India has failed to use a period of high economic growth to lift tens of millions of people out of poverty, falling far short of China's record in protecting its population from the ravages of chronic hunger, United Nations officials said on Tuesday.
Unicef, the UN's child development agency, said India, Asia's third largest economy, had not followed the example of other regional economies such as China, South Korea and Singapore in investing in its people during an economic boom. It said this failure spelled trouble as the global economy deteriorated, while volatile fuel and food prices had already deepened deprivation over the past two years.
The stinging criticism of India's performance comes only two weeks after the Congress party-led alliance was overwhelmingly voted back into office. Its leaders had campaigned strongly on their achievement of raising India's economic growth to 9 per cent and boosting rural welfare.
An unfavourable comparison with Beijing's development record will rile New Delhi. Manmohan Singh, India's prime minister, has argued that the country's economic development is more durable than that of China because it is forged in a democracy rather than by a one-party state.
In a report on the impact of the global financial crisis on women and children in south Asia, Unicef said that food and fuel price shocks had increased the number of people suffering chronic hunger by 100m to more than 400m people. Of these, 230m are in India, where 76 per cent of the country's 1.2bn people live on less than $2 a day. Among many households, as much as 80 per cent of income is spent on food, making them highly sensitive to rice and wheat price fluctuations.
Aniruddha Bonnerjee, an economic and social policy consultant for Unicef, said there had been "stagnation" in the fight against malnutrition and that stubbornly high food prices posed a growing threat to poor families. He warned that with India's growth rates now almost half what they were two years ago, New Delhi would find it more difficult to boost spending on health, education and food to nurture its human capital.
"If there was no progress against malnutrition and hunger when growth was higher, how are you going to do it now?" he asked.
Mr Bonnerjee said some Asian countries had managed to halve poverty over five years during times of high economic growth; India was falling far short of that achievement. Mr Singh's championing of "inclusive growth" was electioneering and had left large swathes of the population untouched, he said.
Unicef was also critical of high military budgets in the region at the cost of social protection. India is modernising its armed forces and projecting its power more widely than in the past.
"A number of countries in south Asia decide to invest in the military and not to increase investment in their people." said Daniel Toole, Unicef's regional director "Budgetary allocations can be more than 10 per cent in the military, while education is only 2 per cent."
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009