Commentary Magazine


A Starving Democracy

Today’s New York Times reports that in India a shocking 42.5 percent of children under 5 are malnourished. Shocking, because we’ve spent the last decade marveling at India’s economic dynamism and democratic achievement. When terrorists attacked Mumbai last November virtually every report mentioned how much the city resembled a great American metropolis. Every analyst discussed India’s challenge as that of any other open democracy faced with a serious national security crisis. But a child population with 42.5 percent malnutrition doesn’t much resemble our democratic ideal. Nor does this:

A World Food Program report last month noted that India remained home to more than a fourth of the world’s hungry, 230 million people in all. It also found anemia to be on the rise among rural women of childbearing age in eight states across India. Indian women are often the last to eat in their homes and often unlikely to eat well or rest during pregnancy. Ms. Menon’s institute, based in Washington, recently ranked India below two dozen sub-Saharan countries on its Global Hunger Index.

We’ve heard a lot about the threat to America posed by emerging powers such as India. Such fear-mongering misses the point on two counts. First, a freer and more dynamic Asia is a good thing for America. It means more trading partners, more shared goals, and more easily persuaded allies. Second, free markets and elections don’t say much about a country’s endurance or stability. India is at an exciting and promising point right now. But it is also partially paralyzed by copious amounts of bureaucratic red tape, the legacy of a brutal caste system, cultural paranoia and hyper-plurality.

Let’s hope the subcontinent lives up to its P.R. If nearly half of India’s future generations will have suffered from malnutrition, it would constitute a humanitarian tragedy and, also, the loss of an American ally. A country that can’t feed its population can’t pose much of a threat. But more important, it won’t make much of a lasting contribution to the civilized world.