India: Not Quite There Yet

By Anjum Altaf

In this post, I will continue to use data from international games to weave another narrative that employs this particular lens to locate India on the global map. We have already used results from the Asian and Commonwealth Games to establish the fact that India’s performance has been improving steadily and it has been moving up in the rankings. We have also shown that the contribution of women has become a significant contributor to this progress.

We will now use data from the Olympic Games to put this progress in context. The following table shows the performance of India, Pakistan and China, respectively in the Olympic Games competition from 1984 to 2008. The starting point is chosen as it was the year China first participated in the Games.

Year Total Number of Medals
India Pakistan China
1984 0 1 32
1988 0 1 28
1992 0 1 54
1996 1 0 50
2000 1 0 59
2004 1 0 63
2008 3 0 100

One look at table makes the central argument quite apparent: While India has been moving up at the regional level (and Pakistan moving down), at the global level India has barely registered its presence. As far as global standards are concerned, India is very far behind and has a long way to go.

We can flesh out this narrative now. If we look at the total medals obtained by various countries in the 2006 Asian Games, we will see the following ranking (with the number of medals in parentheses): China (294); Japan (191); Korea (181); Kazakhstan (78); Thailand (53); India (51). Thus, in the world of sports, India does not even rank as an Asian power. At this time, it is the dominant South Asian power having clearly moved way beyond its peer countries in its immediate neighborhood.

At the global level, India remains behind countries with much smaller populations. The 2008 Olympic Games medals table shows some of the countries performing better than India (with total number of medals in parentheses): Kenya (14); Kazakhstan (13); Jamaica (11); Turkey (8); Azerbaijan (7); Uzbekistan (6); Zimbabwe (4); Thailand (4); Mongolia (4).

The point of these comparisons is limited. One cannot extrapolate these rankings to make arguments about political importance. The very size of India’s population and its economic potential puts it into a special political category. The point of the narrative is to drive home the point that India has not even begun to leverage its vast human potential. (In this context it is of interest to record that India had two medals as far back as the 1952 Olympic Games and Pakistan had two in 1960.)

One can leave aside countries like China or Cuba that proactively employ sports as indicators of national pride and status, an attitude that I am not a fan of. But one can still make the point that from the perspective of leveraging its human capital, India is effectively a small country at par with countries of the demographic size of Thailand and Turkey.

The reason for this smallness is also quite obvious. Despite the recent growth in the size of its middle class that has enabled India to outpace its South Asian neighbors, the majority of the Indian population still remains outside the modern economy. And while its middle class is giving India the local edge in sheer numbers, the standards attained by it still remain way behind the global benchmarks.

At one level, this is a narrative of neglect; at another, one of latent potential. The message seems quite clear. There is need to be more inclusive; at the same time, the full potential of the included has to be realized.

An economist would conclude that India is operating well within its production possibility frontier. The future can be so bright that perhaps we have been unable to grasp its limits. There are no doubts about what is possible. The only question pertains to how the possible is to be transformed into the actual.

The question for discussion is the following: What social and economic policies need to be pursued to realize the human potential that remains available to be tapped? Alternatively, can India realize its global potential without investing sufficiently in its people? If not, what would this investment comprise of?


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8 Responses to “India: Not Quite There Yet”

  1. Anil Kala Says:

    One reason for the skewed data is the question of attitude towards sports. Success in sports is largely individual effort in South Asia, with no contribution coming from family. If at all contribution of family is negative.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Anil: I think this can change quickly. If sports is seen as a way out of poverty, family attitudes would shift. But that prospect is not sufficient; there has to be a parallel investment in individuals that equips individuals to realize that hope. And this investment is related to the reach of development extending far enough into society to include the majority. The real question here is: What determines family attitudes towards sports? A useful analogy could be: What determines family attitudes towards education?

      • Anil Kala Says:

        Yes indeed. Family is willing to invest in education even if it means borrowing, begging or denying itself many luxuries. The benefits of education are clearly visible, not so for sports. Until sport begins pays at local/regional level rather than only at National level, nobody is going to invest in sport.

        Government investment in sports is meaningless as it is always mired in nepotism, inefficiency and not focused therefore doesn’t make much impact.

        • Anjum Altaf Says:

          Anil: There is an element of chicken-and-egg in this formulation because without the investment sport will not begin to pay at the local/regional level. Also, the nepotism, inefficiency and lack of focus of government is not limited to sports. So the argument would rule out government investment in anything. The fact remains that there are some public investments that nobody else would make. There will remain a residual role for the state but it would help to engage the private sector and to have a competitive format for domestic sports so that there is an incentive for local and regional teams to actively seek out and nurture talent.

          • Anil Kala Says:

            More than investment, some innovation is required. Take for instance Kabaddi and its presentation. The dumb fellows still use limestone powder to mark boundaries. The attire of players and field set up is utterly unimaginative. If they begin by some artificial surface, mark it with big numbers, like they do in American football, acquire safety gear for players, referees using technology, tinkering with rules etc. the thing will become TV friendly and money will come………….

          • Anjum Altaf Says:

            Anil: I agree. The reason for the neglect of Kabaddi might be that it that it is not yet a game that appeals to the affluent although it could with the innovations you suggest. Recently there was a Kabbadi contest in New York. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the Americans provide the innovations first:

    • Vinod Says:

      Surely even the inordinate emphasis on one sport in India – cricket – has to be factored in. What do the comparative performances in cricket show? Has the focus on cricket actually paid off and leveraged the human potential to the maximum extent that a single sport can do? If yes, can lessons be taken from there to answer the questions you have raised in the last para of your post?

      • Anjum Altaf Says:

        Vinod: One can see children playing cricket in the remotest corners of the country and an increasing number of new players are emerging from the smaller cities and towns. I suppose that provides some grounds to believe that the same can happen in other fields as well.

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