India: "Mindless negativity" on hunger, malnutrition, and child marriage

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh lashed out against "mindless negativity" on Wednesday, in a thinly veiled response to the flurry of corruption allegations leveled against a businessman who married into the Gandhi family. But it would be worse than mindless to take a rosy view of the situation--despite India's improved economic growth over the past 20 years.

Though Singh promised additional government transparency and a new law to make corporate honchos, and not just government officials, liable for criminal prosecution for bribery, the country has made little visible progress in eliminating graft -- though the prevalence of the problem has not actually increased, so much as the dollar amounts involved has skyrocketed.

Moreover, as Yogendra Yadav, a supporter of anti-corruption crusader Arvind Kejriwal, writes in Friday's Indian Express, the PM and his Congress Party are demanding an obvious deviation from Indian norms by suggesting that allegations about Priyanka Gandhi's husband, Robert Vadra, must be proven in court before they are blasted across the country's front pages. 

If crony capitalism, and the "banana republic" mentality that Vadra disastrously evoked in a somewhat inscrutable Facebook status update, is indeed on the wane since India unshackled its industries from the so-called License-Permit Raj of the planned economy in 1991, the change is hardly apparent to regular folks. And it is fast being replaced by something similar, if more modern.

Even if there is no obvious quid pro quo involved in Vadra's land deals with DLF, India's largest property developer, it's hard to argue with the idea that being in business with the country's first family gave the company access to and influence on policymakers in the same way that massive campaign donations to political parties benefit huge corporations. And that sort of influence is being enshrined, rather than curtailed.

But corruption is, in some respects, the most petty of India's problems. 

In various news reports over the past few days, we have learned that India is the child marriage capital of the world, with half its girls married off before the age of 18 -- even as astute village elders in Haryana have advocated speedy weddings for child brides as a solution for a disturbing spurt in the number of rapes reported in that feudal and patriarchal state. We have learned that India, all its new millionaires and billionaires notwithstanding, ranks 65th out of 79 countries on the Global Hunger Index, below dozens of poorer nations -- and the government has not even bothered to tabulate nationwide data on malnutrition for the past two years. And we have seen dramatically how that tragedy unfolds, with a single hospital in Chhattisgarh -- unsurprisingly the epicenter of a simmering Maoist insurrection -- reporting that 158 children died from malnutrition in its beds this year, following 133 who went to their graves in 2011 and 174 who died in 2010. That too not long after Narendra Modi, the chief minister of "vibrant Gujarat," argued that malnutrition figures for his state were skewed because young girls are too preoccupied with their svelte figures to eat.

"India's track record is disappointing..." the Times of India cites the International Food Policy Research Institute as saying in its latest report on the Global Hunger Index.

"[G]iven India's per capita income, it has higher GHI scores than would be expected. Between 1990 and 1996, India's ...GHI score was falling commensurate with economic growth. After 1996, however, the disparity between economic development and progress in the fight against hunger widened, and India moved further away from the predicted line," according to the report. "This stagnation in GHI scores occurred during a period when India's gross national income per capita almost doubled."

Meanwhile, four UN agencies wrote to the Indian government, lamenting, "More than 40% of the world's child marriages happen in India. In eight states of the country, more than half of young girls are married before the age of 18," according to another TOI piece.  

Mindless negativity? The only thing mindless is the reaction to such problems. Modi has been singled out because of his alleged role in the Gujarat riots of 2002, but his reaction is nowhere near unique. Consistently, India's politicians and officials deny, downplay and ignore the country's biggest problems rather than taking responsibility for them -- whether it is a police official in Haryana claiming most of the new rape reports are actually cases of consensual sex, or politicians rubbishing data on poverty and hunger by making dubious comparisons to their rivals in other parties or other states.

And if we don't want to be "mindless?"  

We must acknowledge the pointlessness of talking about relative economic successes--a bump in economic growth or the reduction of bureaucratic red tape--when the real story is one of absolute failure of governance across the board.