Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

IRAP Inhouse half page print edition
Dr Helena Eye Care Centre
Communities in the Northeast are nutritionally not so badly placed but are income poor.

Poverty and the Rising Inequality is Not Only a Moral But Also a Social Challenge

The disparity between the rich and the poor is rapidly growing day after day. Thanks to the local cable TV network for media coverage and exposing the plight of severely deprived people in the state, this is clearly evident. It is indeed disheartening to see many in the state living a subhuman life deprived of basic human needs. Unfortunately, most of us are not in a position to extend help to them apart from expressing our concern on a public platform.

On one hand there are many who can easily squander large sums of money into a particular college or university in the name of donation to get admitted. In contrast, some people are forced to drop out of schools at a very young age to support their families. Affluent elites often hold extravagant parties as if it were a status symbol. On the other hand, we are also told of a young girl working bakery shop who could not afford even a slice of bread from the same shop where she was employed.

If politicians genuinely take the public as seriously as they claim then their inner calling might have naturally forced them to extend help to the poor instead of needless draining resources in displaying their billboard self-portraits in public places and possibly many poor might have been uplifted from their economic misery. But unfortunately, we have conmen masked as politicians whose acting skills and dialogue delivery are even more professional than a professional actors. Unless the politicians considered the social responsibility as if it were a personal responsibility, nothing great can be achieved. It is better for politicians to remain aware of this fact that “poverty is the mother of all social problems”.

Poverty alone multiplies other social problems. It would be a mistake to look at poverty in isolation only in terms of economic deprivation. As sociologist Robert K Merton pointed out that the lack of coordination between culturally defined goals and structurally available means often leads to a situation of “anomie” or normlessness.  Culture defined certain goals as desirable. Modern societies are obsessed with the idea of financial success. However, people are differently located in the social structure and depending on their location their access to the means is decided. And the means which are considered as legitimate may not be necessarily accessible by all depending on their location in the social structure. Thus, giving rise to anomie or normative deregulation. And response to such anomie generates deviant behaviours. People can begin taking refuge in drugs as safety valve or involve in criminal activities such as robbery, theft or prostitution etc.

There are certain fundamental needs which are considered as essential for living a decent life. The basic essential needs include foods, safe drinking water, proper sanitation facilities, health care, shelter and education etc. It is believed that these indices are the conditions which are necessary for decent living. And if people are denied these services and opportunities then they are living a subhuman life also referred to as “absolute poverty”. And access to these amenities not only depend on income but also availability of these services.

Generally, poverty is defined in terms of economic terms. The deprivation that people suffer in terms of income is translated in modern societies as inability to afford goods and services which are needed for life. We can access the market only when we have the medium of exchange, that is money. However, sociologists believe that poverty is much more than only lack of monetary income. That is poverty involves multiple deprivation. It may include lack of “educational opportunities”. Or when people are poor, they cannot send their children to schools and the family may need the children to work at an early age so that the family income increases. It also leads to “unpleasant working conditions” where people are made to work in unskilled jobs where the working condition may involve handling hazardous materials where there is serious risk of getting diseases or even killed. Since people do not have a choice, they are ready to take up employment in any  hazardous situation rather than to starve.

Being poor also means “poor nutrition” and “poor health status”. Poor people cannot afford a balanced diet and they cannot access health care facilities because of lack of resources. Hence, they end up with a poor health status. Even life expectancy gets shortened. Poverty also means “powerlessness” and the general inability to participate in leisure time and recreational activities.

Sociologists also used the concept of “social exclusion” to focus on the multidimensional deprivation associated with poverty. Due to multiple deprivation, poor people are prevented from participation in economic, social, political and cultural activities of societies. Therefore poverty is one of the factors contributing to social exclusion. But social exclusion can also take the other way round linking it to privileges. The poor are forced into exclusion by their economic circumstances but the privileged voluntarily choose exclusion for themselves as an index of privileges. For instance, people talked about “gated communities” or walled communities, exclusive residential areas where ordinary people are not even allowed entry. And only the privileged and super rich and the elite tend to live in those areas. Similarly, there are clubs, educational institutions and other institutions where only the privileged have access. Sometimes we might have come across people who proudly claim that “I had never done a manual job in my entire life”. Hence they voluntarily exclude themselves as a mark of privilege.

There is a lot of confusion in India about the poverty line. And poverty lines have been variously defined. The estimate of people who are below the poverty line also varies depending on which estimates we follow. Often it is said that the data presented in India are misleading. According to the economic survey 2020-21, the number of people below poverty line in Manipur is 7.45 lakhs (38.8 %) in rural areas and 2.78 lakhs (32.59%) in urban areas respectively according to 68th Round (2011-12) of NSS.

Recently NITI Aayog released the Multidimensionality Poverty Index (MPI) that is computed using various indicators such as nutrition, child mortality, the average years of schooling, access to sanitation facilities, housing, safe drinking water, electricity and other assets. Bihar stands at the top at 51.91 % of the MPI and Kerala being the lowest at 0.71%. Mizoram stands at 9.8%, Manipur at 17.89%, Nagaland stands at 25.23% etc.

As per the report published by fraym June 2021, two thirds of population in Manipur (67%) reported a decrease in household income from work due to the COVID-19 pandemic standing at the top of the hierarchy followed by Kerala (53%), Jharkhand (48%)….. and Andhra Pradesh  (39%) respectively.

And the satisfactory level about the government responses among the public was the lowest in Goa and Manipur, where only around half of the population approves of the government’s response.

British sociologist Peter Townsend pointed out another idea related to poverty also referred to as “relative poverty” or to be deprived relative to others. And wherever there is inequality relative poverty exists and undoubtedly inequality exists everywhere.

He states that what is considered normal needs of people is socially determined. In other words what is normal in one society cannot be normal in another society and poverty varies from society to society. For instance, if the average member in the Manipur society considers that gifting a “washing machine” in the “Ningol Chakouba” is generally acceptable to be desirable then those who cannot afford to buy those gift are poor even if they have nutritive diet or are able to send their children to schools. Perhaps in families with multiple daughters in laws, such situations may happen frequently. One daughter in law may be gifted with expensive material while another belonging to a poor family may not be able to afford those gifts. Hence it may lead to grief and sadness or even a feeling of shame for being deprived in relation with others. Therefore, unnecessary extravagant populist culture must not be encouraged at all.

If something is customarily considered essential it is essential and people can be said to be in a state of poverty if they lack resources to obtain the type of diet and ability to participate in activities and have living conditions which are customary and widely approved in the society in which they belong. So these are people whose resources are seriously below those commanded by the average individual that they are excluded from ordinary living patterns.

The wealth and income inequality has been on a speedy rise globally. This inequality is even more acute in India becoming the most unequal countries in the world as per the report published by Global inequality lab 2022. According to the Global inequality report  2022, the richest 10% of the global population currently takes 52% of global income, whereas the poorest half of the population earns 8.5% of it.

The global wealth inequalities are even more significant than income inequalities. The poorest half of the global population barely owns any wealth at all, possessing just 2% of the total. In contrast, the richest 10% of the global population own 76% of all wealth.

In India, in terms of income inequality, the top 10% of India’s population control 57% of national income. While the bottom 50% of India’s population controls only 13% of national income. This shows there is massive inequality in terms of income.

The share of the top 1% of the population was 13% of the national income in 1961. It declined to 6.9% by 1981. And after 1991 when economic reforms were introduced, it started climbing. By 2020, the share of the top 1% in national income was 21.7%. And of the top 10% was 56% which has recently increased to 57%. And the share of the bottom 50% which was only 14.7% in 2019 has now fallen further to 13%.

Thomas Piketty and his teams give more details on the inequality trends in India. According to them the share of the total wealth of the top 1% was fairly constant around 12% of wealth from the year 1961 to 1981. But since 1991, the year of liberalisation, the share of the top 1% has steadily increased.  In 2020, the share of the top 1% in the national wealth has increased to 42.5%. While the share of the total wealth of the bottom 50% was 12.3% in 1961 and declined marginally to 10.9% in 1981 and in 2020 it has drastically fallen to 2.8%. Hence, 1% control 42.5% of the wealth and the bottom 50% control only 2.8% of wealth.

And as far as the share of the middle 40% is concern, till 1981 their share was around 45%. But by 2020 the share of the middle 40% population has fallen down to 22.9%.

This clearly show how wealth and income inequality in India has risen with the process of growth. And the market led growth in a society which is characterised by inequality tends to accentuate inequality. The economic liberalization has not increased mass employment. And agriculture which is the parking lot of the poor where all the poor are concentrated did not grow fast enough. And even industries and service sector which grew rapidly they employed only skilled and educated people and more centred in urban areas. So the growth itself was not inclusive as it has been sometime refers to as jobless growth. As a result poverty persist. Hence the report remarked “India stands out as a poor and very unequal country, with an affluent elite”.

If we go by this report then the chances for the affluent elite to transform their economic power into political power is at ease and the few minorities can end up determining the fate of the majority. Hence the higher the inequality the greater the chances of the minority few to shape the future of the majority. The report also states that “Inequality is always political choice and learning from policies implemented in other countries or at other points of time is critical to design fairer development pathways”

The report recommends the redistribution of wealth through levying a modest progressive wealth tax on the wealthy class can reduce such inequalities. Hence modest progressive taxes can help generate significant revenue for governments and reinvested in education, health and the ecological transition. To make the wealth redistribution more equitable, the current neo-liberal model can be replaced by the Nordic economic model. It consists of effective welfare state nets for all, corruption free government, the fundamental right to quality education and healthcare, high tax for the rich etc.

The problem of employment generation can be curbed by promoting growth of manufacturing sectors like textile, clothing, automobiles, consumer goods etc.  Labour-intensive manufacturing has the potential to absorb millions of people who are leaving farming while the service sector tends to benefit the urban middle class.

The ILO recommends that a minimum wage should be set in a way that balances the needs of workers and their families with broader economic factors.  There is also a need to remove barriers that prevent women from fully participating in the economy, including access to the labour market, property rights and targeted credit and investments. Encouraging more women to become entrepreneurs will provide a long-term solution. Through job creation and furthering investment in health and education, women entrepreneurship could transform the economy and society.

Also Read