After an Air Sahara plane was stuck in the soft earth at the end of the runway in Mumbai for three days, several groups of people - insiders at the Airports Authority of India, passengers stuck in hover and delay mode, and opinion makers made the following uniform observation: in no other major airport in the world would such lethargy and dysfunction be tolerated. But in a nation whose largest share of economic activity itself does not rely critically on air transport, they were all equally off the mark: the correct conclusion to be drawn from this incident is that Mumbai International is not one of the major airports in the world!

The uniformity of their lamentation screens out an important reality - the India that many of us aspire to cannot be realised along the path we have chosen, but rather than accept this truth and steer a different course, we prefer to plod on with the illusion that we are an exceptional nation and people, literally.

It is as if development is worth pursuing only to bring India to the world stage -- a world which itself tends to view India oblivious to the true proportion in which different realities exist.

 •  A qualified freedom
 •  A poor imitation A smoothly-run airport is not the result of merely deciding to have one. It requires years of planning - in design, construction, and technology. In addition to these things, plenty of attention is needed in identifying the nature of travel needs, a primary stake for the host city and its citizens in oversight, training for personnel, developing systems for accountability and reward and risk management. The stranded plane was apparently holding up other air traffic because it was too close to the runway, and the equipment to move it wasn't handy.

But these are merely the most proximate of the explanations. Mumbai can get all the sky-bridges it wants, the heavy haulers it can afford, and the controllers and equipment it desperately needs, and things will still fail in deplorable ways. Why? Consider this: in every developed country with a major air transport system, the majority of its citizens can afford to get on a plane and go some place if they choose to; but in India the baggage handler, the security guard, the man laying the cable for the airport's internet connection, and the countless others we file past on our way to the aircraft typically do not earn enough in a whole month to pay for a one-way air ticket across the nation.

Scores of similar examples exist. Like it or not, not only are we a nation of two economies, but for us there is choking connection between the two. The formal economy's privileges are ultimately provisioned by the very lack of entitlements in the shadow economy. This is why ultimately, even though it is arguable that with additional planning this stranded plane incident could have been averted, incidents similar to this will continue to occur.

Developed aspirations, underdeveloped plans

Rapid economic change in India during the last decade or so, and the accompanying cultural transformation, is widely shaped by Western thought and practice. In dress, language, ambition, and many other spheres, the models we aspire to are straight from America and western Europe, and many have noted that these aspirations may be unwittingly belittling our own traditions. That the imitation is odd and awkward is well known. But on what foundations did rich societies build their progress? This question is rarely examined.

Can we be a 'rich' people without doing any of the things that 'rich' countries now do, even as they themselves are faced with new global realities of climate change, environmental degradation and slowing economic growth? That's an important question because if the answer is no, then all our anticipatory celebration is in vain, and won't forestall another few decades of poverty and all-round deprivation.

Despite the lip service to fighting poverty, the need for services and infrastructure for 10% of our population continues to be the driving force in our economic development discourse. It is as if development is worth pursuing only to bring India to the world stage -- a world which itself tends to view India oblivious to the true proportion in which different realities exist. But the standards of measurement to come on the world stage are themselves full of holes. Consider these examples that we have referred to in earlier editorials:

Every developed country in the world has a public education system accessible to all its citizens, but India's plan for the education of its citizens increasingly relies on private providers. Nearly every advanced country provides some form of universal health insurance to its citizens, but public health reform in India is leaden footed compared to fast mushrooming private services. Similarly in provisioning social security for the aged and the destitute. Likewise, every developed society has encouraged citizen participation in governance, tolerated dissent within political parties, and erected judicial systems to reign in even the high and mighty, but in India these exist only on paper, and we really have is a system of governance and justice full of arbitrariness, and the whims and fancies of individuals.

To accomplish even one of our goals along untried paths would be astounding enough. But we have set a course to attain this serendipitous success in not just one arena, but all of them!

In each of these scenarios, India's publicly stated positions are progressive too. But the time, talent, policy priorities, and resources devoted to finding solutions far lags what we devote to responding to the growth demands of better-off 10%. In addition, we join hands with global organisations and engage in minute analysis to revise development targets every 10 years. An objective outsider viewing India over a span of 57 years might conclude that our great debates are about intentions and plan estimates, not outcomes!

We have placed our bets on very shaky ground. On current course, to arrive on the world's stage we would need to be a very exceptional nation - literally. We would need to succeed in ways that others have not. We would need to:

  • build the capacities of our people to compete globally even though our broken public schooling keeps close to one third of our population (SCs, STs and Muslims) so disadvantaged that they cannot make it into our public universities,
  • build a knowledge economy despite disproportionately high illiteracy in large numbers of our people of lower castes and ethnicities,
  • meet our massive current and future energy needs, but unstrategically rely on the fossil fuel economy,
  • build a diverse and progressive elite, but manipulate reservations to fill up mostly low grade government jobs and not higher up the ladder in the public and private sector,
  • develop a robust democracy despite the lack of real plurality in our political parties,
  • develop robust systems of local self-government, despite unresolved jurisdictional conflict and reluctance to accept citizens' right to scrutiny,
  • achieve stupendous increases in health and sanitation without the necessary investment in either, and
  • make rapid strides in food security tinkering with supply side 'remedies' even though the problem exists on the demand side.

This list isn't an exhaustive one; the full collection of contradictions is staggeringly large. To accomplish even one of these would be astounding, and mark a greatly different trajectory to an inclusive prosperity than that taken by others previously. But we have set a course to attain this success serendipitously in not just one arena, but all of them!

Audacious, because we aren't even remotely close to the goal. India has 1% of the world's trade, 2% of its share of the knowledge economy, around 30% of the planet's desperately poor, and large proportions of remaining victims of many globally forgotten diseases. As ominous as it may sound, the reality - acknowledged by those looking at national indicators, as well as those tasked with very local administration of public services - is that we will not climb very much higher in the world rankings of the Human Development Index of nations anytime soon. Nor is this simply a matter of pace and eventual change. Our development is constrained not by our size, but as we pointed out at the beginning, the paths we have incorrectly assumed.

It is often said, in elite discourse, that India is the world's great exception, and that the rules and ideas by which other nations live - or develop - don't necessarily apply to us. The breadth of our culture, and the great disparities of wealth and opportunity, are usually the reasons for this label. But recently we have begun adding an incredible front to this claim. We have embarked upon a quest for prosperity that has no basis in the economic opportunities of the majority of our people, no plans to make public education really work, no funding to assuage their great malnourishment, no rehabilitation for millions displaced over the years, and no conviction about the equality of all our citizens. Our plan for success is, unbelievably, the denial of the very same things we call 'success' to the majority of us.

Each stranded plane, or other such incident, that reminds us frustratingly of how far we must climb to reach even average world standards should also remind us of something else - inclusive progress is neither a matter of chance nor good intentions. Instead it depends deeply on our choices, and the relation these choices bear to outcomes.