Span Blog

Change in India: A 50-Year Perspective
By Ambassador Jonathan Addleton
| Category: U.S. India Relations

India's story of change from the eyes of a USAID Mission Director working to further strengthen relations between India and the United States.

More than five decades ago, in the early summer of 1965, I visited India for the first time.  It was a family trip involving my mother, father, brother and sister.  I was seven years old.  We stayed less than a week and saw Fatehpur Sikri, the Red Fort and the Taj Mahal. 


Since that memorable first trip, I have visited many other parts of “Incredible India” multiple times, including in 1978 as a backpacker traveling by train to Amritsar, Lucknow and Varanasi and in 1984, as a PhD student meeting Indian academics in what were then called Trivandrum and Bombay.


Subsequent travels involved both business and pleasure, always including Delhi and sometimes extending to other cities such as Agra and Jaipur as well.  During every repeat visit, I was struck by the changes taking place over time. I also wanted to keep coming back.


These early encounters pale into comparison with a much more recent opportunity to live and work in India, this time as USAID Mission Director based in Delhi.  Indeed, I will shortly conclude my 32-year Foreign Service career in Delhi, departing with vivid memories as well as a much deeper appreciation for a dynamic country that continues to undergo rapid change.


Formal work responsibilities have included management of the development aspects of a bilateral relationship between our two countries that continues to expand, covering multiple areas to the benefit of both countries. 


At a more informal level, this assignment has also provided many opportunities to meet and witness the positive value of our partnership, especially in areas where USAID is directly involved with Indian partners, such as health, energy, water and sanitation, financial inclusion and agriculture.


Perhaps the biggest advantage of a personal engagement with India that by now spans half a century is to be able to track the pace and direction of change over long periods of time. Those changes may seem more gradual for those that witness them a day or even a year at a time.  But for those returning to India after occasional long “gaps” away, the differences can seem truly dramatic.


The India that I first visited as a child in 1965 had a population of less than 500 million.  GDP growth that year was in decline, largely on account of a costly war with Pakistan.  Agriculture accounted for nearly half of GDP and most people still lived in small towns or in the countryside.  Foreign exchange reserves measured around $625 million and energy consumption was estimated at 61.4 kilowatt hours per person.  The literacy rate was placed at less than 30 percent and life expectancy rates had hardly reached 45 years.  Population growth exceeded two percent each year.  More than 230 out of every 1,000 children died before reaching the age of five.


By contrast, India's population now exceeds 1.2 billion and the GDP has grown to over $2 trillion per year, ranking amongst the highest in the world.  Agriculture is still significant for India, but other sectors including manufacturing and services have increased dramatically.  Foreign exchange reserves have climbed to more than 365 billion and per capita energy consumption exceeds 765 kilowatt hours.  More than 74 percent of Indians can read and write, and girls and boys attend school in roughly equal numbers.  Life expectancy exceeds 65 years while population growth rates have halved and are now approaching one percent, accompanied by a corresponding decline in fertility rates.  As for child mortality, it has declined by more than two-thirds to 48 per thousand.


Statistics provide useful context, but ultimately reflect only part of what is happening in India. In reality, the most dramatic aspects of this ever-changing story are played out in the lives and personal narratives of tens of millions of people as well as the families and communities in which they live. 


The India that I witnessed from a crowded wooden bench on a third class train carriage back in 1978 has changed forever, whether viewed today from an air-conditioned “fast train” from Delhi to Agra or from a Boeing 737 en route to Hyderabad, Bengaluru or Kolkata.  In fact, from an outside perspective, one of the most dramatic developments in India in recent years has been the rapid expansion of India's domestic air transport system, including new airlines, better airplanes and world class airports now scattered across the country.


The nature of the development partnership between India and the United States has also changed.  While proud of past successes involving USAID and key Indian institutions that led to the “Green Revolution” as well as this country's very first Indian Institute of Technology, the hallmark of our current program is the emphasis placed on four key themes:  science, technology, innovation and partnership (STIP).  Viewed from this perspective, development isn't something that is provided for another group of people.  Rather, it is worked through and implemented with them. 


As a development partner, India has much to offer.  Indeed, some of the partnerships forged between our two countries in recent years extend beyond India to also include third countries in Asia and Africa, providing opportunities to apply the strengths of our shared development experience in other parts of the world.


During my first trip to India as a child more than half a century ago, I could not imagine that I might one day return to live and work, this time as a  USAID officer building on the contributions of prior USAID Mission Directors to further strengthen relations between India and the United States.


As I depart, I am more convinced than ever that when India and the United States are in a good place, they can together help move the world toward a better place.  It has been an honor to have played a small part in this much larger story of change—a story that I'm certain will involve even better chapters in the years ahead.


Looking ahead, I am also convinced that the parting phrase offered up during previous visits to India and now also on this one will once again prove accurate:  phir milengey—See you later!



Ambassador Jonathan Addleton currently serves as USAID Mission Director to India.