December 06, 2020
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Blind Spot

In our obsession with the West or “catching up” with China we ignore, and are ignorant of, countries that have much to teach us, countries that we simply do not have any excuse for being behind on key human development parameters

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Blind Spot

The recent release of the latest United Nations Human Development Report contains little that should surprise anyone: India continues to languish at the 134th rank among nations, a mere 48 places from the bottom. Despite slow and steady progress on this front over the last three decades, no-one can deny that India’s low position on the list is unacceptable, nor that the country’s efforts cannot be bettered. (Indeed, for those who wonder about the increasing sway of Naxalites in the country, or who believe that the Maoist insurgencies are simply a law-and-order issue, the Report should be required reading.) In a word, the Report is depressing, but entirely along expected lines where India is concerned.

The more interesting aspect for me is the light this sort of report casts on the extent to which India -- more accurately the urban Indians who are able to do most of the talking in India’s name -- remains West-centric in its thinking, and colonial in its assumptions. Ask anyone about India’s development (human or otherwise), and the benchmarks one is likely to be presented with are Western ones, or of countries that have successfully transformed themselves into advanced capitalist economies on the Western model (such as Japan, South Korea, and most pertinently for the contemporary Indian imagination, China). 

There is nothing wrong with the aspiration to match “the best” (although one wishes there was more clarity on what exactly is sought to be matched, beyond the impossibly vague generalities of “development”), but our obsession with the West and the neo-West of rising China, means that we ignore, and are ignorant of, other countries around the world, countries that have much to teach us, and countries that we simply do not have any excuse for being behind on key human development parameters. The preoccupation also means that the India’s developmental priorities and even its political discourse become skewed. The breathless media coverage of the opening of the Bandra-Worli “sealink” earlier this year in Mumbai is a case in point. It is easy to see why Mumbai residents should have welcomed a new and impressive (and long overdue) bridge route that drastically shortens travel time in the city; it is more difficult to see why the sealink should have been celebrated as a point of national pride, even, if one of the Mumbai commuters interviewed by Outlook was any indication, a sign that India was catching up with China and others at the vanguard of modernity. 

This mindset has important consequences: by ignoring all but a handful of the 133 countries that outrank India in the UN’s Report, we are effectively ignoring the fact that there are dozens and dozens of countries that have managed to make greater progress on several key parameters of development than India has, and often under extremely challenging conditions. Simply put, our benchmarks should not only be limited to China or “the West”, or to “first world” countries: instead, India should be asking itself how it has come about that the Sudan has a higher female adult literacy rate than India; the Congo a higher adult literacy rate; Pakistan and Bangladesh slightly higher life expectancies; and dozens of so-called “third world” countries higher human development rankings.

The point isn’t one of national shame or hand-wringing at the notion that a country like [Fill-in-the blank] is doing better than India. It is, in fact, precisely the opposite: rather than ignoring all but the wealthiest countries, or by using developing countries in a condescending and offensive way, as means to evoke shame (“Botswana?!”), India needs to learn from the world. From the likes of Egypt (ranked 123 in the Report), Costa Rica (54), Venezuela (58), El Salvador (106), and Brazil (75), from Laos with its higher life expectancy, Bolivia with its lower probability of not surviving to the age of 40, and from East Timor with its lower percentage of underweight children below the age of 5. I’m not holding my breath: although Indians love to express indignation at the ignorance of (e.g.) the average American when it comes to foreign countries, Indians don’t fare any better. It is rare indeed to encounter even affluent or well-educated Indians who know anything at all about South America or Eastern Europe, or who are even curious about these regions. Africa simply exists as a place where bad things happen. 

But clearly, countries such as those mentioned above must be doing something better than India is, and its time we took them seriously enough to learn from them. A worldview that is hung up on “catching up” with China and “the West” is one that sees “development” in terms of global prestige and national self-image -- not social justice. In seeking to frame the issues in terms of a supposedly inevitable ascension to global power status in the future, we are in the process of making today a casualty.

Umair Ahmed Muhajir, 31, is a lawyer based in New York City. He blogs at


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