Geographic and Demographic Setting
INDIA IS A COUNTRY of great diversity with a wide range of landform types, including major mountain ranges, deserts, rich agricultural plains, and hilly jungle regions. Indeed, the term Indian subcontinent aptly describes the enormous extent of the earth's surface that India occupies, and any attempt to generalize about its physiography is inaccurate. Diversity is also evident in the geographical distribution of India's ethnic and linguistic groups. In ancient times, the major river valleys of the Indo-Gangetic Plain of South Asia were among the great cradles of civilization in Asia, as were the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in West Asia and the Huang He (Yellow River) in East Asia. As a result of thousands of years of cultural and political expansion and amalgamation, contemporary India has come to include many different natural and cultural regions.
The Himalayas (and the nations of Nepal and Bhutan) form India's northern frontier with China. Pakistan borders India to the west and Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) to the east. Although both were formerly part of the British Indian Empire, India and Pakistan became separate countries in 1947 and East Pakistan became independent Bangladesh in 1971. The boundaries of the Indian polity are not fully demarcated because of regional ethnic and political disputes and are the source of occasional tensions.
When the 1991 national census was taken, India's population was approximately 846.3 million. The annual population growth rate from 1981 to 1991 was 2 percent. Accounting for only 2.4 percent of the world's landmass, India is home to 16 percent of the world's population. Every sixth person in the world in the early 1990s was an Indian. It is generally assumed that India's population will surpass the 1 billion mark some time before the next census in 2001. In July 1995, the population was estimated at 936.5 million.
Some 38 percent of all Indians were officially listed as living below the poverty line in fiscal year (FY--see Glossary) 1991. This number represented an increase from the low mark of 26 percent in FY 1989, but the rise was believed to be only temporary by some observers. Although government-sponsored health clinics are widely available in the mid-1990s, their emphasis is on curative techniques rather than preventive medicine. However, the lack of such basic amenities as safe, potable water for much of the population is indicative of the severity of health problems. This situation has traditionally led most Indians to have large families as their only form of insurance against sickness and for their care in old age. Although family planning programs are becoming integrated with the programs of urban and rural health clinics, no official birth control programs have widespread support. The severity of the acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) epidemic in India has become increasingly apparent to health specialists, but local awareness of the causes of and ways to prevent the spread of AIDS is growing slowly.
Although many public schools are inadequate, improvements to the education system overall have been substantial since 1947. In the mid-1990s, however, only about 50 percent of children between the ages of six and fourteen are enrolled in schools. The goal of compulsory and free primary and middle school education is embodied in the Indian constitution but has been elusive. The National Policy on Education of 1986 sought to institutionalize universal primary education by setting 1990 as a target date for the education of all children up to eleven years of age. The ability of India's education system to meet this goal has been constrained by lack of adequate financial resources. Important achievements have been made, however, with implementation of the nonformal education system and adult education programs. Whereas public education is generally below standard, education standards in private schools are very high. There also are high standards among the elite institutions in the higher education system.
Data as of September 1995