ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Making Sense of Inequality


It is indeed interesting to know that public aspirations and hope entailed in the value of equality and despair or frustration, which is reflected in the widening gaps of inequality, find their articulation in the official policy discourse of the Government of India. The recent report on the state of inequality, prepared by the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister (EAC-PM) represents this official discourse about inequality in India. However, governmental thinking about equality or inequality has been a constant intellectual practice followed by the ruling parties in the past as well. Way back in 2008, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government constituted a committee of experts to establish an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in India. The UPA government, however, took a rather unusual step in giving an institutionalising expression to the principle of equality of opportunity that was to be followed by both the government as well as the private sector. The UPA government’s efforts at taking this first step, in fact, did assume only an indirect acknowledgement of the problem of inequality. This, by consequence, made inequality an empirically grotesque reality to subsume in the affirmative language of equality of opportunity. Although the UPA, under the aegis of the EEOC, made equality as the frontal question, it nonetheless pushed inequality in the background. The EEOC, envisioned during the UPA, thus suggested a possible road map of putting equality before inequality.

As the report of the EAC-PM suggests, the present government intends to start from the point of putting inequality in the forefront and equality in the background. Although there is an acknowledgement of inequality as the report tends to suggests, the report’s implementation by the government would certainly face formidable challenges. The editorial in the current issue of the Economic & Political Weekly seeks to shed some critical light on the challenges the government in power is likely to face should it take the implementation of the recommendations of the report seriously. Besides, this government’s intention to address the question of inequality also gives us an impression that the issue of inequality could be solved primarily by the government’s intervention and that market may not matter much in reducing inequality. However, we need to take a much broader view of inequality that operates through complex modalities.

The report seems to offer a broad category of inequality, which in itself may not be objectionable but is at variance with other starker forms of inequality that are engaged in the caste-based practices of discrimination. For example, discriminatory exclusion of the lower castes and now members from minority communities that exists in the housing market suggests the failure of rationality that goes to assign the market mechanism with some semblance of impartiality and transparency. This failure can be attributed to the systematic denial of rights to Dalits and minorities who find it difficult to buy houses in fairly decent residential complexes in Indian metropolitan cities.

The logical fallout of such a market without rationality is the loss of freedom of choice for lower castes and minorities. Those in favour of a “genuine” market transition based on rationality will have no problem in accommodating economic discrimination that is based on the existing price structure rather than the caste structure. It is beyond any reasonable doubt that metropolitan cities in India do have multistoried residential complexes whose foundation may be sustained by concrete, but its cultural cornerstone and social hierarchy is mainly sustained through caste and religion.

From a certain point of view, inequality acquires a degree of fairness when it results from a healthy and transparent competition for jobs. Inequality as a conditional variable is measured in relation to those who are already employed and hence lucky to have joined the “privileged” sphere of equality with others. Thus, exclusion from employment gives rise to the phenomenon of inequality. Inequality is thus a derivative of equality. If jobs are absent, or they are on the verge of near extinction due to the rapid depletion of existing employment opportunities, such a situation would lead to despair. The government ought to address the question of widespread despair by creating more jobs. Despair that is reflected in jobless growth, thus, is not the sign of a healthy market or state. The state or the government will have to take concrete steps to promote a competitive job market. This can be done by providing jobs to a large number of unemployed people. Ironically, it is the competitive nature of the job market that creates among those who are waiting for job opportunities a subsidised sense of adjustment with inequality, which then will be seen as a temporary problem to be tackled with the constant flow of job opportunities. It is argued by some that the constant creation of jobs would minimise inequality, thus raising questions about the capacity of the economic model espoused by the present government to create such jobs in the first place.


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Updated On : 11th Jun, 2022
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