By Vasundhara Krishna

Edited by Nandini Bhatia, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist

One doesn’t really require facts and figures to say that we are a nation characterised by striking socio economic inequality. While a Lorenz Curve or a Ginni’s coefficient is for the literate to comprehend, everyday life offers many poignant testimonies of widespread income inequalities. Every glittering metropolitan harbours shanty towns and slums next to high rise buildings in our country. While a section of the population blogs about the latest cuisines or restaurants which have come up in their area, the other barely manages enough to keep them going, forget about nutrition or hygiene. Inequality in our country is all over the place and for everyone to see.

The worst infringement of economic rights in our country is not so much the wealth and luxury of the rich. Indeed, it has been argued that they are an asset for the country’s economic growth and global image. But against the background of mass deprivation-where large numbers are deprived from the basic necessities of life, the opulence of the rich becomes grotesque. Before the economic reforms, the blame for lack of basic amenities was conveniently put on faltering GDP growth. But in present times, when we have become one of the fastest growing economies of the world, progress in terms of social indicators continues to be far from satisfactory. In such a scenario, when the government brings in pro-poor legislations like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act to secure employment for the poor in a dignified manner or the National Food Security Act to curb chronic hunger, we should think twice before dismissing them as ‘populist’.

The case here is not to argue in favour of some utopian state of absolute equality. Understandably, natural inequalities like in terms of mental faculties or physical strength and hence different levels of drive and achievement cannot be done away with. However, inequality in our country has gone far beyond tolerable levels. This is also reflected in the recently released UNDP’s Human Development Index (HDI). In South Asia, while Sri Lanka (Ranked 73) and the Maldives (Ranked 103) fare better than India (Ranked 135), only marginally better than Bhutan (Ranked 136) and Bangladesh (Ranked 142). Despite significantly higher gross income than these countries why does India continue to score poorly in terms of social indicators? As per the report, a staggering 55.30% of our population continues to struggle in the face of multidimensional poverty. It has been more than sixty-five years since India’s ‘tryst with destiny’. How long will its citizens have to wait before their modest aspirations are fulfilled? The kind of income inequality which stalks our country is unacceptable, more so in a polity which claims it is democratic and derives authority from none else than the people.

Formal political equality guaranteed by way of Universal Adult Franchise becomes meaningless when people are turned into hostages of their needs. The  gruesome incident of the chopping off of the palms of two migrant labourers of Kalahandi district of western Odisha by the labour contractor mafia in December 2013 serves to highlight how utterly vulnerable the poor in our country are. With unproductive land holdings and dwindling sources of livelihoods, the labourers are one of the many victims of distress migration. In the face of such extreme deprivation, extremism is almost certain to breed and flourish. There are bound to be many adverse social consequences of economic inequality. For instance, it has been suggested that high economic inequality makes a country more prone to crimes of all kind.

More often than not, deeply entrenched social inequalities go hand in hand with income inequality.  A sizeable chunk of the poor in the country is constituted by the dalits who have been subject to centuries of exclusion and injustices. To our utter shame, the degrading and dehumanising practise of manual scavenging continues to survive in this country. Most people engaged in it come from the ‘lower caste’ thoroughly impoverished communities. Not only are their remunerations poor, but they are also stigmatized and often subjected to humiliation.

Economic globalisation, coupled with withdrawal of state support has aggravated the woes of the poor in the country. An overwhelming chunk of the population (more than 50%) depends on agriculture, where growth has been poor in recent years. This is due to diminishing size of landholdings, rise in cost of chemical fertilisers, monopoly of MNCs and erratic monsoon. Costs of inputs have soared while the profits have stagnated. Thus mostly agriculture suffers from the problem of chronic low productivity. Public services in the country are in a bad shape, often characterised by poor quality and lack of innovation. In fact they stand as an unfortunate reminder of income disparity in the country, where the private hospitals or schools have come to signify all that is expensive, fancy and efficient while public ones are meant for only those who cannot afford anything else. Another problem is that the vice of corruption has become almost omnipresent. Owing to the lack of accountability, transparency and adequate public awareness, scams involving huge sums of money have become far too common. Add to this the pilferage and leakage in the many welfare schemes and one encounters a situation where there is concentration of wealth in the hands of the high and mighty. Almost all major pro-poor welfare schemes have failed to deliver in the face of corruption.

As much as it is convenient to blame the government for all our problems, there is no shying away from the fact that the government can at best be a reflection of the society. This leads us to the conclusion that there is much societal insensitivity towards the problem of inequality in our country. The virtue of empathy, somehow evades us and unfortunately, the privileged more often than not, don’t care about the poor. We as a society have learned to live with massive income inequality.

It is clear that any strategy to tackle the problem of income disparities will have to emphasize on the rejuvenation of the agriculture sector. Improved credit services through pioneering schemes like the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana, increased warehouses and cold storage facility, better road connectivity, irrigation and alternative opportunities of employment are  some of the areas which, if strengthened, will go on to make a major dent in rural poverty. This has to go hand in hand with improving quality of improving public services so that more people can move out of agriculture. Prime motivation should be to empower the poorest with better skills and higher incomes.

The fight against corruption is one which each citizen of the country will have to contribute in. The government, in the era of information technology should proactively shift to people centric governance, as exemplified by citizen’s charters and e-governance. Public policy will have to be designed with bottom up approach, based on consultations from stakeholders and learning from mistakes of the past. Decentralised implementation coupled with monitoring of progress and time bound grievance redressal will go a long way in ensuring results. At the individual level, we must strive to shun greed and follow the maxim of simple living and high thinking.

India is endowed with vast reserves of natural resources and some of the best brains of the world. If we harness our assets in an appropriate manner, not only can we overcome income disparity but also assume a more prominent role globally.

Posted by The Indian Economist | For the Curious Mind