Widening inequality

By Dhurjati Mukherjee

March 13, 2019

New Delhi: Poverty has been plaguing most countries of South Asia, specially India. Successive governments have tried to eradicate poverty but such attempts or the strategy adopted may not be on the right lines, even though some positive results may have been accomplished. But while one can contemplate abolishing poverty say in another decade or so, the inequality that we witness in society, has been widening with every passing year.

It is extremely difficult to tackle inequality and narrow the gap between the rich and the poor. Various reports have come up in recent years showing the dimensions of inequality, specially the ones by Oxfam, but no strategy by any country of how to bring down inequality has been put forward.

Remember, the latest Oxfam report found that 73 per cent of wealth generated in 2017 went to the richest one per cent, while 67 crore Indians, who comprise the poorest half of the population, saw one per cent increase in their wealth. Moreover, renowned economists Lucas Chancel and Thomas Piketty had observed that current inequality in India is at the highest level in 76 years.

Very recently a wealth study by property consultant, Knight Frank revealed that Asia’s billionaire population is set to outpace other regions between 2018 and 2023. The number of billionaires from the region will rise by 27 per cent, surpassing growth in North America (17 per cent). India saw a whopping rise of 116 per cent in billionaire population between 2013 and 2018, while the expected growth of 37 per cent for the next five years (2018-2023) beats the global and regional average. The country’s wealth is expected to charge ahead over the next five years with the number of ultra high net worth individuals (UHNWIs) rising to 2697.

If this be the situation, the word ‘development’ is left with no meaning. Economists and planners the world over, and specially in the Third World, where the dimension of inequality is brazenly evident, have proved that they have very little contribution in the development discourse. While it is understandable that politicians may have self interest or would like to align with the rich and shower them favours to get something in return, developmental economists are professional people.

All talks of inclusive and/or sustainable development has lost its meaning as these remain theoretical dictums and slogans, possibly meant to hoodwink the common mass. Or is it that in modern concept of development inequality would remain a key feature in society?

There has been some discussion regarding the maladies of inequality. In this connection, the undersigned would like to mention that at a recent conference in Bhubaneswar, the Registrar of a well known University pointed out that the rich who drive to 3 Star and 5 Star hotels have no feeling for the pavement dwellers and shanty colonies they see on their way. Clearly, grave are the maladies of inequality but the State virtually ignores these.

We talk of modernisation and the impact of technology in this process. May be those who are at the helm think that inequality can be ignored or some good words, from time to time, would help the impoverished, languishing in poverty and squalor. In such a situation, the question arises can society retain its passive and non violent character? How could people be made to accept that increase in incomes is for the higher echelons of society and standards of living of the rural poor need not be given priority?

Let us now come to the affect of inequality on health, specially mental health, of human beings. It is a well established fact that mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety disorders and schizophrenia are on the rise in this country. In fact, statistics show that people with mental illnesses directly account for nearly 7 per cent of the total population and is predicted to increase by 20 per cent by the end of this decade. But if the indirect causes are also considered, this may reach anything around 9 per cent.

Mental health issues are projected to reduce economic growth in India by more than 9 trillion dollars in the next 12 years. A World Health Organisation report showed that India happens to be the most depressed country in the world followed by China and the US. However, it needs to be mentioned that the nature of depression in this country and the US are very much different.

In the US, depression is because of the fast life that they lead as also the materialistic civilisation where the craving is more wealth and power. In India, the nature of depression is essentially due to lack of employment opportunities, increasing debt and inability to meet medical expenses, poverty and inability to meet the aspirations of the young generation etc. It cannot be doubted that growing income disparities and polarised societies increase social anxieties and this has an adverse effect on human health. The worst affected might withdraw completely and engage in health compromising behaviours like substance abuse.

In their latest book, The Inner Level, social epidemiologists Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson have rightly pointed “The reality is that inequality causes real suffering, regardless of how we chose to label such distress. Greater inequality heightens social threat and status anxiety, evoking feelings of shame which feed into out instincts for withdrawal, submission and subordination: when the social pyramid gets higher and steeper and status insecurity increases, there are widespread psychological costs”. Thus, can the increasing suicides in our country be attributed to poverty, debt and income and social inequality?

It is quite rational to think that greater thrust is necessary towards welfare programmes, public spending and comprehensive social security and investment in human capital development. However, it needs to be emphasised that in spite of all these, there is need for a drastic change in our development strategy, which obviously has to be geared to harnessing people’s power. Added to this, a truly decentralised process of decision making and operations has to become a reality.

Civic awakening is the need of the hour and a grass-root approach has to become effective, as visualised by Mahatma Gandhi. Though we have completely forsaken his social and economic philosophy, after the death of Vinoba Bhave, his true disciple, who launched the famous Bhoodan-Gramdan movement, it is time that our political leaders instead of misusing Gandhi’s name just for political rhetoric, deeply give cognisance to Gandhian thinking.

Only rediscovering Gandhi and translating his political and economic thinking into action is the need of the day through a movement that will encompass concerns regarding violence of weapons, violence of human minds, inequalities etc. resulting from caste, class and religious discrimination as also inequitable structures of domination and exploitation. This could be an effective beginning to at least control the widening social and economic disparity existing in our society. –INFA

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