'There is no humiliation more abusive than hunger," said India's 13th president as he was sworn in on Wednesday. Hundreds of millions of Indians will agree. With an estimated 800 million Indians living on less than US$2 (Dh7) a day, the humiliation of hunger, the shame of not being able to feed one's family, the fright of not knowing when, or if, the next meal will come; all of these are feelings experienced daily by more Indians than the entire population of Europe. This simply should not be.
The statement by President Pranab Mukherjee, a career politician, goes to the heart of the dilemma of modern India. India's middle class is growing, and the big cities of India throng with consumers purchasing luxuries beyond the imagination of millions of their compatriots. The biggest challenge in the coming years and decades will be to alleviate the worst hunger and poverty of the rural millions.
Last month, when India recorded a lower annual economic growth rate for the first time in seven years, it was seen as an indication that the astonishing growth of India from the middle of the last decade was unsustainable. Yet growth rates are poor measures of the lives of the many. Instead they are an indication that the corruption and bureaucracy endemic to daily life in India are strangling the economy. Feeding India's hungry begins with addressing these and other economic shortcomings.
How to do this? Reform, swift and deep. India's government needs to unleash the creativity of its many citizens, especially non-residents. Delhi looks askance at the number of Indians working abroad: it wants their remittances but does not ask why they chose to leave. Indians make up a significant part of the professional class in the UAE, to take merely one example of Indians thriving in foreign lands. They start businesses here because it is easier than at home. They stay because the tax policy in India is a mess and because the state seeks to interpose itself in business.
All of these things are within the remit of the state to resolve. Cutting bureaucracy, rooting out corruption and building infrastructure are all possible with political will. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spent his early career working to open India's cloistered economy, but it is clear that India needs fresh ideas today.
President Mukherhee was correct to raise the issue of poverty at his inauguration. Now the job is for politicians to make it right.