Amartya Sen, a Nobel laureate, is a professor of economics and philosophy at Harvard. He is the author, with Jean Drèze, of “An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions.”
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — MODERN India is, in many ways, a success. Its claim to be the world’s largest democracy is not hollow. Its media is vibrant and free; Indians buy more newspapers every day than any other nation. Since independence in 1947, life expectancy at birth has more than doubled, to 66 years from 32, and per-capita income (adjusted for inflation) has grown fivefold. In recent decades, reforms pushed up the country’s once sluggish growth rate to around 8 percent per year, before it fell back a couple of percentage points over the last two years. For years, India’s economic growth rate ranked second among the world’s large economies, after China, which it has consistently trailed by at least one percentage point.
The hope that India might overtake China one day in economic growth now seems a distant one. But that comparison is not what should worry Indians most. The far greater gap between India and China is in the provision of essential public services — a failing that depresses living standards and is a persistent drag on growth.
Inequality is high in both countries, but China has done far more than India to raise life expectancy, expand general education and secure health care for its people. India has elite schools of varying degrees of excellence for the privileged, but among all Indians 7 or older, nearly one in every five males and one in every three females are illiterate. And most schools are of low quality; less than half the children can divide 20 by 5, even after four years of schooling....