.

India has more or less fulfilled the promise made by Sri Nehru at the historical declaration of independence from the British empire. That is to devote herself to the service of her people and humanity. The clarion call of freedom has addressed individual as well as collective dreams. India has achieved economic, social, and political independence by a combination of factors like showing leniency towards socialism, moving towards a free trade economy, following post-socialist economic liberal policies, tracking conventional strategies and moving towards a series of more efficient changes.

It is time for Sri Lanka, which is facing the most challenging crisis in her history, to identify its intentions, and goals, and make policy changes required for its economic transformation process, just like India did. India is soon to join the five trillion dollar club. Studying the economic policies and seven and a half decades of the transformation process that shaped India to reach that destination, as well as learning from it and adapting it properly, will be very useful for Sri Lanka’s economic empowerment in this moment of crisis.

Dr. Pushpa Ranjan Wijesinghe

(Dr. Pushpa Ranjan Wijesinghe is currently working as the South Asia Regional Manager of the World Health Organization in India. An alumnus of the Royal College of Colombo, he completed his first medical degree from the Rastau State University in Russia. After that, he did postgraduate studies at Colombo University, New Zealand’s Massey, and Otago Universities. An expert in epidemiology, he is an award-winning writer in Sri Lanka. He has translated several works originally written in Russian into Sinhala and won state awards for best translation.)

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