Confronting inequality in India.
A 2011 census revealed that half of all Indian households have to practice open defecation.
Nearly half of all Indian children are underweight (compared to 25 percent in sub-Saharan Africa), and as Amartya Sen and Jean Drèze point out, despite a rise in literacy rates, “a large proportion” of them “learn very little at school.” Almost all Indians buy health serves from private providers, exposing themselves to crippling debt as well as quackery. Inequalities have widened between classes, regions and rural and urban areas. More worryingly, they seem unbridgeable owing to the lack of adequate education and public healthcare. Not surprisingly, poverty declines very slowly in India, slower than in Nepal and Bangladesh, and unevenly. Calorie and protein intake among the poor has actually dropped.
“India today,” the historian Ramachandra Guha writes, “is an environmental basket-case; marked by polluted skies, dead rivers, falling water-tables, ever-increasing amounts of untreated wastes, disappearing forests.” Meanwhile, as Sen and Drèze write, the largely corporate-owned media, deeply indifferent to poverty and inequality, and reflexively intolerant of any remedial action by the government, produce “an unreal picture of the lives of Indians in general” by celebrating the fame and wealth of billionaires and cricket and Bollywood stars.
By 2010 India’s one hundred wealthiest people had increased their combined worth to $300 billion, a quarter of the country’s GDP. Recent corruption scandals involving the sale of billions of dollars’ worth of national resources such as mines, forests, land, water and telecom spectrums reveal that crony capitalism and rent-seeking, rather than entrepreneurial dynamism and innovation in a free market, are the real engines of India’s economic growth.
Furthermore, to a large extent this growth does not create jobs — an alarming fact about an overwhelmingly youthful country that adds 12 million to the workforce each year and whose present economic pattern obliges it to move many millions more to urban areas from a crisis-ridden agricultural sector where hundreds of thousands of farmers have committed suicide in recent years. According to a widely cited report by Michael Walton, an economist at Harvard University, the quality and distribution of India’s rate of GDP growth are structurally “disequalizing,” i.e., causing more inequality. It’s not only that India isn’t “overflowing with Horatio Alger stories,” as The Wall Street Journal put it. It is also developing all the ingredients necessary for a Latin American-style oligarchy.
Rising social unrest is making an insecure Indian elite gravitate to such hard-line leaders as the current Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, whose well-advertized toughness with labor unions and PR-enhanced business-friendliness make him the preferred choice of many corporate leaders, economists and commentators. The Columbia University economist Jagdish Bhagwati, for instance, has described Modi as a “positive role model” with “an unblemished record of personal integrity.” When he was the chief minister of Gujarat, Modi was allegedly complicit in the killing of over a thousand Muslims there in 2002 and was barred from travelling to the United States as a result. But he still embodies managerial efficiency and iron discipline to those disturbed by the political assertiveness of the poor and the disaffected.
In fact, the political energies of the hundreds of millions of the poor and disaffected are still underdeployed. Could they lead to a more accountable and responsive state and, in the long run, to a more egalitarian and democratic India? The poor in India still have a great “capacity to aspire,” as the social anthropologist Arjun Appadurai claims, and their collective efforts can make the state more accountable and efficient.
Many observers of India are generally impressed by the procedures of Indian democracy, with its routine elections. But as Sen and Drèze suggest, “the success of a democracy depends ultimately on the vigor of its practice.” Certainly, creeping authoritarianism of the kind witnessed in India can make political reform from below seem more urgent than economic engineering from the top. “Educate, agitate, and organize,” the disenchanted low-caste author of India’s constitution B.R. Ambedkar exhorted. Many more Indians will have to exercise these democratic rights if they wish to transform the profoundly damaging elitist character of Indian society and politics.