Even as you read this, thousands of mostly young people will be descending on the Delhi Auto Expo to gawk at cars that they will never be able to buy. Not just the Rs 2.5-crore Mercedes M Guard (which is bullet and grenade proof, by the way) but also cars that cost a tiny fraction of that.
Nor can they buy the homes and apartments that are advertised, leave alone the über luxury villas that one of India’s largest business conglomerates plan to develop in the centre of Delhi, each one with a breathtaking price tag of Rs 130 crore or more. Such things, which can test your power of imagining the fantastic, are out of reach of all but perhaps a handful.
But you will encounter a different set of realities on the ground. Amar Sharma is just another young man that you could come across in Delhi. He works in a multinational sport shoe brand’s retail showroom on a salary plus commission that can never afford him the luxury of buying even the cheapest pair of shoes that he helps his customers try on. Amar is 28, smart and a graduate.
He is also underemployed and disillusioned. Last week, HT’s Chandigarh edition carried a story, which said that among the 16,000 applicants who were interviewed for 21 posts of court peons, there were 40 jobless post-graduates who had applied for those posts that required formal education of up to only the eighth grade.
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And not so long ago, 240 graduates, including B.Techs, had applied for sweepers’ jobs at a municipal corporation. According to the government’s National Sample Survey Office, 60 million people are underemployed. It depends on what they define that status as, but that figure could well be a gross underestimation.
As many as 189 million Indians are between 18 and 25 years. They are touted as India’s demographic dividend and are most likely to be seeking jobs. The latest government data shows that the rate of unemployment is highest among those aged 15-29 and it has been rising. Many of those who are lucky to get jobs may have to settle for those that fall far short of their aspirations, such as the ones that the Chandigarh grads and post-grads are hoping that they would get.
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But it’s not about underemployment. It’s about inequality. In the suburban condominium where I live, there are several small families of two adults and a couple of kids who own not one, or two, but four luxury cars.
Their help staff, often women who work gruelingly long hours, routinely walk four-five kilometres to and from the slums where they live, working at jobs that come with shockingly low wages, no healthcare or any other benefits. Such a contrast has always been a reality in India as it has been in other developing economies but it is only now that the starkness and the sharpness of it are becoming startling.
Partly because the rich have got richer and the poor haven’t seen their fortunes change much for the better. Recently, in the same London lecture that the IMF’s managing director Christine Lagarde mentioned that richest 85 people in the world were as wealthy as the bottom half of the world’s population, she also said how the net worth of India’s billionaire community had increased 12-fold in 15 years, which was enough to eliminate poverty in India twice over.
It doesn’t take an economist or a sociologist to know that such sharp inequalities are unsustainable. But curiously, in the strident political discourse that assaults us non-stop in the run-up to the general elections, none of the major parties has made fighting inequality a real issue. And for the safely cocooned well-heeled classes, including those such as this writer, inequality is an uncomfortable matter better swept under the carpet, as if it is an issue that is visible yet unseen. For how long, though?
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If the surge in mass movements such as the protests against corruption or even the surprising rise of a rookie party such as AAP are any evidence, the more populous part of this social inequation is ticking away like a bomb that is about to go off. And those demographic dividends? They could become angry mobs out on the streets.