H.E. Erik Solheim, Former UN Under-Secretary-General: 75th Anniversary of India’s Independence

Editorial contribution by H.E. Erik Solheim, renowned Norwegian diplomat, former United Nation’s Under-secretary General and Executive director of UN Environmental Programme.

It’s time the world opens its eyes to how fast India is moving forward

Money straight into the account of those who need it. This is how many poor people perceive that India has improved under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. At the same time, he is building the world’s largest – and perhaps most successful – political party, the BJP. When India now celebrates 75 years as a republic, it may be time to focus on all the progress in the country?

When India became free from Britain, life expectancy was around 30. Only a few could read and write. Life expectancy is now almost 70, nearly all children in India start in school and the richest Indian states in the south of the country, such as Tamil Nadu, have reached a lower European economic level.

Every day, Prime Minister Modi implements programs that reach the poorest much more accurately than in the past, digital programs that all developing countries can learn from. When India’s previous governments wanted to support the poor, most of the money was lost along the way. Of 100 rupees earmarked for the poor, perhaps 15 reached the targeted people.

The rest disappeared on the way to middlemen, in the central administration, in the states, districts and villages. It was not unusual for a village to register hundreds of fake benefit recipients so that middlemen could eat from the plate.

A new digital economy makes it possible to break this curse.

Now the government deposits the money directly into your digital account. The money is yours; no one can take it from you. The amounts are not always large, but the poorer you are, the more it means if there is suddenly 1,000 rupees (125 Norwegian kroners) in the account. Money you can track on your mobile phone.

The poor get much stronger bargaining power when the money is sent to their account and earmarked for them and doesn’t go through middlemen you have to beg from. Power dynamics are changing.

I have many horrible memories of seeing how poor people could not reach the ticketing desk of the railway station or the counter of the bank in ancient India. There were always better-dressed, better-fed people with pointed elbows who made their way to the front.
Not infrequently, people in the bureaucracy licked the rich and powerful, while kicking down and scolding poor people. If you were of a low caste, it was best to walk with your hands outstretched to get at least some of what you were entitled to.

Increase in financial support

When Modi came to power in 2014, 108 million Indians received direct financial support from the state, writes Nalin Mehta in the book The New BJP. In 2020, the figure was 763 million. The amount paid increased 44 times during this period. The money is paid out in various programs and for many purposes.

There are support measures in agriculture, support for gas to stop smoky kitchens, support for housing in the countryside or for the construction of toilets. “Swaatch Bharat”, or clean India, is Modi’s signature project. He has gone for a frontal attack on the open defacation that was common in rural India. When people did what they needed in the fields, it contributed to pollution, diseases and an unpleasant
environment. Many women felt extra vulnerable to sexual abuse. Since Modi became Prime Minister, 100 million village toilets have been built.

“Izzat Ghar” – house of respect

Most interesting for us who want to bring development to the world is perhaps how this has been organized. Modi has brought in a new mindset, made possible through digital technology.

The money does not go via the state, municipality or intermediaries. People who want to build get money and do it themselves. 10,000 rupees (1250 Norwegian kroners) is deposited as the first tranche into your account. The last 2000 rupees is paid once the toilet is geo-located and verified.
You can choose to build yourself or hire people from the village to do the work. After Modi saw graffiti in Varanasi, where someone had called a toilet Izzat Ghar, he asked India to find synonyms in all twenty official languages.

Izzat Ghar is Hindi and means “house of respect”. Toilets give people respect.

A changed party

In India’s largest state Uttar Pradesh, with 220 million inhabitants, 17 million toilets have been built. Perhaps that is why Modi’s party BJP became the first government to be re-elected in decades in Uttar Pradesh?
As one observer commented: “You can build roads and pave them with silver and gold, but nothing happens with regard to voters. When people receive the money personally, it is something completely different.”

For a European, perhaps the most surprising thing is that it is precisely the BJP, the Indian People’s Party, which has carried out this revolution for the poor. The change is total. The BJP was a male-dominated party that now has the most female voters.
BJP was a high caste party. Now 70% of MPs come from low or middle castes.
The BJP has managed something no Indian party has ever come close to – having equal electoral support among all groups of Hindus – high, middle and low caste.

Now the BJP stands stronger than the Congress Party, which for half a century dominated India because they have a clearer ideology and much deeper roots among the majority of the people. I don’t know anyone who is betting their savings on BJP losing the next election in 2024.

Criticized for welfare populism

On his way to power, Modi has outmaneuvered his opponents by adopting and improving their policies. Modi presides over perhaps the most left-wing economic policy in India’s history, critics call it “welfare populism”.

The state is actively used as an instrument in development and environmental policy in a way that should make the Norwegian social democratic prime minister blush.
A very important part of Modi’s success lies in his focus on women. The BJP has more women in its leadership than any other Indian party. They have changed inheritance laws in India in favor of women.
At the 75th anniversary now, the BJP elected Droupadi Murmu as the country’s president, to my knowledge the first woman from an indigenous population to lead an important country, moreover a woman from a low caste and with the most touching life story. Something really to be proud of!

Almost all India-focus in Western media is on cultural conflict and disputes between Hindus and Muslims. These are important questions that I would like to discuss another time. But whatever one may think – there is less violence in India than on the vast majority of other continents. It is also permissible to be optimistic even here. Hinduism is a secular, not dogmatic religion and India can accommodate everyone.

“We Indians are all seekers, we don’t believe in any absolutes” replied India’s perhaps most prominent spiritual leader Sadhguru, when I challenged him a couple of months ago. Absurdly, Modi gets almost no credit for all the historical and day-to-day progress in India from Western media and Western intellectuals.

There, ignorance towards India is so total that it is not unusual to place Modi in the group of authoritarian nationalists, on a par with Bolsenaro, Putin, Trump and others.

It’s time to open your eyes to how fast India is moving forward!