India: A World of Uncertainty

6 December 2016 Mateusz Gwozdz, Research Assistant, Indian Ocean Research Programme Download PDF

Key Points

  • Despite slowing population growth rates, India is set to become the most populous country on Earth, requiring a significant increase in public services provision and job generation.
  • Public health provision is an urgent problem, as much of India’s youth remains stunted as a result of poor hygiene and malnourishment.
  • India’s energy security will remain uncertain, as its growing needs are dependent on fossil fuel imports.
  • The greatest threats to India’s security will be its standoff with Pakistan over Kashmir, strategic rivalry with China and local insurgencies, resulting from alienation, identity politics and poor governance.
  • Climate change may result in a wave of migration from Bangladesh and hastened desertification, which will further complicate food and water security.


The rate of population growth seems to have outrun New Delhi’s ability to cater to the needs of its citizens. Poor hygienic practices, insufficient nutrition and a reduced availability of clean water continue to stunt a significant percentage of India’s youth. The country’s energy needs will continue to grow and will depend on imports, although future technological breakthroughs may, of course, alter that picture considerably.

The underlying causes of the Kashmir conflict are unlikely to be resolved, making it a persistent flashpoint. Likewise, competing strategic priorities and a bitter historical legacy will continue to mar China-India relations, making a complete and permanent reconciliation unlikely. Electoral contests between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress (INC) and their competing views of US-India relations will remain a wild card of Indian foreign policy, as could the policies of the Trump presidency. A wave of climate refugees from Bangladesh over the coming decades remains a distinct possibility.

Overall, effective governance and forethought should optimise India’s economy and public services provision and manage immediate threats to its security. All the same, many longer term factors such as technological progress, climate change and global shifts in the international balance of power, are beyond New Delhi’s immediate control.


Defining Characteristics

India’s imperatives and characteristics are informed by its perceived identity as the cradle of South Asian civilisation, its staggering ethnic and cultural diversity, the legacy of centuries of conquest by foreign powers, and its great power ambitions. As a result, New Delhi’s key imperative is to maintain control of its Himalayan border to the north, the mountain ranges to the east and the Indus River valley, as the latter is the historical land invasion route into the subcontinent. A related imperative is establishing dominance in the Indian Ocean region to ensure that no foreign power can attack India from the sea. The Constitution of 1950, emphasising the secular and democratic character of the state, is a vital building block of the national identity. The tension between local communities and the central government, however, is likely to remain a potential flashpoint, especially in the face of significant socioeconomic inequalities.

Demographics, Food Security and Environmental Issues

The United Nations estimates that the population of India will reach 1.66 billion people by 2050, making it the most populous country on Earth. Its population has increased from 450,000,000 in the 1960s to 1.315 billion in 2015. Even though India’s population growth rate peaked in 1973-75 (at 2.33%), it had fallen to 1.21% in 2015. Historically, whenever standards of living and education levels grow and traditional values erode, population growth eventually levels off at or below the replacement rate. India appears to be consistent with this dynamic.


These trends will have significant consequences. The average lifespan has been increasing and Indian society is rapidly ageing. The working age population has shrunk from 81.1 per cent of the population in 1966 to 52.4 per cent in 2015. Likewise, fertility rates have fallen from an average of 5.91 children per woman in 1960 to 2.43 children by the 2010s. That ageing population will require increased provision of healthcare and social services, the costs of which will be borne by the shrinking working-age population. The retirement age may have to be raised to help keep the country economically viable, but improving educational attainment and increasing the participation of women in the workforce will also help to alleviate the problem.

Educational attainment remains low by global standards, but the overall trajectory is heading upwards. The primary school completion rate s increased from 39.7 per cent in 1971 to 96.2 per cent in 2013 and has remained steady since, although the completion rate for boys is lower than that for girls. Enrolment rates in secondary and tertiary education are more modest. In 2010, approximately 67 per cent of students continued on to secondary education (an increase of 43 per cent since the 1970s). Likewise, about 24 per cent of the population now enrols in a tertiary educational institution, as opposed to five per cent in the 1970s. As India makes its transition to a more service-based economy, those upwards trends are likely to continue.

Gender imbalance will remain a significant problem for India. Since 1975, women constituted 48.2 per cent of the population, a figure that is projected to remain constant. In Indian terms, it means that 23.34 million men will never marry. If this overlaps with the failure to provide public services and jobs for an increasingly educated populace, they may become a ticking social time bomb.

Access to food and fresh water will become more problematic due to growing demand, as will aquifer depletion. Traditionally, population centres were located next to arable land, which provided sufficient food. As elsewhere, however, swift urbanisation has resulted in the expansion of urban areas into productive arable land and the overuse of what remained, thus preventing the soil from recovering before the next farming cycle. Likewise, existing sewage treatment infrastructure is insufficient and remains mismanaged, undersupplied with electricity and understaffed. Unhygienic practices, such as the disposal of improperly-cremated bodies and refuse in rivers or open defecation remain endemic. Approximately 42.6 per cent of Indian children aged five years and below are underweight, and as much as seventy per cent suffer from anaemia. Anaemic children tire more quickly and suffer from inferior cognition, which adversely affects their educational attainment and future productivity. Much if this is driven by the disproportion between per capita incomes and relatively high prices of key foodstuffs. Likewise, much of India remains vulnerable to desertification, making sustainable agriculture uncertain.

Economic Metrics

The current estimated gross domestic product growth rate for India until 2018 is 7.7 per cent per annum. Still, in economic terms India remains a land of extremes: on one hand, India in 2015 was the seventh-largest economy in terms of nominal worth, and the third-largest in terms of purchasing power parity. Both figures are expected to continue growing over the course of the next decade. On the other hand, India ranks as the distant 140th in per capita GDP. The bulk of the Indian population has yet to reap the benefits from average GDP growth of 5.8% over the past two decades.

The perception of being left behind is a major driver of internal unrest. Many impoverished Indians wish to escape their predicament and may embrace radical ideologies promising instant salvation. Extremist movements are usually run by small cadres of hardcore ideologues who exploit popular discontent to recruit new members, making the pattern of radicalisation essentially probabilistic. If frustration driven by poverty is combined with the inability to resist radical propaganda, the probability of popular radicalisation increases. More positively, though, average individual earnings still represent a massive increase relative to the 1990s.

India’s energy security is its weak point. In 2013, it was the third-largest energy consumer in the world, and is projected to rely on imports for over 50 per cent of its energy needs by 2030. Likewise, approximately 70 per cent of India’s energy is generated from fossil fuels, most of which are imported. India’s ability to continue its ascent thus depends on its ability to provide for its growing energy needs.

Governance and Politics

India consists of twenty-nine states and seven union territories. The latter are governed directly from New Delhi, whereas the former enjoy a significant degree of autonomy. The system is far from optimal, as significant levels of local autonomy generate the infamous “Licence Raj”, which discourages interstate integration. The introduction of a national Goods and Services Tax (GST) is a step in the right direction to streamline the economic and administrative system. Its ultimate acceptance or rejection in the months leading up to the intended 1 April 2017 commencement date will be a contest of strength between the central government and state authorities.

The Sonia Gandhi-led INC and Narendra Modi’s BJP are the main parties. INC is the leader of the left-wing United Progressive Alliance coalition. Ideologically, it embraces the tenets of social liberalism, secularism and social democracy. Under its leadership, India followed a foreign policy of non-alignment and calculated relations with major powers, including the peace process with Pakistan. Despite the party’s historical association with the Gandhi family, it has been losing support since 1989 and may be falling into the trap of relying on past glories.

The governing BJP is the second major player. It is the leader of the National Democratic Alliance, a coalition of right wing parties. Ideologically, the party represents right-wing Hindu nationalism and neoliberal economics. The BJP styles itself as being more muscular than its social-democratic rival, as demonstrated by its support of the “War on Terror”, harsh anti-terrorism measures, nuclear tests and generally dim view of Pakistan. The level of hostility to Pakistan within the party differs, so internal power struggles will play a role in shaping New Delhi’s policy towards its neighbour, though the underlying rivalry will likely continue unabated.

The Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) are rival Marxist-Leninist movements. Since the majority of their electorate is more concerned with improving their lot in life rather than ideological imperatives, fluctuations in these two parties’ levels of support are a useful social barometer.

Domestic Security

India has seen 53,410 violent deaths since 1989. Raw numbers conceal two major phenomena. First, many of the underlying causes of the conflicts remain unaddressed. Second, even though casualties have decreased substantially since the late 1980s, the trend has fluctuated. The actual number of future casualties depends on too many contingent factors to accurately predict, but the following will be their most likely sources.


The continuing conflict in Kashmir has claimed between 17,000 and 20,000 lives since the late 1980s. Regardless of whether Kashmir is the cause of the India-Pakistan conflict, or just its manifestation, the rivalry has since developed its own momentum sustained by competing interests and bitter memories on both sides. The interests of India and Pakistan in the disputed area are fundamentally at odds and, as a result, Kashmir will remain a dangerous flashpoint.

The Naxalite insurgency, responsible for 5,583 casualties since 1989, is another ongoing problem. The Naxalites, a CPI-Maoist coalition, have affected approximately half of India’s states. They exploit genuine grievances, such as an inefficient taxation system, landlessness and poverty. As such, the Naxalites’ successes indicate a deeper set of problems.  Despite decreasing casualties, the demands of each side are unacceptable to the other, and the local socioeconomic conditions are slow to change. The same principles apply to a variety of rebel movements, mostly active in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura, which have caused 11,539 deaths since the late 1980s. The situation can develop in three major ways over the coming decades. If the socioeconomic conditions in the affected areas improve, the insurgencies are likely to peter out in the long run. Conversely, if those areas remain impoverished and marginalised, the insurgencies are likely to remain a persistent problem. Finally, history provides ample evidence that, under the right conditions, even a small cadre of professional revolutionaries can force a political change. The outcome depends on an unpredictable interplay of environmental, political, economic, social and technological factors. The Indian Government has a degree of control over the political and economic factors, and can alleviate their worst aspects through good governance and the provision of public services. In the longer term, a greater and more inclusive sense of national identity presents the best option for eliminating secessionist tendencies, but this would require a consistent, long-term policy. Since political parties generally focus only on the next electoral cycle, such consistency is highly unlikely.

The last significant source of instability is Muslim-Hindu tensions close to the borders with Bangladesh and Pakistan, the former due to large-scale migration from Bangladesh, which radically altered the cultural and ethnolinguistic composition of the neighbouring Indian states and generated a sense of marginalisation from a perceived Muslim invasion. Any future influx of Muslim migrants with comparable consequences is likely to produce a similar, violent reaction. If current assessments of climate change are accurate, significant areas of Bangladesh may be submerged or subjected to extreme weather patterns, potentially generating twenty million climate refugees in the coming decades. If this scenario comes true, India’s easternmost states would be the only viable migration route. Even though this scenario is contingent on the accuracy of current assessments, the Indian Government will nonetheless need to generate contingency scenarios to avoid a destabilising migrant crisis comparable to the one confronting Europe.

Foreign Policy

The “Look East” policy stresses the significance of South-East and East Asia to India’s national interests and security. India’s relationship with China is one of its defining aspects. At present, it is marred by a legacy of the failed promise of post-colonial co-operation. India was the second non-Communist state to recognise the People’s Republic of China, and had acceptable relations until the 1962 war over Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh. That conflict is still remembered in India as a stab in the back and colours Indian strategic thinking and public perceptions alike. Beijing, on the other hand, sees New Delhi as a possible rising rival. The high rate of growth that has been enjoyed by China is unsustainable, especially due to the advent of robotics and automated manufacturing. India, on the other hand, is likely to continue its economic expansion for the foreseeable future. Moreover, China finds itself at loggerheads with the United States due to Beijing’s expansion into the South China Sea. Since the BJP is in favour of closer ties with the US and is likely to remain in power for some time, the probability of heightened tensions increases. Even taking into account the uncertainties surrounding the incoming administration in Washington, the US will remain the centre of gravity in overall Indo-Pacific security arrangements. Together with the BJP’s broadly pro-American agenda, a closer relationship between India and the United States is a distinct possibility, although the exact parameters of that may no longer be as certain as they seemed to be prior to 8 November. As such, despite a massive increase in trade volumes between the two countries (India is China’s largest trading partner at present), Sino-Indian relations are characterised by a fundamental mistrust, which will likely continue well into the future. At the same time, since India maintains a permanent nuclear triad capacity and possesses a standing army of some 1.3 million troops, a full-scale war would be exceedingly costly and ruinous to the prospective “victor”, making it extremely unlikely.

Russia continues to provide seventy per cent of India’s military imports and, in the absence of major geopolitical upheavals, that relationship is likely to continue. Likewise, India enjoys close economic and military ties with Israel and both states have expressed an interest in conducting joint military exercises. The Red Sea is a vital trade route for Israel and a part of India’s perceived, if distant, sphere of influence. Likewise, Islamic extremism is a serious problem for both states. As such, there is considerable room for geopolitical partnership between the two, as their interests and concerns partially overlap. In the end, however, India’s behaviour is buttressed by its great power ambitions on one hand and national interest on the other. As such, an alliance with Israel is very unlikely, as it would undermine India’s potentially profitable relationship with Iran. As a consequence, just like its past ties with the Soviet Union, India’s future alliances and friendships will be based on national interests, rather than ideology. At the same time, current trends indicate a more assertive stance, as many of New Delhi’s budding relationships lack the ideological sympathy which was present to an extent in its relationships with the Soviet Union and (initially) Maoist China.

India’s overall trajectory is heading in an upwards direction, yet New Delhi faces a number of hurdles and dangers, not all of which it can directly control. As such, skilled management of those issues will be vital, no matter the political persuasion of future Indian governments.



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