This is not to say that India has no problems; it remains profoundly corrupt and its government is incapable of passing necessary reforms. Rural poverty is deep and persistent. Nevertheless, it is not so very long ago that all right-thinking people saw the future of India as hopeless, one of perpetual epidemic and recurring famine.
But life expectancy in India is now the same as was mine when I was born in England. No doubt it is easier to make rapid progress when starting from a low level, but the fact remains that India has progressed very fast and has done so without resort to a vicious authoritarianism, highly imperfect in multiple ways as its democracy might be. Its young population thirsts for real education in a way than much of ours does not; and one manifestation of the underlying wisdom of India is its low tally of medals at the Olympic Games, only six (none gold) when it has a sixth of the world’s population. Its young people have more important things to do than put the shot or throw the javelin.
It is not our aid, or anyone else’s, that has caused India to develop, but the efforts of its own people. Aid is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition of the economic development of a poor country; there is no country that has been lifted out of poverty by aid, which is a form of international social security for corrupt governments. I saw this in Africa, working on a project that enriched an inefficient British company and its personnel, and those local government officials whom it bribed, while the country remained poorer than ever, a kind of tropical Merthyr Tydfil. The economic growth that Africa is now experiencing is thanks to higher commodity prices and somewhat wiser government policies, and has nothing to do with aid.
In any case, to lump poor countries together as if they were all in the same category is false, a form of uninterested and morally frivolous condescension towards all of them. India has a long, varied, glorious (and terrible) history of civilisation, with the sophistication necessary to absorb influences from abroad, including Western scientific ones. The best and most beautiful spoken English in the world is now to be heard in India. It is outrageous that we condescend to it with our paltry aid, just to pay the mortgages of aid workers.
In the 1880s, a young army doctor, Ronald Ross, who went on to discover the mosquito transmission of malaria at Secunderabad and to win one of the first Nobel Prizes for Medicine, wrote a poem that began:
Here from my lonely watchtower of the East
An ancient race outworn I see –
With dread, my own dear distant Country, lest
The same fate fall on thee.
It would be an exaggeration to say, except perhaps metaphorically, that such a fate has actually befallen us; but our continued aid to India is nevertheless a manifestation of the national administrative, mental and ethical torpor, as well as incompetence and corruption, that is leading us inexorably to economic and social disaster. It is high time we stopped such aid, and not only to India.