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India: What ever happened to the right to equality ? Inequality is at its highest level in 92 years

15 September

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The Hindu

Equality for what?

Neera Chandhoke

September 14, 2017

We must incorporate the right to equality into our political vocabulary to arrest deepening inequality

In 1820 the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, in his magnificently crafted Philosophy of Right, had written with some despair of the moral squalor and of the ravages that poverty brings in its wake. The state of poverty, he argued, is not an aberration, it is a product of industrial society, of the overproduction and underconsumption which marks this social order. But it is precisely society that banishes its victims to the twilight zone of collective life. Here, removed from the advantages of solidarity that civil society offers, the poor are reduced to a heap of fragmented atoms, rabble, poebel. When the standard of living of a large mass of people falls below a certain subsistence level, he wrote, we see a loss of the sense of right and wrong, of honesty and of self-respect. “Against nature man can claim no right, but once society is established, poverty immediately takes the form of a wrong done to one class by another.”

Hegel suggests that poverty is a social phenomenon. One, society is complicit in the creation and recreation of poverty. Destitution, that is, is the outcome of a skewed economy. Two, poverty breeds unfortunate consequences, such as suffering, which seriously demoralises human beings. Three, the existence of large numbers of the poor pose a direct threat to the social order, simply because the poor are (justly) resentful of their exclusion from the benefits of society.

We should be seriously reflecting on Hegel’s criticism of a society that refuses to correct the wrongs it has heaped on its own people, in the light of the research findings of the economist Thomas Piketty and his colleague Lucas Chancel.

Inequality in India

In a paper aptly titled ’Indian income inequality, 1922-2014: From British Raj to Billionaire Raj?’, they conclude that income inequality in India is at the highest level since 1922, when the country’s income tax law was conceived, and that the top 1% earners corner 22% of income. These research findings should send a powerful warning signal to power elites, leaders who prefer to concentrate on the politics of beef, brutal repression of dissent, and curtailment of basic human freedoms, even as the lives of thousands of Indians are mired in mind-numbing poverty.

There is more to the proposition that some persons are poor beyond belief, and others are rich beyond belief in India. P is poor, we can say, when she does not possess access to the basic resources which enable q, or s, or m to consume nutritious food, avoid ill health, attend school, take up a job, and own a home, let alone go on holiday or possess a car. This implies that p is not just poor, she is unequal to q, s, or m, since the latter three, unlike p, have access to certain advantages that p does not. Poverty is the effect of inequality as well as the prime signifier of inequality. And inequality is demeaning.

Implications for society

Arguably, inequality is not only a matter of statistics. It is a shattering reflection on the kind of society we live in. Logically, if the economic ordering of society is responsible for ill-being, it is obliged to remedy the wrongs that it has visited upon the heads of the poor. This constitutes a basic code of justice. People who have been wronged are entitled to ask for justice. If justice is not delivered, inequalities are reinforced and compounded over time.

Resultantly, people fated to occupy the lowliest rungs of the social ladder are not only denied access to basic material requirements that enable them to live a decent life, they are likely to be socially overlooked, politically irrelevant except in times of elections when their votes bring parties into power, disdained, and subjected to disrespect in and through the practices of everyday life. To be unequal is to be denied the opportunity to participate in social, economic, and cultural transactions from a plane of equality.

Starkly put, the presence of massive inequality reflects sharply and pejoratively on the kind of social relations that we find in India. Because these social relationships are indisputably unequal, they cannot but be entrenched in massive discrimination and exploitation. Can we reflect on inequality without taking on exploitation and discrimination? And unless we confront these background inequalities directly, will not inequality continue to be produced and reproduced along with the production and reproduction of a lopsided social order, indeed as an integral part of this order?

Morality of mutual respect

Let us not understate the implications of inequality, it violates a basic democratic norm: the equal standing of citizens. Persons have equal standing because each human being has certain capacities in common with other human beings, for instance, the capacity to make her own history in concert with other human beings. Of course the histories that persons make might not be the histories they chose to make, but this is not the issue at hand. What is important is that each person realises this ability.

The principle of equal standing generates at least two robust principles of democratic morality. For one, equality is a relation that obtains between persons in respect of some fundamental characteristic that they share in common. Equality is, morally speaking, a default principle. Therefore, and this is the second postulate, persons should not be discriminated against on grounds such as race, caste, gender, ethnicity, sexual preferences, disability, or class. These features of the human condition are morally irrelevant.

These two postulates of political morality yield the following implications. To treat persons equally because they possess equal standing is to treat them with respect. The idea that one should treat persons with respect not only because some of these persons possess some special skill or talent, for example skilled cricketers, gifted musicians, or literary giants, but because persons are human beings, is by now part of common sense morality. If someone were to ask, ‘equality for what’, we can answer that equality assures equal standing and respect, and respect is an essential prerequisite for the making of human beings who can participate in the multiple transactions of society from a position of confidence and self-respect. If they cannot do so, the government is simply not taking the well-being of its citizens seriously.

There is urgent need, in the face of government inaction and insensitivity towards people trapped in inequality as a social relation to invoke the collective conscience of Indian citizens. If the right to equality is violated, citizens should be exercised or agitated about this violation. But for this to occur, for society to feel deeply about the right on offer, we have to incorporate the right to equality into political thinking, into our values, and into political vocabularies. The project requires the harnessing of creative imagination and courage on the one hand, and careful reasoning, persuasion, and dialogue on the other. The task also demands the investment of rather high degrees of energy and time. But this is essential because a political consensus on what constitutes, or should constitute the basic rules of society, is central to our collective lives. The political is not a given, it has to be constructed, as Karl Marx had told us long ago, through determined and sustained political intervention.

Neera Chandhoke is a former Professor of Political Science at Delhi University

Also Read

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BBC News

Why inequality in India is at its highest level in 92 years

Soutik Biswas India correspondent

12 September 2017

Did India’s economic reforms lead to a sharp rise in inequality?

New research by French economists Lucas Chancel and Thomas Piketty, author of Capital, the 2013 bestselling book on capitalism and increasing inequality, clearly points to this conclusion.

They studied household consumption surveys, federal accounts and income tax data from 1922 - when the tax was introduced in India - to 2014.

The data shows that the share of national income accruing to the top 1% of wage earners is now at its highest level since Indians began paying income tax.

The economists say the top 1% of the earners captured less than 21% of the total income in the late 1930s, before dropping to 6% in the early 1980s and rising to 22% today. India, in fact, comes out as a country with one of the highest increase in top 1% income share concentration over the past 30 years," they say.

To be sure, India’s economy has undergone a radical transformation over the last three decades.

Up to the 1970s, India was a tightly regulated, straitlaced economy with socialist planning. Growth crawled (3.5% per year), development was weak and poverty endemic.

Some easing of regulation, decline in tax rates and modest reforms led to growth picking up in the 1980s, trundling at around 5% a year. This was followed by some substantial reforms in the early 1990s after which the economy grew briskly, nudging close to double digits in the mid-2000s.

Growth has slowed substantially since then, but India still remains one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. The ongoing slowdown - growth was 5.7% in the April-June quarter, the slowest pace in three years - largely triggered by feeble demand, a controversial cash ban, declining private investment and weak credit growth, is a cause for concern.

And the need for fast-paced growth, according to Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen, is "far from over since India, after two decades of rapid growth, is still one of the poorest countries in the world".

From their latest work on income inequality, Lucas Chancel and Thomas Piketty contend that there has been a "sharp increase in wealth concentration from 1991 to 2012, particularly after 2002". Also, they conclude, India has only been really shining for the top 10% of the population - roughly 80 million people in 2014 - rather than the middle 40%.

The economists plan to release the first World Inequality Report, produced by a network of more than 100 researchers in December, where they will compare India’s inequality with other countries and suggest ways to tackle it.

Striking transition

They agree that unequal growth over a period of time is not specific to India, but market economies are not bound to be unequal. India’s case is striking in the fact that it is the country with the highest gap between the growth of the top 1% and that of the full population. Incomes of those at the very top have actually grown at a faster pace than in China.

The economists contend that the growth strategy pursued by successive governments has led to a sharp increase in inequality. China also liberalised and opened up after 1978, and experienced a sharp income growth as well as a sharp rise in inequality. This rise was however stabilised in the 2000s and is currently at a lower level than India.

In Russia, the move from a communist to a market economy was "swift and brutal" and today has a similar level of inequality to India.

"This shows that there are different strategies to transit from a highly regulated economy to a liberalised one. In the arrays of possible pathways, India pursued a very unequal way but could probably have chosen another path," Dr Chancel told me.

While inequality is rising in most parts of the world, certain countries are resisting this trend. For example, he says, the rise in inequality is much lesser in western Europe than in the Anglo-Saxon world or in emerging markets.

"This largely owes to social security mechanisms that are relatively more favourable to workers than capital as compared to other parts of the world, to relatively more efficient tax systems and government investment in public goods such as education, housing, health or transport."

Clearly, the new research should help promote a vigorous debate on what more can be done to promote more inclusive growth in India and the need for more transparent income and wealth data.

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Country of a chosen few by T S R Subramanian


The above articles are reproduced here in public interest and are meant for educational and non commercial use

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