The Planning Commission of India, now replaced by the NITI Aayog, produced a 108 page paper in the 1990s detailing the roadmap to make India a developed country by 2020. The name of this document was India Vision 2020. Urging the government to “reawaken the dormant spirit of India”, this document outlined a vision for the India of 2020. The vision, as highlighted by APJ Abdul Kalam, included the following ten features:

  1. A nation where the rural-urban divide has been reduced to a thin line.
  2. A nation where there is equitable distribution and adequate access to energy and water.
  3. A nation where agriculture, industry and the service sector work together in symphony.
  4. A nation where education with a value system is not denied to any meritorious candidate through societal or economic discrimination.
  5. A nation which is the best destination for the most talented scholars and scientist and investors.
  6. A nation where the best health care is available to all.
  7. A nation where the governance is responsive and transparent.
  8. A nation where poverty has been totally eradicated, illiteracy removed, and none in society feels alienated.
  9. A nation that is prosperous, healthy, secure, safe from terrorism, peaceful and happy, and continues on a path of sustainable growth.
  10. A nation that is one of the best places to live in and is proud of its leadership.

Compilers of this document predicted a required growth of 8–10% for every year until 2020. Needless to say, reality strayed far from the ambition. But, by how much? How many of these objectives did we fail to achieve in the 30 years since the conception of the vision.

At a glance, objectives 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 seem to have not been achieved. Objective 2 could be added to this list. However, it can be argued that we are on our way to achieve object 2 with recent initiatives pushing for the provision of gas cylinders, electricity, sanitary resources, and municipal water under the Modi government.

Omitting the 2020 pandemic when looking at this list of objectives still yields the same result. We have still scored a failing grade of 10% in this crucial test of governance.

In this post, I want to look at the first objective: ‘A nation where the rural-urban divide has been reduced to a thin line.’

As urban areas are the seat of large companies and politics, they also have better amenities like education and health care. So, increases in the standards of living are bound to take place in these areas first. However, whilst these areas develop rapidly, much of India is left out.

While international cities such as Mumbai can boast of the richest individuals in the world, the villages in the same state have seen more than 41,000 farmers choosing to end their lives due to indebtedness and bankruptcy between 1998 and 2009. While the country is now a trillion-dollar economy, there are more people living in poverty, more children who are malnourished, and more people to brought under literacy than in any other nation.

Rural India has 650,244 villages with about 800 million rural Indians and some 500 million youths below thirty-five years of age. Furthermore, these villages make up 94.8 per cent of the land area but only 50 per cent of the National Domestic Product of India. This is because rural areas are generally self-sustaining and so not accounted for in GDP / NDP calculations. This is a blessing and a curse. Whilst the government does not need to ration supplies and intervene in small town economies, it also means that rural villagers are living in the same way that their ancestors did. With little to no economic growth till now, the standard of living has remained about the same in rural areas as it was generations ago. The chief reason behind this is an inability to access markets.

Until recently, goods produced in the districts of India tended to stay within those districts due to a lack of all-weather roads and other vital infrastructure. This meant that rural farmers often incurred the opportunity cost of not selling the surpluses from plentiful harvests. Take the example of the tribes of the Nicobar Islands. While they had deep traditional knowledge on fishing, they lacked proper knowledge on how to market the excess fish beyond their village need. In fact, the ocean territories surround the Nicobar Islands were so rich in natural resources that fishermen from other countries would often illegally fish on these waters. Despite being blessed with such bountiful natural resources, the tribes were unable to obtain economic benefit from selling their fish on different markets.

Another challenge to the economy is an increasing growth rate in the population whilst the material conditions are not improving. Population pressures increase in India each year as households are able to sustain more individuals. This pressure on the land to sustain an increasing number of people means that the material conditions in which the bulk majority of households are living, are not increasing whilst the population is. The challenge faced by the country here is to bring improvements in material living conditions to those living in rural and urban conditions whilst sustaining the pressures of the population.

It is not as though the inadequate material living conditions have been unaware to the public eye. Ironically, the influx of donations and charities to these areas has not even come close to providing the inclusive development needed. Some of the best funded and resourced missions have been failures. For example, the Indian government has been spending $7–8 billion every year on the Food Subsidy Program to no avail. Critics from all over the country have pointed out the program’s inefficient delivery and leakages, as a result of which about half the children in the nation are still undernourished.

In conclusion, the nation has now come across a unique situation where there is simultaneously a positive economic trajectory, a reduced rate of inflation, global recognition of its technological competence, a workforce of 550 million youths, and the eagerness shown by many developed countries to invest in India. The historical primacy of the public sector over the private one is vanishing. In addition to foreign recognition of technological competence and consequent investment, Indian institutions, too, are accelerating the rate at which they invest in India. There remains, however, a need to raise the economic conditions and living standards of the 300 million people living in extreme poverty. So, the key factor limiting growth and development for the Indian economy living is the chasm between rural and urban areas. Economic development is necessary if India is to address its other issues. So, to achieve economic development and sustainability, the government must establish a system that would allow for the movement of goods, services, labor, entrepreneurship, and investments within and outside of villages.