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It's been said, most notably by Winston Churchill, that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. But while India has the world's largest democracy, it also has widespread poverty and a host of other economic problems. And now some Indian citizens find themselves looking enviously at a neighbor that has a very different sort of government: China.

David Kestenbaum with our Planet Money team brought back this story from India.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: You know how you take a trip, and sometimes the most interesting thing is that it makes you see your home differently? That happened to newspaper columnist Karan Thapar. He recently left his home - India's capital, Delhi - which can feel kind of crowded and broken down. He went to China, Beijing, and what he saw made him jealous.

Mr. KARAN THAPAR (Newspaper Columnist): There was nothing that I could find that seemed poor or Third World or shabby or dirty. The buildings are immaculate, they're resplendent. The roads are eight-lane-wide and awe-inspiring.

KESTENBAUM: It was particularly painful, he says, because if you think of the two countries in a race, when the starting gun fired, they were both at the same place. In the late 1940s, India became independent, and the People's Republic of China was born. Both were equally poor then, but in the race, China is now way out in front.

Both countries are about the same size, over a billion people, but China is three times richer.

Mr. THAPAR: China has reduced child malnutrition to something like seven percent. In India, it's still an astonishingly high 47 percent. In absolute numbers, there are more children suffering from malnutrition in India than in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa.

KESTENBAUM: When Thapar came back, he wrote a newspaper column about it, arguing: Yes, we are free here in India. It seems we are free to be poor.

(Soundbite of hammering a rock)

Delhi these days has plenty of poor people. Some have come in from the villages to do construction work. This woman, Raj Khumari(ph), says she makes 110 rupees a day, about $2.40.

Ms. RAJ KHUMARI: (Through translator) What can you do with 110 rupees? You can hardly buy anything nowadays. You can probably get a bottle of oil in a day, and soap.

KESTENBAUM: A hundred and ten rupees a day is actually less than the minimum wage set by the government, and she's working for the government. A man next to her says: Our only hope is that the Communist Party takes over.

So what system of government is best for economic growth? Well, who really knows? But since we're in a democracy, let's debate it. Here's economist Partha Sen, director of the Delhi School of Economics.

Mr. PARTHA SEN (Director, Delhi School of Economist): Democracy in an everyday sense, you know, in terms of getting things the poor need, has clearly not functioned. Somehow democracy has failed us.

KESTENBAUM: Partha Sen says he'd rather live in India than China, but he sometimes feels burdened by democracy. To have fast economic growth, you need a government that can do things, build infrastructure. But democracies are intended to move slowly, and India is famous for slow.

Mr. SEN: We are a democracy. We like to argue about everything. So things move slowly. Infrastructure is very poor. Roads are very underdeveloped. Trains are still not okay.

KESTENBAUM: Power goes out.

Mr. SEN: Power goes out. Water is a problem. China invests a lot in infrastructure. So China, they are on the ball. We are not.

KESTENBAUM: The Chinese government does not have endless parliamentary debates and legal battles. It does not ask a lot of questions. It does things: builds roads, trains, power plants, all those things on Partha Sen's list of complaints.

Mr. ESWAR PRASAD (Economist): It's a fine balance.

KESTENBAUM: This is Eswar Prasad, an economist who has straddled both worlds, India and China. He's an advisor to the Indian government but he used to be the head of the China division at the International Monetary Fund. And here's his take.

Mr. PRASAD: We economists think that a benevolent dictator - a benevolent dictator with their heart in the right place - could actually do a lot of good.

KESTENBAUM: In general, though, he says the economic record of dictators and single party states, it is not very good. China seems to be an exception.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

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