India may be the world’s biggest democracy and a rising economic power. It is also corrupt, sexist, religiously intolerant and chronically riven by disputes over class and ethnicity.

When something terrible happens in India, which is almost every day of the week, the response is to blame the Government and to demand a change in the law, coupled with an insistence that those enforcing the new legislation should do so without fear or favour.

Some hope.

Consider the latest high-profile rape case. A 16-year-old girl is taken from her parents’ home and gang-raped. When the father complains to the village elders – the equivalent of an unelected parish council – the rapists are told to pay a fine and do a hundred press-ups. Understandably outraged, the girl’s father and mother protest, only to be beaten up by the culprits who then grab hold of the victim and burn her alive on a fire.

Two days later, another teenage girl is raped and burned alive. The nation is stunned. The Government promises action. But the girls are only two out of close to 50,000 girls raped each year in India, with at least as many again refusing to come forward for fear of the repercussions.

If you are raped in India, you are shamed. You are soiled goods. Your value in the marriage market drops to zero.

Girls and women are not esteemed in the world’s greatest democracy. The daughters of rich fathers can live pampered lives, and within the growing upper-middle class there is a new caste of women, most of them university-educated, the majority from a “good family,” who are making their voices heard and calling for change. Good for them. They are the suffragists of India.

But ordinary girls, especially in the villages, are little more than drudges and commodities. Thousands of baby girls are left out to die in India each year by parents who only want sons. An estimated annual total of half a million terminations are carried out following the discovery of the sex of the foetus, with many more performed by backstreet abortionists.

Girls of 12 and 13 are routinely promised to future husbands by their parents. According to UNICEF, 18 per cent of all Indian girls are married off at the age of 15. Given that girls are in high demand, but with the supply artificially suppressed, is it any wonder that rape is a commonplace?

All this in a nation that prides itself on its ancient civilisation and likes to look down on the loose morals and promiscuity of Western society.

Slavery is another constant. When I was covering South Asia for the Sunday Times, I remember being smuggled into an encampment about 50 miles outside Delhi in which hundreds of so-called bonded labourers and their families were confined. These unfortunates owed trivial sums to the camp boss, or had inherited the unpaid debts of their ancestors, and as a result were held as slaves, sleeping in rough huts, overseen by men with rattan canes, guarded by an armed militia.

I spoke to one man who said he and his father had lived all their lives in the camp, working to repay a debt that could never be discharged. He begged me to take his 13-year-old daughter with me when I left. I could enjoy her as my wife, he told me. I still have her photograph. She must be in her late thirties now. I refused – not without a pang of guilt – causing him to give me an anguished shrug. But I did hand over the equivalent of £10 in rupees, which may or not have been enough to alter his situation. Minutes later, I was ordered to leave and escorted back out onto the road. A man with a rifle kept a close watch on me until I and my minder disappeared in a swirl of dust.

Back in Delhi, I described what I had seen to various politicians and officials I met. None was in the least surprised, or interested. “This is India,” was the general response. “Life is different here.”

Corruption is, of course, universal. That is to say, it exists everywhere, at every level. In fairness, this is far from unique. According to the Berlin-based Transparency International, India is ranked 81 out of 180 for corruption on its international index, along with Ghana and Morocco. Britain, by contrast, sits in eighth place, while Somalia holds up the bottom, fractionally behind South Sudan and war-torn Syria. If you want to do business in India, or avoid a speeding ticket, or get to the front of a queue without having to stand around, be prepared to open your wallet, but no more so than in, say, China, Nigeria or Egypt. So that’s all right, isn’t it? Move along, nothing to see here.

And then there is religion and class, or caste. The ruling BJP, or Indian People’s Party, is both right-wing and avowedly pro-Hindu – which is to say, anti-Muslim. It believes in the desirability of a homogenous hindu nation and, at best, tolerates the country’s 175-million-strong Muslim minority, as well as other groups, such as Sikhs, Buddhists and Christians. Violence frequently flares between Hindus and Muslims. Riots and sectarian murder are an endemic aspect of everyday life, sometimes with the connivance of politicans, often without any official intervention.

As for caste, it really does matter, if you are a Hindu, into which stratum you were born, from the lofty Brahmins, notionally priest and scholars, to the bottom-of-the-heap Dalits, or Untouchables, marked by fate to sweep the streets and clean the latrines. Some progress has been made in recent years in raising the esteem in which the lower orders are held, but an English barmaid hoping to marry a Duke has more chance of living her dream than a Dalit has of moving in with a Brahmin. Politicians like to say that the age-old system is dysfunctional as well as unfair, weakening the gene pool with no practical benefit. This doesn’t stop them from appealing to their own castes when election time comes round. Nor does it prevent parents from higher castes from looking down their noses at Dalits and OBCs (other backward classes).

My point in going over all of this is that it is Indians themselves who must face up to the crimes and injustices that so characterise their vast and multi-facted land. It is not enough to blame the authorities, corrupt and two-faced though they are. While the Government, the courts and the police have an obvious duty to make the country a better place in which to live and bring up children, they have to operate within the prevailing culture, which in some ways has gone backwards since the days of the Raj.

Village elders who think that the rape of a teenage girl merits no more than a hundred press-ups; couples who leave their infant daughters in the forest to die; market traders who think it is no business of theirs if there is a slave camp operating round the corner or (as happened this year) a low-caste farmer in Ahmedabad is murdered by his betters for the offence of owning a horse. The list of wrongs is growing by the day. India is turning into a crime scene. It’s time that the people, no matter their origins, regardless of class or religion, started to live up to the promise of their civilisation.