Monday, October 1, 2012


Breaking The Silence

By PRATAP BHANU MEHTA | 1 October 2012

The New Challenge of Inequality

THE PRINCIPLE OF EQUALITY is having a revolutionary effect on life in contemporary India.” This was the considered assessment of the eminent American political scientist Myron Weiner, writing for Foreign Affairs in 1962. In a society still marked by egregiously obscene forms of inequality, the term “revolutionary” seems extravagant, even five decades after Weiner pronounced his judgment. But determining what constitutes “revolutionary” social change depends on how that change is measured—and in the second decade after Independence, the distance that India had travelled from its starting point would have indeed seemed immense. Political equality had been enshrined in the Constitution, untouchability had been delegitimised, political representation was widely shared, zamindari had been abolished, a new development paradigm was instituted, and the state defined its goals in terms of common welfare.

And yet by another measure—of how much more India would have to achieve to become a minimally equal society—even this progress was small comfort. Formal political equality did not translate into substantive empowerment; abolishing untouchability barely cracked open the hierarchies of caste; political representation coexisted with deep prejudice; zamindari abolition did little to alleviate the vulnerabilities of small farmers and landless labour; development was shockingly slow at expanding opportunities; and the state’s promise of welfare seemed like a cruel mirage to hundreds of millions of Indians condemned to poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy and disease.

Much has transpired since Weiner’s preliminary assessment of the career of equality in India. Economically, India has broken out of the paradigm of low growth that always seemed to make material prosperity so elusive. This new growth is producing far-reaching changes in income, occupational structures, lifestyles and aspirations. Politically, India’s democracy has deepened, giving hitherto marginalised groups impressive representation and recognition. Administratively, the state has acquired unprecedented resources to spend on programs ostensibly designed for inclusion. And there is a palpable change in social consciousness: political democracy has induced a sense of agency and empowerment across different groups in society; today inclusion is a demand of citizens, not a gift given from on high.

Yet these very changes are compelling the debate over equality to take a paradoxical turn. On the one hand, there is impatience with the idea of equality. While an acknowledgement of formal equality is now enshrined in India’s self-image, the politics of equality are often associated with hypocrisy and pretense. One camp in the debate blames India’s ills in large part on an excessive rhetoric of equality—talk that is regarded as a license for maintaining outmoded forms of state control that for decades trapped India’s economy. From this perspective, equality talk has always been a license for economic irrationality: it was used to justify all manner of subsidies, controls and patronage schemes that did nothing but retard development. Growth may be producing new forms of economic inequality, the argument goes, but at least it is more effective at reducing poverty. It is also creating the conditions for a more durable equality of opportunity, by providing the resources for things like education. An excessive preoccupation with equality is seen as a stumbling block: it produces policies that do nothing but appease the conscience of India’s privileged, even as these policies do little to dismantle deep structures of inequality. Let us get on with growth, it is argued, and the opportunities it produces will, somehow, at some point, take care of equality concerns. Equality, on this view, is both a ruse and a distraction.

This sentiment captures a scepticism generated by India’s development experience. It is also of a piece with new India’s self-image of tough-mindedness, not bound by pieties of the past. Yet, on the other hand, this posture is deeply fragile. While equality talk may not have served us well, deep social and economic inequality remain obdurate realities in India. It may be a crude measure, but India’s Gini coefficient—a measurement of the uneven distribution of wealth—is rising. Acute forms of social segregation remain a reality. A large number of social struggles continue to be animated by the indignity of inequality and powerlessness. Despite significant reductions in poverty, it is difficult to deny that India still breathes an oppressive atmosphere of social inequality. The idea that growth and economic development represent our best chance of unsettling fixed hierarchies of power has some truth to it. But we cannot get away from the fact that growth is bringing in new challenges of inequality, which we ignore at our peril. It is also true that much of the political discourse of equality has been hypocritical. But here we must acknowledge that debates over growth and equality rarely manage to dent the psychological resistance we have erected to avoid confronting uncomfortable facts about inequality.

This essay is premised on the idea that the way we think about inequality matters a lot to the shape it takes and to the prospects for its diminishment. At present, Indian thinking about inequality suffers from a triple burden. The topic is cloaked by a deep and pervasive culture of avoidance. But even when it becomes a focus of political reflection, the outmoded idioms through which we imagine equality become new straitjackets that impede solutions. And this, in turn, distorts the understanding of the instruments we use to address the problem. This essay cannot do justice to the full complexity of the problem; it is a modest attempt at clearing some cobwebs. But India urgently needs to confront this issue anew. Or else inequality will remain India’s original sin: reappearing in the face of every resistance, casting a shadow over all social relations, acting forever as a rebuke to the Indian experiment.


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