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How India lives: Inequality, impoverisation and identity

A recent paper in EPW clearly demonstrates the links between poverty and vulnerability caused by social identity in India. It also demonstrates the extent to which inequality is increasing. This is a recipe for political dissent, says John Samuel

Poverty is not merely about numbers. Poverty is the denial of the right to live with dignity. Poverty is perpetuated by an active process of impoverisation that emerges out of unequal and unjust power relationships.

The notion of impoverisation (or the active creation of poverty within a society or economy) needs to be seen in the context of social, economic and political inequality. Such inequality is perpetuated by entrenched identities, emerging out of cumulative marginalisation; poverty is no longer a humanitarian issue but a deeply political issue. The political economy of impoverisation, resulting in active denial of social and economic rights, may induce more violent conflicts and political unrest in a given society. Such conflicts may pose a further problem for economic growth and social security.

A recent paper, 'India's Common People: Who Are They, How Many Are They and How Do They Live?' by Arjun Sengupta, K P Kannan and G Raveendran in the Economic & Political Weekly, March 15, 2008, clearly demonstrates the link between poverty, inequality and identity in the Indian context.

To quote the key highlights of the paper:

"This paper attempts to define the common people of India in terms of levels of consumption and examines their socio-economic profile in different periods of time, since the early-1990s, with a view to assessing how the economic growth process has impacted on their lives. The findings should worry everyone. Despite high growth, more than three-fourths of Indians are poor and vulnerable with a level of consumption not more than twice the official poverty line. This proportion of the population which can be categorised as the 'common people' is much higher among certain social groups, especially scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. There is also evidence to suggest that inequality is widening between the common people and the better-off sections of society."

The authors sum up their excellent analysis with the following findings:

"To sum up, an overwhelming majority of the Indian population, around three-quarters, is poor and vulnerable and it is a staggering 836 million as of 2004-05. This includes 70 million or 6.4% who may be characterised as extremely poor with a per capita consumption of less than or three-quarters of the official poverty line. To this should be added 167 million of those who are poor with consumption not more than that fixed as the official poverty line. If this is relaxed to include those with a per capita consumption of up to 25% above the poverty line, called marginally poor here, then we find another 207 million. These three groups account for 444 million or 40.8% of the population. To this we add those with a per capita consumption between 1.25 and two times the poverty line as vulnerable and this group of poor and vulnerable comes to 836 million of Indians or well over 75% of the population.

"The next major finding is the close association between poverty and vulnerability with one's social identity. The two social groups who are at the bottom by this classification are the SCs/STs, who constitute the bottom layer, and the Muslims, who are in the next layer. This does not mean that the other groups are far better off. The next group is the OBCs but better than the two bottom layers. Even for those who do not belong to any of these groups, the incidence is 55%."

This analysis confirms the policy and political arguments some of us have been making for the last many years. This also validates our argument against the present notions and definitions of the poverty line.

But the key questions are:

  1. What are the policy and political implications of such an analysis?
  2. Do the present policy and budget paradigms, and the mode and pattern of economic growth, perpetuate the existing marginalisation and the growing inequality?
  3. What key policy prioritisation is required to transform the situation in a more proactive and positive way in the next five to ten years?

Here are some of my responses (only meant for those who are further interested in the paper).

1) The methodological framework employed here gives a far better analytical mode to compare poverty across classes, particularly in terms of status of education, work etc. Such a comparative analytical perspective also gives a sense of the nature and character of economic inequality, in relation to poverty and social inequalities. Such an analysis also helps to develop far more focused policy prioritisation and interventions (if at all there is the political will to do so).

2) The paper clearly points out how cumulative marginalisation (in terms of caste/social hierarchy, access to education, access to employment etc) perpetuates impoverisation and multiple forms of inequality. It would have been good to get a sense about the gender dimension in the analysis.

3) When inequality has a direct correlation with identity, social locations and historical marginalisation, it is indeed a recipe for political discontent, contestations and consequent violence. The consequences of inequality, cumulative marginalisation and entrenched social identity may challenge and change the present political equations and formations in India.

4) The fact that there is an assertive middle class in all sections (SC/ST/ Muslim/ OBC etc) will enable the potential emergence of an articulate and assertive leadership among these sections and this will eventually influence the political process. This is already evident in many states like Tamil Nadu, UP, Bihar etc.

5) While the study is based on 2005-06 data, it will be good to know whether the CMP, NREGA etc of the UPA government have made any difference. Apart from the rhetoric of the so-called "Aam Admi" (75% of the population), to what extent has the UPA public policy and budget allocation made a difference?

In fact, even in this budget, there is hardly any increase in the allocation for SC/STs. Even writing off the agricultural loans of farmers may benefit the "others" more than SC/STs and Muslims -- though the OBCs may also get some benefits. While it is good to have 20% increases in the allocation for education, that is not good enough to substantially change the condition of SC/STs and Muslims.

6) The fact is that more than 40% of the population is really, really poor and at the receiving end of cumulative marginalisation. The vulnerable poor (most of them may be OBCs) still may have better bargaining power and also tend to intervene in the mainstream political process. But the marginalised poor and the poor may challenge the mainstream political process by initiating a series of 'micro' struggles or even armed contestations to the State to challenge the existing custodians of State and corporate power.

7) This shows that India is at the threshold of a new political transition in the next ten years. If the mainstream parties (Congress, Left etc) fail to significantly challenge and change their present assumptions and approaches, they will lose significant constituencies, and new actors and new political formations (both reactionary and mainstream) will emerge on the scene in the next ten to 15 years.

8) The present mode of urban-centric, service sector-driven growth, at the cost of agriculture, small and medium-level enterprises and rural infrastructure, will create new population pressures, rural-urban migration, new forms of urban poverty and a consequent increase in crime and violence.

It would have been good if the paper had given some in-depth analysis of the rural-urban implications and how social and economic locations affect access to quality education and gainful employment.

9) It seems that more than 80% of the beneficiaries of economic growth are the upper caste, urban, professionally educated class. This will have implications in terms of real estate ownership patterns (for instance there are a number of "vegetarian" housing societies or "exclusive caste" apartments -- without making it obvious -- in the new metros), English media (the upper caste-educated will be the consumers) and corporate leadership (who tend to appropriate or control the mainstream political process through election funding and new forms of patronage).

We need a new policy and political paradigm to ensure a stable, secure, democratic and vibrant India. I am not sure how many political parties are even thinking beyond the next election or next six months! That is not a good sign for the future of Indian democracy.

InfoChange News & Features, March 2008