Researching the politics of development



‘Transformational politics’ in India? Whatever happened to social justice?

15 May 2014.
By Indrajit Roy.
Political pundits have described the just-concluded elections in India as ‘transformational’. However, none of the issues highlighted by the national media, the intelligentsia and the ‘mainstream’ political parties – development, secularism, corruption – are really novel. Most of them have nothing to say about widening inequalities, sharpened by discrimination based on caste, ethnicity and religion, and the related questions of social justice. Their deafening silence makes all talk of ‘transformational politics’ sound like empty rhetoric.

Widespread and widening inequality

India’s economic reforms may have contributed to reducing poverty in the country, but it certainly spawned inequalities among our people. Thus, the World Bank notes that the proportion of the population living on less than $1.25 a day in the country declined from 47 percent in 1990 to 33 percent in 2008. On the other hand, its sister concern, the International Monetary Fund, concedes that the impact of economic growth on poverty reduction is weaker in India than in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and even our South Asian neighbours. An Asian Development Bank report notes that the Gini Coefficient increased from 33 to 37 between 1993 and 2010, indicating rising income inequality. More tragically, the rate of poverty reduction through this period has not been uniform across socio-economic groups.
Economists Sukhadeo Thorat and Amaresh Dubey point out that poverty reduction has been lower for off-farm and agricultural wage labourers, urban casual workers and the self-employed. For the Dalits (so-called ‘untouchables’), Adivasis (indigenous populations) and Muslims among these occupational groups, the rate of poverty reduction has been even less. According to the National Commission for Employment in Unorganised Sector, a quarter of all Dalit workers and a third of the Adivasi workers are employed as casual labour in the informal sector, against 15 percent of the total working population. Farmers in central and eastern India, the majority of whom also belong to underprivileged communities such as Adivasis and intermediate ‘caste’ groups, are increasingly confronted with the prospects of being dispossessed of their agricultural properties to make way for Special Economic Zones, industrial and business parks and extractive operations. The high-value jobs produced in these enclaves are almost entirely likely to be cornered by members of the privileged communities, not the farmers. By all accounts, the reforms facilitated rising incomes as well as rising inequality, based on caste, ethnic and religious cleavages.

The reality of economic inequality versus the claim of social equality

It is one thing for official statistics to demonstrate widening inequalities. It is another for these to be experienced by those who are at the exploited and oppressed end. In a closed economy, economic inequality might not be perceived as such because contacts between different groups and classes are limited. But in an open economy, with high levels of (internal and circular) migration, inequality is experienced on a daily basis. Most of India’s estimated 100 million internal circular migrants are in informal employment, fuelling the country’s burgeoning economy. While many of them have seen their own real incomes rise and perhaps consume more than they could earlier, they are acutely aware of skewed wealth and income distributions. Even as they aspire to better opportunities, they realise that such opportunities are restricted to the precarious world of informal employment in urban and rural areas.
Discrimination and stigma on the basis of caste, ethnicity and religion in the fields of employment continues to remain one way in which the claims of Dalits and OBCs to social equality are routinely denied by those who control access to these resources. Such discrimination further perpetuates their skewed participation in the economy. On the one hand, Dalit agricultural labourers in north Bihar find that employment opportunities in Delhi allow them to withhold their labour from farmers back in the village who continue to use casteist slurs and to practise untouchability. But on the other hand, these labourers also realise that employment opportunities in the cities are restricted to the precarious world of informal employment, from which they can be arbitrarily fired. Dalit workers in Ahmedabad find that they are among the earliest to be laid off and their compensation packages among the last to arrive. Such precariousness inhibits their abilities to support their children who want to become doctors, teachers and engineers, threatening their aspiration to social dignity. The inequalities and indignities they face matter to them and should matter to all of us. Addressing these is central to India’s achievement of social justice.
Most political parties are reluctant to even acknowledge this. The honourable exceptions, or the few political parties that explicitly articulate concerns of social justice – Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and possibly Bihar’s competing Janata parties – attract little attention from the intelligentsia or the media. Consequently, questions of inequalities, indignities and injustice have remained peripheral, talk of ‘transformational politics’ notwithstanding.
The ongoing elections provided an opportune moment for India’s political parties to politicise the rising caste- and class-based inequalities. This would have heralded a new era of ‘transformational politics’. Sadly, barring the few exceptions noted above, this opportunity seems to have been wasted.

Dr Indrajit Roy is Junior Research Fellow in International Development at the University of Oxford; he is also a member of ESID’s research project on the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. He blogs at ‘Politically Social’:
See Indrajit’s other posts on the Indian elections at Hindustan Times, Nottingham University‘s Ballots and Bullets blog, The Hindu Centre, and the blog of Oxford‘s Department for International Development.