Bliss was in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very Heaven! O Times” —William Wordsworth
Bliss was the night when I, along with the hostel students of St. Berchmans College, Kerala, proudly donning Gandhi caps and carrying crackers, waited to ring in August 15, 1947. With no radio around, we missed the historic speech of Jawaharlal Nehru, who said: “Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge... of dedication to the service of India and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity... The service of India means the service of the millions who suffer. It means the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity.”
Seventy-five years on, it is instructive to ask how far we have redeemed the pledge. Economists in general have not examined this question. But three books by Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen, written over 18 years, comprehensively examined the transformative process within their freedom-capability perspective keeping in mind the larger context of the demands of democracy and social justice. This article reviews the pledge of ending inequality of opportunity made at the time of Independence under three broad heads: gender inequality, social inequality and the practice of democracy. Let me hasten to add, I do not berate India’s achievements as an economic power, its progress in literature, science, technology, knowledge diffusion, innovation achievements, distinctions in music, films, market sophistication, and so on. But the compulsions of our history and public reason demand clarity regarding objectives and instruments, ends and means.
Men, women and equality
At midnight, we shouted the slogan, ‘Bolo Bharat Mata Ki Jai’, blissfully unaware of the unfreedoms of women in those days. Today, one will be shocked to find that the maternal mortality ratio (MMR) in 456 out of 640 districts is above 140 per lakh live births; in Assam, it is 215. That it is eminently better in the southern States shows not only the vast disparities in the health systems of States, but also the loss of freedom of millions to live long. Considering the global Sustainable Development Goals target, all countries are expected to have a MMR that is below 70.
Reducing the inequality between men and women in their access to resources and opportunity is an important metric of civilisation. The Global Gender Gap Index, produced by the World Economic Forum, with a stable methodology using four sub-indices — economic participation, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment — based on 14 indicators, provides a snapshot of where men and women in India stand globally. In 2006, India’s rank was 98 as against 13 for Sri Lanka and 91 for Bangladesh. India’s position fell to 135 in 2022, whereas Bangladesh improved its position to 71. Comparisons with Pakistan’s 145 or Afghanistan’s 146 can offer only cold comfort. In the sub-indice of economic participation, India fell from 110 in 2006 to 151 in 2021. Worse, in health and survival, it slipped from 103 in 2006 to 155 in 2021. That the reported Indian Penal Code (IPC) crimes against women as a proportion of total IPC crimes increased steadily between 1990 and 2019 is an ominous portend. It does not speak highly of our democracy that this happened despite 20 States reserving 50%, and others one-third, of local government seats for women.
Unless serious public interventions are made, inequality of opportunity will only widen where social disparities in gender, caste and class coexist. There are constitutional guarantees of reservation in employment and education for historically marginalised communities to expand their opportunities, but because these groups have had to contend with powerful groups with great initial endowments and an early start, these guarantees have proved to be largely ineffective. Moreover, India has failed to seriously implement land reforms. The resounding slogan ‘land to the tiller’ of the pre-Independence struggle has quietly vanished. While the property-owning class have been winners, the landless Dalits, Adivasis and the poor have not been able to go forward.
In a 2019 paper, Thomas Piketty and Lucas Chancel trace India’s journey ‘From British Raj to Billionaire Raj’ and show that the egalitarian achievements up to the early 1980s have been lost following the liberalisation turnaround. They estimate that the top 1% earners captured less than 21% of the total income in the late 1930s, 6% in the early 1980s and 22% in recent times. On the other hand, the share of the bottom 50% remained below 14%. This is but inevitable because the share of the bottom 50% income group grew 90% in the 1980-2015 period, while that of the top 10% grew 435% (Review of Income and Wealth, Series 65, Number S1, 2019). We cannot forget that the number of billionaires in India grew from 102 in 2020 to 142 in 2021, while the share of the bottom 50% in national wealth shrank to a low 6% in the worst pandemic times (Oxfam).
These striking numbers clearly prove that the sustained gains of economic growth have not been channeled to widen the access to education, health care, social security and so on. This could have substantially expanded India’s opportunities and freedom. The country that once chose a socialist pattern of society is not even a good social democratic variant now.
The practice of democracy
With growing social and economic inequality, Indian democracy is emerging into what Shankkar Aiyar calls the “Gated Republic”. His book under this phrase narrates why the privileged classes do not demand key public goods such as drinking water, electricity, and law and order; it is because they have bottled water, storage tanks, water purifiers, inverters, private security and the like. Many of the avoidable deaths, and disease, that happen in India are due to the public failure in providing water, public hygiene, education and the rule of law. It is paradoxical that India, which successfully launched the Mars Orbiter and Chandrayaan missions, could not eradicate mass poverty, especially of the Adivasis, fisherfolk and Dalits. The Economic Survey 2021 (Chapter 4) asserts that economic growth and inequality will converge in terms of their effects on socioeconomic outcomes. The trickle-down thesis is an insult to the poor. Only the rich who finance the political parties can have their quid pro quo, while social rights get drowned. Look at the promotion of electoral bonds on the grounds of ‘donor’s anonymity’ while the Election Commission and other democratic institutions get throttled? Corruption is pervasive and undermines democratic practice. The moral turpitude of the Opposition makes adversarial politics toothless and timid. The local democracy, heralded 30 years ago with great hopes to build India on a plank of economic development and social justice from the grass-roots level, faces utter neglect. The Mission Antyodaya project to eradicate mass poverty is in the back-burner.
After 75 years of Independence, the inequality of opportunities, which Nehru wanted to eradicate, has only systematically widened. When will the “soul of a nation, long suppressed” find “utterance”?
M.A. Oommen is Honorary Fellow at CDS and Distinguished Fellow at GIFT, Thiruvananthapuram