India has become a more unequal society than any other time in its recent history
Two most formidable challenges that will engage the peoples and governments of all countries on the planet during the 21st century will be the ways in which they handle inequality and deal with diversity. Historically, India has culturally sanctioned inequalities of gender, caste and class more than any other ancient civilisation. But it has also welcomed and nurtured people of diverse cultures and faiths to a greater degree than any other.
In newly independent India, there was a resolve to acknowledge and reverse the country’s history of entrenched inequalities, and to build on its strength of effortless diversity. But this resolve has weakened greatly in recent decades. As India made a new tryst with the market, the number of people relegated to the margins of our society has also grown dramatically. The convergence of the economics of inequality and the politics of majoritarianism has made India a more divided and unequal society than at any other time in its recent history.
In my new book, I reflect on what worries me most about contemporary India. This is not so much the objective realities of hugely mounting inequalities in recent decades, but the normative acceptance by persons of privilege that these inequalities are inevitable, even legitimate. Likewise, I worry about the manner in which prejudice, targeting Muslims but also other minorities, is normalised in the middle-classes in a way that would have been unthinkable in the years of my growing up.
A sizeable number of young men and women from the lower end of the middle class, who were able to acquire some education, today long to break out of the limits set by their caste, gender, class, geography and history. These are young men and women with fire in their belly, many of whom have probably placed their faith in the market and Narendra Modi’s promise that jobs will be created. However, don’t assume that all young people in India — in which half the population is below 25 years and which is home to the largest youthful population in the world — are able to aspire for a new life in the new economy. Only 7% of the Indian youth are able to get a college degree, and the quality of these colleges differs widely; further, the numbers are even smaller for young women, and Dalit, tribal or Muslim young people. But even a college degree is no guarantee of a better life; one out of three graduates between ages of 15 and 29 years is unemployed. The most disadvantaged, however, are those who were denied schooling in this age group. The government estimates that close to 40% of these youth, from rural areas, is employed as casual labour.
It is important to not ever lose sight of the fact that for a much larger population than both the middle class and the aspiring class — however expansively defined — youth only means migrating in distress and often bondage to faraway lands to fill the stomachs of their impoverished families if they are young men, of early marriage and motherhood and unending toil if they are young women. These young people subsist in low-end casual jobs, without full stomachs, or with access to clean water, decent work, decent schools and health centres. They are India’s millions who are still banished from the shining, individualist, consumerist aspirations which young people with better chances of education and social mobility are able to at least dream of.
The emphatic rejection of the outgoing Congress-led government by significant sections of India’s voters is hailed by the winners as a decisive rejection of the ideas of both secularism and the welfare State. But this would be a grave misreading of the message sent by the voters. It is the performance of the previous government on these two yardsticks which was rightly and understandably rejected by the electorate. The ideas themselves remain critical for the survival and well-being of a country of such immense diversity of belief systems and ways of life, and of so many million residents who still live in abject want and oppression.
With one of the weakest political oppositions, the main opposition to the government must come from outside Parliament, from non-party citizen formations. Their most significant contribution would be to bring ideology back centre stage in political discourse. We need to insist on debating the central questions on which the future of our people rests: How can social and economic equality be achieved even while markets are nurtured? How can India’s pluralism be defended against majoritarian assaults? How can public services better and more accountably deliver quality health, education and social security to poor people? How can we defend human rights and dignity in areas where oppressed people or social minorities are battling the Indian State and big industry? How can all young people be assured jobs and hope?
The ways to dam the surging tides of inequality are well known: Raising and enforcing statutory wages, expanding taxation of the rich, enhancing public investments in education and health, enlarging social protection for the aged, infirm and disabled, and enhancing benefits for children. But in India, as in much of the world today, market fundamentalism and powerful economic elites still determine State priorities and resist policies aimed at creating a more equal world. The world, therefore, remains one in which the destinies of poor people, women and members of disadvantaged communities remain unchanged, however hard they may toil.
People of privilege in India have for too long looked away from enormous suffering and injustice which surrounds them. Even as our lives glitter as never before, we care less and less about millions who battle injustice and prejudice. And we don’t even notice that somewhere along the way our souls have caved in.
(Harsh Mander is convenor, Aman Biradari. He is the author of Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India. The views expressed are personal.)