The recent report of UNDESA World Social Report 2020 titled ‘Inequality In a Rapidly Changing World’ paints a gloomy picture of the widening inequality gap and warns of the negative political impact. This is nothing new but a problem manifest in most countries, specially in the Third World, where the density of population is high and a large segment belong to the poor and the economically weaker sections. National governments are not much in this problem and not formulating policies to uplift the lower segments of the population.
It is significant to point out that 71 per cent of the world’s people live in nations where income inequality is rising. That group includes the two nations with the largest economies, the US and China and the two with the largest populations, China and India.
The report of UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs very aptly pointed out: “without appropriate policies and institutions in place, inequalities among those who are already better off, tends to preserve or even widen opportunity gaps”. Moreover, the planning strategy of governments is geared towards the rich and the upper middle class, ignoring the needs and demands of the majority.
As we all know, popular discontent is high even in countries that have recovered from the 2008 financial crisis and have benefitted from steady growth in recent years. Moreover, social and economic crisis has deepened in the last two-three years due to problems related to increasing unemployment and underemployment, farm distress, lack of adequate physical and social infrastructure in rural areas etc. This is also true of India where the economy has been reeling due to slowdown in growth.
Regarding the increasing social chaos, there is manifest caste and religious oppression. All this leads to violence as the young generation do not find productive means of livelihood. Seizing this opportunity, political parties exploit uneducated young people to use them to their advantage. There is also desperation and depression and people revolt against the establishment due to their failure in governance and increasing corruption.
In India, there are protests all round against a rightist government, who is bent not on solving the intrinsic economic problems but exploiting people in the name of religion. The state is a highly coercive one and if the threat of state violence is used against protests, this not only normalises violence but also blurs the line between law and crime on the ground. In the process, moderates and also the poor are squeezed out and suffer greatly, while space is created for goons of every stripe to disturb peace and upset social balance.
The report observed that rising inequality has become a rallying cry “for greater redistribution through progressive taxation and more comprehensive public service provision. However, this is not the case. People in positions of power tend to capture political processes, particularly in contexts of high and growing inequality”. As is well known, there is lot of talk for long regarding the politician-business nexus, obviously for wrong reasons, and in India this is very well manifest.
A point which may not be very much relevant for India is whether a strong middle class can be a counterbalance to the interests of wealthier groups. A section of this class has over the years benefitted from government policies but the economically weaker sections and the poor, who constitute around 40 per cent of the population, if not more, remain impoverished and struggle for their existence.
While technological innovations and mechanisation has been a stumbling block in job creation and a major contributor to the growing gap between the rich and the rest, discrimination based on sex, ethnicity and religion and socio-economic status also widens the gap. Also increasing urbanisation widens the chasm between city and rural areas.
The report highlighted an important fact that though rural areas have declined to 45 per cent of the globe’s population, they have 80 per cent of its poor. Here it may be mentioned that the countryside in Third World countries like India, present a pitiable picture, lacking the essentials of life. In recent years, climate change has made life difficult for the rural population with increasing floods, droughts and soil pollution.
It is indeed distressing that national governments are least bothered regarding this problem of inequality or increasing the livelihoods of the poor as is manifest from their policies. India is a case in point as rural areas do not get the required resources to upgrade vast infrastructure needs nor are welfare programmes geared for the poor adequately funded. While the business community get various types of incentives for setting up industries, this is not the case for the farming community.
What has not found place in the report is the basic cause of the growing income inequality or the increasing per capita income in urban and rural areas. The combination of corporate and class clout and there tremendous influence on most national governments, and definitely in India, is obviously the main reason. To explain well, it can be said that the spread of material culture and material demands and the mad race for increase earnings, by hook or by crook, even through dishonest means, may be attributed to increase in inequality.
Another factor that is relevant to rural societies like India is the focus of development being on the middle class and not on the really poor, specially the farming community, who struggle for existence in the countryside. In the South Asian region, farmers are struggling for a dignified existence as their profitability is very low due to increase in inputs like seeds, chemicals and fertilizers manufactured by the industrial class and these prices continue to rise. Also ethnic minorities remain disadvantaged even in countries where special efforts are made to promote their inclusion.
We may discuss this is various forums but the problem is insurmountable and may not change in the coming years as most governments are virtually dolls in the hands of the corporate class. Mention may be made of the growing trend of privatisation in India in sectors like education and health but unfortunately the private sector is geared only towards profit. It has to be taken for granted that the poor and EWS groups will not be eligible for these facilities as they cannot pay for these.
In the emerging scenario, there is strong possibility of social chaos accentuating in Third World countries due to pro-poor, rightist and protectionist policies followed by these governments. Can we expect any fundamental change in outlook and strategy to tackle the problem of reducing inequality?