Weak public sector management and corruption are slowing economic and human development.

“India is Shining” in many ways, but the major hiccups in the run up to the Commonwealth Games (CWG), which opened on October 3 in New Delhi, highlight India's serious problems. Despite the colourful display of India's arts and culture at the grand opening ceremony, the frantic last minute interventions —including enlisting the Army (who did a remarkable job) to help with the final preparations — reveal the gross inefficiencies of India's public sector management systems. More to the point, it has exposed globally the weak public sector, paralysed by unacceptable corruption practices.

While India's impressive economic growth rate (recent average eight per cent) regularly makes international headlines, this single indicator, unfortunately, masks India's many shortcomings — a basic lack of infrastructure, power, irrigation and transport that slows the pace of India's economic and human development. In fact, according to the recently published World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report, India has slipped from 49th to the 51st place on a list of 139 countries, mainly because of its poor performance in health, education and infrastructure.

India's image is at stake

The impressive opening ceremony showcased India's many talents and its prowess as an emerging global player. Unfortunately, the rough run-up to the CWG was, and still is a major embarrassment for India and tarnishes its image as it competes with other emerging economies such as China, South Africa and Brazil on the global stage. International shame over the many calamities that made world news before the Games opened spurred national leaders to act precipitously, with no check on costs. If only the same leaders were equally shamed by India's slow progress toward achieving its targets on the United Nations (U.N.) Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Earlier this month in New York, a massive U.N. gathering brought global attention to the progress many countries are making (or not) towards achieving key social and economic development targets by 2015. These include measures of poverty and hunger reduction, as well as those that show improvements in child and maternal survival. India has made some progress, but not at a pace that will allow it to meet its specific targets by 2015.

Consider India's progress since 1990 on a few critical MDGs that drive social and economic development. The under-five child mortality rate in 2008 was 69 per 1,000 live births. True, this is half the rate in 1990, but as a recent Save the Children Report reveals, India's current rate of reduction in under-five mortality is just 40 per cent of what is needed to achieve this MDG by 2015. The report also shows that poor Indian children are three times more likely to die before the age of five than those from higher income groups, raising serious questions about equitable access to health services in India.

Another recent report from World Health Organisation (WHO) and the U.N. shows that approximately 60,000 Indian women die every year from pregnancy and childbirth related causes, even though the risk of dying in childbirth is falling for urban women relative to their rural counterparts.

The Government of India (GOI) is battling over the “correct” number of maternal deaths in India with the U.N. and WHO given recent progress on this MDG, but we know for a fact that less than 50 per cent of Indian women deliver in the presence of a skilled health professional, significantly decreasing their chances of survival if they begin to haemorrhage, face obstructed labour or contract an infection during childbirth. Should not this slow progress be a matter of national shame that requires urgent action for India to earn its place on the global stage?

Lasting national prestige

Lasting national prestige comes not from international sports events, even if they are orchestrated spectacularly well, but from investing in one's own country and people. Estimates suggest that India will spend three billion to ten billion dollars on the Games. In stark contrast, India's health budget for 2010-2011 was about four billion dollars, or just about one per cent of its total GDP. Similar levels of attention and resources that have been poured into the Commonwealth Games could solve some of India's fixable but persistent problems. The government needs to not only find ways to generate power for industrial growth, but also to use this power to build and operate classrooms and protect supply chains so that children can read and write, and receive life-saving immunisations. Similarly, it should build roads not only to transport commercial goods, but also to expand public infrastructure that responds to human needs — transporting women to hospitals during childbirth to prevent maternal and child deaths, and distributing food to prevent wide-spread hunger.

Some signs of progress are emerging, but urgent action from India to meet its MDG targets by 2015 is in order. India's leaders can apply lessons learnt from the CWG experience, and hopefully even generate funds from the ongoing use of this massively expensive sports complex, to accelerate India's development performance. This way the Army would not have to be called in to fix India's image in the final run-up to the global MDG stage in 2015.

(Nandini Oomman is Senior Associate at the Center for Global Development, Washington, D.C.)

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