Understanding Equality

India’s key challenge

By Dr. Oishee Mukherjee

Over a period of time there has been renewed interest on inequality, specially after the publication of renowned French economist Thomas Piketty’s book ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’. Obviously those involved in understanding inequality rightly feel the effect of rapid increase in wealth and income occurring in societies may be inimical to democracy. An interesting debate has also started over the roots of increase in equality.
Most economists foresee this as an imminent tendency under capitalism that had earlier been held in check in the exceptional situation in the post-war period. However, there is another school of thought headed by economists like Joseph Stiglitz who attribute inequality not to any “economic laws of capitalism”, whose very existence they are not prepared to accept, but to government policies driven by politics. Growing inequality, they hold, is not inevitable under capitalism.
As the debate goes on at the global level, politicians and many others in Third World countries like India talk of equality quite frequently without understanding that, actually our society is totally unequal and the disparity is widening. Whether one compares poor and the rich, the urban and rural population, the incomes of industrial and the agricultural sector or even the attitude towards men vis-à-vis the opposite sex, inequality has been the order of the day. There has been no endeavour by successive governments to breach the inequality but, on the other hand, inequality has been widening in the country while the poorest 23 per cent languish.
There has recently been some academic interest on the subject of income distribution as the fruits of economic growth have been captured almost entirely by those at the top of the economic ladder. Not surprisingly rising inequality levels created a lot of social unrest and political upheavals. Recent studies by IMF staff economists, in examining trade-offs between sustained growth and inequality levels, found lower inequality may actually drive faster and more durable growth for a given level of redistribution. In fact, the combined direct and indirect effects of redistribution are, on average, pro growth.
Recently, Piketty and much earlier Nicholas Kaldor had highlighted that an equal distribution of incomes can generate additional demand precisely because low income earners spend virtually all their incomes. This may well be a principal cause of the recent slowdown in India and many other countries. These are quite well known to economists the world over and also to those of our country but the influence and power of the rich allow them to amass wealth, even depriving the lower income segments of society.
The situation in our country is best demonstrated by the recent controversy of the Paradise Papers and earlier the Panama Papers. It is being debated in the media and most speakers have suggested that the ultra rich are so powerful and close to the corridors of powers that no action has yet been taken against any of them. Moreover, the changes that have been brought about in various laws that such people can easily escape punishment.
Thus, reducing economic inequality is a major challenge for our country. But for this to become a reality there is need for changing the course of capital and power centralisation that is, the formation of larger and larger blocks of capital. Simultaneously, economic decentralisation i.e. delegation of powers to institutions, specially panchayats at the grass-root level have to become a reality. The policy of making government top heavy and giving bureaucrats a very high salary has resulted in this situation.
Moreover, the incentives given to the industrial class – directly or indirectly – need to be controlled as there is no rule in the country to return the subsidies they get when companies start making profit. Also formal sector employees get quite high salaries whereas their counterparts in the non formal sector do not enjoy the same.
Another aspect of this inequality syndrome in the social arena is the unequal status of the opposite sex. As is well known, the country does not have equality of opportunity in various areas and here again the powerful manipulate things to their advantage. The cry of equality for women has been raised by activists who want the patriarchal structure to be demolished. These demands are just made in conferences and sometimes in political meetings but not taken seriously by those in authority who are mostly men.
The opposite sex is destined to be a mother even if she is a professional and working. The motherhood imagery of women is embedded in our minds. She has to look after household work after her work in the office but her husband has the liberty to go to clubs and parties.
The unequal status of men and women is clearly discernible. It needs to be pointed out that women feel dependent and cannot think of herself as an independent woman. However, recently we find scattered cases of single women who think of themselves not being dependent and asserting themselves in a patriarchal world.
If we take the case of poor families, more attention is being given to the male child whether in matters of education and health. It is still thought that the boy of the family has to be given better food and all facility to continue his education even if the girl child fares better in school. Even with spread of education and awareness, this discrepancy and unequal behaviour is quite distressing.
There are people who believe that the term equality is a misnomer and can never be achieved in this country and most others of the Third World. This is a reality and with every passing year, economic inequality is deemed to widen, specially in countries like India where political elites at the national and State levels are in the forefront of formulating and controlling policies. Moreover, black money which has a deep connection with inequality cannot be brought to book as such money is cornered by those who fund election expenses of major political parties in the country.
At this juncture, one may refer to Gandhi’s message of simple living as the only ethical way to live in a world of finite resources and extreme inequality that is increasing every day. It is indeed distressing to note that what Gandhi talked of commercial expansion has led to growing wealth gap, increasing number of starvation and malnourished people alongside shopping malls, the exhaustion of natural resources, agricultural collapse and the misery of small and marginal farmers increasing to around two lakhs having committed suicide in the first decade of this millennium.
India now boasts one of the world’s largest billionaires but Gandhi admonished that “the test of orderliness in a country is not the millionaires (and billionaires) it owns but the absence of starvation of the masses”. One may mention here a very pertinent observation of Mira Kamdar that “harmony and its perpetuity, its sustainability, that ethical living based on equitable consumption seeks to achieve Gandhi’s lesson” in a world of finite resources equitable consumption can only lead to limited consumption. The unequal society that is manifest in our country cannot be considered just. Thus, it is time that politicians, planners, economists and sociologists have to evolve an action plan aimed at reducing inequality and ensuring that the suffering millions get their due justice to live a dignified existence. —INFA