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Home / Books / Empathy is passe: Harsh Mander's new book explores India's problems

Empathy is passe: Harsh Mander's new book explores India's problems

Author-activist Harsh Mander's new book says the Indian middle class inhabits a bubble that shuts out all that's unpleasant including poverty and religious intolerance.

books Updated: Apr 25, 2015 16:42 IST
Poulomi Banerjee
Poulomi Banerjee
Hindustan Times
Author-activist-Harsh-Mander( )

Book: Looking away: Inequality, prejudice and indifference in new India
Author: Harsh Mander
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Price: Rs 495

You have called Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India your "most important work till date". Why?
All my life I have written on social and economic inequalities, on government policies and problems. But this is my most comprehensive and personal take on everything that worries me about India and the world today. Many of the issues that I discuss try to throw light not on what is wrong out there, but instead to interrogate our intimate personal spaces.

You write in the book that "successive governments have also underestimated the extent of poverty "by fixing unconscionably low poverty lines". How would you define poverty?
I feel that the whole manner in which poverty is defined and measured in our country tends to be opaque and technical. Also, while defining poverty, we concentrate only on aspects that can be measured, such as the person's income and expenditure and consumption. What bothers me is the normative framework underlying these measurements. Why is it okay for someone to live on Rs 25 a day and why is it not okay for you and I to do the same? I think the definition of poverty should centre around what is it that we socially and culturally believe to be the floor of minimum human dignity beyond which no human being should fall.

You talk of the need for access to good quality education for the poor. How can that be properly achieved when the benefits of reservation are mostly enjoyed by sections of the backward classes and castes who might already be privileged?
I often think that if I could become prime minister for a day, one thing that I would do is make classrooms inclusive in a common school system for all people in a neighbourhood, rich or poor. It is important for children from different backgrounds and classes to study and grow up together. Other countries have done it but we have rejected the common school system because we are culturally too comfortable with our inequality.

While writing about social security schemes for the poor you write that "many of these interventions actually have an impact". Do you really believe that?
India has performed phenomenally badly when it comes to providing a basic framework of social protection for the poor. At the same time, it would be unfair to claim that nothing has changed. The claim is not that nothing has happened for the poor but that it is too little too late. And that is to a large extent because of schemes such as MGNREGA, Ashas, RTE, the Food Security Act etc which were introduced in the last 10-15 years and which is being drastically downsized with stealth since the coming of the present government. One must realise that the state has not done enough, but what it has done and can do is critical for the survival of the poor.

You write critically of the Land Acquisition Bill Ordinance and the present central government's role in it. One can't deny, however, that industries are needed, not just for the rich, but also to provide jobs for the poor. So how does one strike a balance?
There are certain assumptions we are making when we are supporting the cause of a market economy. There are people who believe that the way forward is for the state to invest in subsidising big profit-making businesses. They feel that this will not only result in wealth for the middle classes and the rich, but also create jobs for the poor. The poor will then have enough to buy the necessities of life and there state should not be provisioning for them. But there are problems with this way of thinking. In the high-noon on India's economic progress between 2004 and 2010, there is empirical evidence to show that these were years of jobless growth. There was a net addition of only 3 million jobs, whereas 57 million people were added to the workforce. So there is a feeling among the poor that you are taking away our land,taking away whatever little social security and labour support and environmental protections that we have and we are not getting anything in return. We have to conceptualise economic growth in a different way. There is very little future to the current model. We are promoting "make in India", but not caring for our workforce especially women, our children and our youth.

You repeatedly criticise Narendra Modi and the present government. Don't you think that makes you look like you are making a case for the UPA?
Mr Modi's politics represents market fundamentalism and majoritarianism. And this is what I am critical of. Having said that, there were sections of the UPA too that believe in a system of market economy and I am equally critical of them. But the UPA government also recognised the importance of the framework of social protection. The Right to Information Act, Food Security ACT, MGNREGA, National Rural Health Mission, Forest Rights Act were all started under the UPA. With this government, that framework has seen an undeclared downsizing. Modi is talking to the aspirational youth. But in a country where only seven per cent of the youth complete college, the majority can't aspire to the things Modi talks of.

Coming to the religious minorities and their treatment today - do you think the problem is mass feelings against them or do you think political parties are instigating differences for their own benefits?
The state's failure results in violence, but prejudices are much more widespread. I think in India the ideas of equality and solidarity went out of fashion for a generation or two. In the past there was a feeling that flashing of wealth was vulgar. In the same way you wouldn't display your prejudices against a certain community or religion. But today there has been a certain legitimisation of prejudices with people freely talking of such absurd ideas as love jihaad or branding people from a certain religion as inherently more violent than others. We need to worry about how we are raising our children, the values we are giving them. It is true that Indians by and large have learnt to peacefully live with diversity. Hatred is something that is creatively manufactured by political parties for them to thrive on. But the majority of Indians have never voted for an actively communal party. That's where hope also lies.

In the book you cite a World Bank study that concludes that inequality in India seems to be in the same league as that in Brazil and South Africa. How do you think India compares with her immediate neighbours in this regard?
Bangladesh has done better than us in providing a framework of social security for its backward classes. Pakistan on the other hand is more unequal even than India. One also has to understand that India's inequality is peculiar. It is possible to get out of poverty if one is given opportunities. But India has a complex history where inequalities (in the form of caste and gender differences) are woven into our very culture. This is much harder to tackle. One is kept back for one's entire life only due to the accident of one's birth, and this is intolerably unjust. As I write in the book "And they are exiled from the hope that their children or their grandchildren will one day escape a life of backbreaking toil and social humiliation. This last is the most profound of their exiles."

We have discussed the problems. So what, according to you, is the way forward?
In the end, what will change India is bringing public compassion back to public discourse. Unless we reclaim the idea of solidarity, we can't move forward. The growth of a market economy has resulted in a market society. Before we embark on a market economy, we have to build an equitable foundation for all. Countries that we look towards for inspiration such as China and Korea have ensured this system of social security.