The Asian Age & Deccan Chrinicle
I’ for inequality
Aug 16, 2011
Last week, as television brought the riots in Britain into the living room, images from a visit to another town more than 20 years ago came hurtling back. It was early 1990 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Apart from its notorious religious divide, what I remember most graphically about that city was a forest of dish antennae in a housing estate in a very poor neighbourhood. Satellite television had not yet arrived in India, and colour TV was still a status symbol.
My Indian eyes were startled to see satellite TV dishes sprouting from peeling walls. Curious, I went inside one of those run-down apartment blocks and started talking to the residents. Many of the young men and women were glued to their TV sets the whole day. Most did not have work, and had not seen their parents work either. Through the 1990s, as I travelled, I got used to more such visual paradoxes.
The image of the BlackBerry-wielding looter kindled those memories and raised questions anew. Personally, I think the time for debating whether the miscreants were part of the “feral, something-for-nothing underclass” or members of Britain’s “lost generation” — misguided and socially excluded — is over. They may not have all been downtrodden. But whatever they were or weren’t, clearly, none of them had any stake in the system. Few who feel part of a “community” would loot or torch a community-owned shop.
It was not just London’s high street that took the brunt. The youngsters who looted, burnt and attacked the police have tossed up issues which go far beyond Britain’s shores. We need to debate them in our own interest.
Does having a BlackBerry mean having a future? How do we deal with people who have BlackBerry, but no sense of belonging to the community in which they live?
Back home, the “I” word this week has been Independence. But in India, as in Britain, is it time to bring that other “I” word, inequality, out of the closet?
Independent India at 64 has a lot to be proud of. The economic progress of the last two decades has improved the lives of millions and has given us global standing. But there are millions more who cannot tap new opportunities because they lack the basic attributes to get them out of the poverty trap. Nearly 30 per cent of Indians still cannot read or write, according to the most recent National Family Health Survey. And almost half the children under the age of five (48 per cent) are chronically malnourished. That means they are too short for their age or stunted.
Without education, skills and good health, how are the millions at the bottom expected to tap into opportunities in the new Indian economy or reap the benefits of globalisation?
And now there are many still in the poverty trap but no longer blissfully ignorant of what others are doing. The spread of satellite TV, Internet, cellphones and social media has enabled people everywhere to know about the lifestyles of the richest, both domestic and international. Comparisons are inevitable, and so is the spectre of new tension. Street riots in Britain are just one example.
And that is why the “I” word is no longer just the pet peeve of Left-liberal commentators. Consider some of the others who are loudly and publicly worrying about the dangers of a rising gap between the rich and the rest.
In the wake of the riots in Britain, the Economist, hardly a mouthpiece of the Left, observed, “There is clearly a cadre of young people in Britain who feel they have little or no stake in the country’s future or their own. The barriers that prevent most youngsters from running amok — an inherent sense of right and wrong; concern for their job and education prospects; shame — seem not to exist in the minds of the rioters. Britain needs to try and understand it.”
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has also sounded the alarm on rising inequalities in the region. Topping the list of challenges that Asian leaders face and would need to address is “increasing inequality within countries, which could undermine social cohesion and stability”, according to “Asia 2050: Realising the Asian Century”, a recent ADB report.
India’s corruption scandals and mutinous civil society are in the news. The steady drip-drip of news about the crores of rupees that have been looted alongside flagrant display of obscene wealth by some makes for a deadly cocktail, especially at a time when millions are being ravaged by inflation.
Social unrest is erupting in China as well. Recently, thousands of rioters took to the streets in the south-west of that country, with some smashing and burning vehicles, after a municipal official reportedly injured a woman while trying to confiscate her bicycle for illegal parking.
The riots carried on the whole night, the city’s main roads were blocked, and some 10 police officers were wounded. This is one among several manifestations of recent public protests in China, underlining the many paradoxes that exist alongside rapid economic growth.
The persistence of inequality could trigger social and political tensions, and lead to conflict on a much larger scale than we have seen. Rising inequalities pose a risk to stability and, therefore, to growth and economic progress, cautions the ADB report.
“Growth plus inclusion,” therefore, has to be more than just nice-sounding words. Inequality is rising across the country and India@64 needs to discuss why, with an open mind. Just two figures illustrate the alarming chasm within the country. In a nation of a billion plus, only 35 million, or about three per cent of our population, pay income tax.
Patralekha Chatterjee writes on development issues in India and emerging economies and can be reached at