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Consumerist with a heart

We are somewhere in the middle of the society, above the starving millions but below the rich and the powerful rulers of the country, reports Sanjay Kumar and Yogendra Yadav.

india Updated: Jan 27, 2007 01:49 IST

We, the middle class Indians, have this self-image. We are somewhere in the middle of the society, above the starving millions but below the rich and the powerful rulers of the country. This class includes anyone and everyone in this country; caste does not matter here. We have “our 'middle class values”. We are more rooted, more restrained and more responsible — the class that runs this country.

If you shared these beliefs and wondered if these were true, the HT-CNN-IBN State of the Nation Survey is a mirror that you can use to check some of these self-images. The survey brings you a profile of the middle class based on interviews with more than 3,000 people belonging to the middle class from all over the country (see methodology for details).

Lesson 1: This is a thin upper crust, yet very large in number.

“Who doesn’t have a colour TV, a two-wheeler and a phone these days? Even my maid has all these.” You must have heard it before. And have agreed. But look at the figures and think again.

About a third of our country’s families have each of these goodies, but if you insist on all these that leaves you with only 18 per cent of the families. Add some special cases, those who have other valuable things but who don’t for some reason keep the three “musts”, the proportion goes up to 20 per cent. In its broadest possible sense, the Indian middle class is this exclusive one-fifth, a tiny part of the country, but nearly as large as the American middle class.

That is not quite what we have in mind when we “middle class Indians” define ourselves in cocktails parties. We are usually thinking of the class that has a car, perhaps an air-conditioner and air travel experience.

Let us call it the “higher middle” class. You know how big that class is? Just about 4 per cent of the country’s population, but as big as the population of UK. There is nothing “middle” about this class. We, middle class Indians, are very much the ruling class that we talk and complain about.

Lesson 2: Middle class includes every community, but not in the same proportion.

In a sense, it is true that middle class has no social barriers: people cutting across caste and community lines can get into this class. If you live in a metro, your chances of entering the middle class is six times more than if you live in a village. Upper caste Hindus, Christians and Sikhs have brighter chances than the rest of the population. The SC, ST and OBC, who constitute two-thirds of our population do not make even one-third of our middle class. Our middle class does not represent the social diversity of our country.

Lesson 3: This class is consumerist, but in a modest sort of a way.

If you compare the consumer profile of this class with the rest of the society, this is a consumerist class. But if you look at the figures, they are still modest. The only thing that almost every middle class family possesses now is a mobile phone. Less than half of them possess a car; those who boast of an air conditioner, computer or credit card is still a smaller segment.

A majority of the urban middle class is footloose. They love to travel, but eating out is yet to catch on. The consumer goods market has a long way to go before it reaches saturation point. What constrains it is the modest purse-string — a gap between resource and expectations.

No fancy dreams of six figure salary for this class. Only 4 per cent of the upper echelon (the upper middle class that in itself is only 4 per cent of the population) dare cite a monthly figure of more than Rs 50,000 as their dream pay pack. For a majority of the upper middle class, the magic number is still less than Rs.20,000 per month. And if you look at the entire middle class, a majority will be happy with less than Rs 10,000 a month. This is definitely a middle class of a poor country.

(The writers are social scientists working with the CSDS, Delhi)

First Published: Jan 27, 2007 01:49 IST