The debate in a small group earlier this week was about how far India is behind China. The quick numbers tossed out varied all the way from 10 to 25 years and more. Figuring out the gap between the two “rising giants of Asia” is in fact an instructive study. For instance, China’s GDP in 2011 was $6.99 trillion, or nearly four times India’s $1.84 trillion. If the Indian economy were to grow at an annual average of 7.8 per cent (the rate for the past decade), it would take 18 years to get to China’s current size. If growth were to accelerate to nine per cent, it would still take 15 years.
Could India have avoided falling so far behind China? After all, when China began its Four Modernisations in 1978, the two economies were of roughly the same size ($145-148 billion). Even in 1991, when India began its reforms, China’s economy was only 40 per cent bigger than India’s $268 billion. The answer is that, in many ways, India in 1991 was already two decades and more behind China on key indicators, and it has not closed the gap. For instance, China’s literacy rate in 1991 was 78 per cent, whereas India’s was just 52 per cent. Even today, India’s literacy rate, at 74 per cent, is short of where China’s was in 1991; meanwhile, China has moved ahead to 94 per cent literacy. Ditto with life expectancy; China’s in 1991 was 70 years. Twenty years later, India had a tally of only 64 years. Of course, China’s life expectancy has improved slowly in the last two decades, and is at 73; still, it will take India two decades and more to get to that figure.
Some seemingly large gaps might be closed more quickly. Thus, China’s goods exports are about six times India’s. However, India’s exports have multiplied nearly seven-fold in the last decade (from $43.8 billion to an expected $300 billion this year), so it could conceivably replicate China’s current export figure in less than 10 years. No such hope can be applied to industry, where too China’s is more than six times India’s. Move to research, and China has a citation index that is twice as good as India’s. In the space programme, China sent its first man into space in 2003; India hopes to do it in 2015, but is likely to take longer. As for infrastructure, China has more than 30,000 km of expressways on which traffic speeds go up to 120 kmph; India has a few hundred kilometres. China has a whole inter-city network of high-speed trains, five times as many Internet users, and nearly a million MW of power generation capacity. India has only fractionally increased its train speeds since the first Rajdhani Express of 1969, and even if the country doubles power generation capacity every decade, starting from 150,000 MW in 2010, it will take more than a quarter century to get to where China is today. As for agriculture, China applies fully three times the fertiliser per arable hectare that India does.
The smallest gap is in the mobile phone population. And the largest gap perhaps in the quality of political leadership — China is able to produce a new crop of top-rung leaders every decade, in Beijing and in the provinces and large cities, whereas India’s political parties offer little beyond an upper crust. China’s project execution is of course in a league of its own. As for sport, India got one gold medal in the last Olympics, China got 51. The cold message to all Indians: stop talking of the two countries in the same breath, and dump the “Chindia” coinage. For why does India not bracket itself with Iran, whose economic size in relation to India (1:4) is broadly the same as India’s to China?