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Demands of The Have-Nots

Omkar Goswami


Consider as a thought experiment a minor accident during the morning rush hour where a  car has hit a Class Four employee on a cycle, causing him a few superficial bruises. In 1977, the cyclist would have been in uniform, carrying a tiffin box swinging from the handlebar. The car would have been an Ambassador; the man sitting at the back would have been wearing unostentatious clothes (probably white cottons or terrycots) and if it were summer, Bata’s Quo Vadis sandals. A crowd would have collected; some angry words would have been exchanged at the beginning; but the matter would have been solved without too much rancour.


Fast forward to 2007. The cyclist is certainly economically better off than his predecessor, but still in uniform with the tiffin carrier. The car is a Skoda, Honda, Toyota, Chevy, Baleno, Merc or an SUV. The guy at the rear seat comes out of airconditioned comfort  wearing fancy clothes, posh shoes, imported dark glasses with a whiff of an expensive aftershave. What you will probably see is not momentary anger, but severe resentment towards the rich steamrollering the poor.


This is not a ‘bleeding heart’ piece. The thought experiment reflects the reality of a rapidly growing divide between the haves and the have-nots of India — one in which two things are equally true. First, that economic growth has reduced the incidence of poverty in India, and many, many more people are better off today than even a decade earlier, leave aside 30 years ago. Second, income and consumption growth have been dramatically skewed, resulting in a very sharp rise in income and ‘conspicuous’ consumption of an increasingly visible few juxtaposed with the sense of being left out for very many. And television, with a footprint across 75 per cent of India’s population, beams the obvious accoutrements of such differences throughout the nation.


Thus, while the incidence of poverty is reducing, the sense of deprivation is rapidly increasing and, with it, more strident political demands for greater entitlements and opportunities. To understand the differences, consider urban South Delhi versus the rural district of Kishanganj in Bihar. On average, over 60 per cent of the households in South Delhi have bank accounts; more than 75 per cent own TVs; at least one out three own a scooter or motorcycle; every second person has a mobile phone; and over 70 per cent have LPG connections. In contrast, only 5 per cent of the 2.5 lakh households in Kishanganj have bank accounts; 3 per cent own TVs; 1 per cent own two-wheelers; 0.4 per cent have phones; 0.1 per cent have access to LPG; and only 8 per cent live in pucca houses.


The average annual expenditure of the top 5 per cent of Delhi’s urban households is at least 20 times that of the bottom 50 per cent of Bihar’s and Jharkhand’s rural homesteads, and 15 times that of rural UP’s. Since the National Sample Survey is not good at capturing the expenditure on consumer durables, these ratios are underestimates. 


Given that the extent of political enfranchisement in India is way greater than its real economic entitlements, it is but natural for the bottom 50 per cent of rural India to demand a larger share of the country’s growing income and consumption pie. The short-term political response is to impose greater reservations for the underprivileged, without having the actual infrastructure that can deliver more employable people. As an example, India in 2015 will have over 231 million people between the ages of 15 and 24. Do we have the educational and vocational training facilities in place today to make even half of this vast mass employable in the next eight years?


Thus the conundrum. Armies of people are seeing rapid growth of others; democracy is creating an increasingly strong political platform to demand inclusion; yet the real institutions to create meaningful inclusion are woefully ill-equipped for the mammoth task. How we deal with this problem will determine India’s long term economic and political trajectory. For today, let’s pray.


Published: Business World, February 2007


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