Thursday, December 15, 2016

Because We Looked Away

The Oxfam report, An Economy for the 1% (2016), tells us that the richest 62 individuals on this planet own more than half the world's population put together. As you let this statistic sink in, let me throw a couple of others at you. I don't often take recourse to images, but on the theme of rising inequality, I can do little more than point you in the direction of this graphic illustration I came across a few months ago. As visualisations go, this one is staggering. I can't look at it, to-date, without a shiver coursing through my body.  


I'm almost painfully aware of the privileged position I occupy in this country, one of the world's most glaringly unequal societies. My education, the fact that I am not persecuted on account of my religious, caste or sexual identities, my socio-economic position - pretty much everything apart from the fact that I am a woman - all serve to insulate me from the horrors that could have been my lot in what is a devastatingly fractious society. What is essential to understand, and I cannot stress this enough, is that in India, to talk about class is almost always to simultaneously talk about caste. The caste system is our own special 'gift' to the world, originating as it does in this country, and it is the single most bone-crushingly inhuman system of classification anyone could have ever conjured. More, it is, as Babasaheb warned us decades ago, premised not upon the division of labour (as so many caste apologists claim), but on the division of labourers[1]. As old as organised society itself, despite the many efforts of Babasaheb and his ilk to demolish this monstrosity, caste lives on in India today, tenacious enough to take on new forms as it cements its place in our urbanscapes, resisting every attempt at affirmative action[2] which seeks to create a less unjust society.

Numerous scholars and activists have written about the 'spaces between' the India which looks a little like the one I am fortunate enough to inhabit, and the lived reality of, say, the hundreds of people who live down the road from my sylvan campus, on the 'rurban' periphery of Ahmedabad, which is (by population), one of India's 10 biggest cities. My campus stands in the middle of what used to be an agricultural zone, and is surrounded by the tiny rural settlements of Shela and Ghuma. I walk my students to Shela every year, when I'm talking to them about Gandhi and the salt march; about politics-as-spectacle. It is the first time since they come to Ahmedabad that a lot of them have had to engage with their immediate surroundings. In all honesty, my own engagement with Shela only began in earnest when I designed this module, and this is precisely my point: we curate our spaces - sanitise them - till they become ivory towers, minimising any and all contact with those that caste and class or religion have long colluded to 'other'. Why? Because it is easier to, as Harsh Mander puts it in his searing indictment of modern Indian society, look away,[3] than to think about the endless structural inequalities which have made it so that some of us 'have' while so many - too many - simply do not. 

As Mander puts it, "many people believe that inequality is an inevitable part of the surge of economic growth and globalised technological progress. But in fact inequality “is the product of deliberate economic and political policies”, of which the two biggest drivers are market fundamentalism and the capture of power by economic elites,"[4]: this is to be evidenced world over. These ideas are the very bedrock of neoliberal ideology, and taken to their logical extreme, oppose public investment on the part of the State in all areas, ranging from healthcare to education, and labour protection to the acquisition/clearance of land and other natural resources. In India, Mander adds, the tax exemptions "of around five lakh crore rupees" (to corporate houses, in almost every recent budget) "could substantially finance India’s education, nutrition and health care gaps...if India just stops inequality from rising, it could end extreme poverty for 90 million people by 2019. If it reduces inequality by 36 per cent, it could completely eliminate extreme poverty," he writes. 

Mander concludes that we know the way to dam the "surging tides of inequality" which are upon us: a more equal society can be crafted by raising and enforcing minimum wages, imposing wealth taxes, enhancing government spending on education, health and agriculture, providing social protection for the aged and disabled, building on our affirmative action policies for socially disadvantaged groups to counter the travesty that is our caste system, and ensuring basic necessities such as water, sanitation and other utilities to the rural poor and urban slums.

However, this remains a tantalising pipe-dream indeed, all the more heartbreaking because it feels doable, if only our governments were more inclined to ameliorate the lot of their citizens than appease the rampant greed of their corporate overlords. 


[1]The full quotation reads like this: "It is a pity that Caste even today has its defenders. The defences are many. It is defended on the ground that the Caste System is but another name for division of labour and if division of labour is a necessary feature of every civilized society, then it is argued that there is nothing wrong in the Caste System. Now the first thing that is to be urged against this view is that the Caste System is not merely division of labour. It is also a division of labourers. Civilized society undoubtedly needs division of labour. But in no civilized society is division of labour accompanied by this unnatural division of labourers into watertight compartments. The Caste System is not merely a division of labourers which is quite different from division of labour—it is a hierarchy in which the divisions of labourers are graded one above the other. In no other country is the division of labour accompanied by this gradation of labourers," from The Annihilation of Caste by BR Ambedkar (1936). Access sections of this text at:
[2]In the form of India's 'Reservation Policy' in educational institutions and government organisations.
[3] See Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India by Harsh Mander (2015) for more.
[4] For the full article, see:

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