By Mel Gurtov

A democracy is supposed to have the advantage of affording people of any social class, gender, or religious or ethnic group the opportunity to advance. In contrast with authoritarian political orders, democracies should be superior in their openness to change, to everyone’s participation in politics, and to equality before the law. In a word, democracies are based on the politics of hope and the virtues of transparency. Or so the theory goes.

India defies these expectations. Though it has democratic institutions and vigorous political competition, at least among elites, when it comes to human development and human security, India falls very short—embarrassingly so when compared with China. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP), which measures human development and reports annually on conditions in nearly all countries, documents the comparison. Overall, among 177 countries for which data are available, India ranks 135th (in company with Tajikistan, Bhutan, and Cambodia), whereas China ranks 91st (along with Thailand, Armenia, and Fiji). In fact, there are very few categories of human development in which India does better on average than China, which surely explains why developing countries (and many Indian specialists!) looking for economic models are far more likely to choose China than India.

Statistically, among the most telling indicators of human development are those affecting children and women. Infant mortality is exceptionally high in India (44 percent, compared with China’s 12 percent), and life expectancy for children is lower than in the poorest African country. Poor nutrition and sanitation, and limited access to health care, are the observable reasons. Child labor in India, at 12 percent for ages 5 to 14, is also uncommonly high.

Equally shameful is the low status of India’s women, a fact recently brought home in two very different ways. One is the film (produced in Britain) India’s Daughter, which explores the culture of rape, based on the well-publicized incident in which a young woman was gang-raped on a public bus in New Delhi. The woman died of her injuries, the rapists were not the least bit repentant, and the government has banned the film on the specious argument that it will encourage more such assaults. The low status of Indian women is also the key factor in their limited access to prenatal and other health care. As a result, they are, as the article puts it, dangerously underweight.

In short, India is one of the worst places in the world to be a woman. Never mind Sonia Gandhi and other successful Indian women. For the overwhelming majority of Indian women, degrading treatment, sexual violence, and last-in-line access to the means of well-being are the norm. (China is hardly a model here, but the status of women is certainly higher in China than in India.)

India’s shame is also the world’s. The latest UN report on the status of women presents the first “Platform for Action” since the landmark 1995 international conference in Beijing. The report finds that although women have advanced globally by some measures, such as political office holding and education, violence against women is pervasive everywhere. In the words of the report: “Recent global estimates show that 35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. While there is some variation across regions, all regions have unacceptably high rates of violence against women.”

In India, according to the UNDP, more women than men (54 percent to 51 percent) believe wife beating is justified. Though few countries can match the depth of violence against women that characterizes Indian society, global and regional averages suggest that violence, and acceptance by men and many women of its legitimacy, cuts across income levels.

When it comes to preventing violence against women and girls, the UN ECOSOC report repeats all the well-known reforms that are needed—in law, education, community awareness, and police enforcement—but accepts that cultural norms run deep. Thus the report notes that “although States are increasingly recognizing the importance of prevention, very few have introduced long-term, coordinated and cross-cutting prevention strategies, with the vast majority reporting on short-term piecemeal activities.” This is bad news for women and girls everywhere, and nowhere more so than in India.


Mel GurtovMel Gurtov is professor emeritus of political science at Portland State University and editor-inchief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly. He blogs at In the Human Interest. This article was first published by PeaceVoice (