Seven decades of federal Republic has made India of sterner stuff. Optimists invariably look at the half-full glass while pessimists see the other half that is empty. But in the other half lie the challenges and opportunities. This retrospect becomes necessary against the backdrop of the latest Oxfam report on inequality released on the eve of Davos World Economic Conference that just concluded, putting India in a somewhat bad light.
India always proved its might and solidarity in every type of crisis. From Bengal famine and pestilence to fighting Pakistan, from Bhuj earthquake to tsunami, continual floods of the Brahmaputra, Ganges, and the Godavari — the huge diversity of the nation did not come in the way of overcoming all the crises.
India’s growth and poverty reduction have contributed even to reducing global inequality. Economist Surjit S Bhalla is the first to differ from the international wisdom and establish that ‘if poor defined as fraction of population in 1980, then for each 10% rise in consumption by the non-poor, consumption by the poor rose by 18%.’ The Millennium Development Goals’ (headcount ratio) target of less than 15% poor by 2015 was reached quite ahead and only 10% of the developing world was poor. Such reduction, however, has no parity when it came to reduction of inequalities.
The World Development Report 2000/2001 mentioned: the average income in the richest 20 countries is 37 times the average in the poorest 20 – a gap that doubled in the previous 40 years.
Union and State governments have independently and together evolved schemes benefitting the poor and absolute poverty in India declined substantially. Poverty levels have gone down in India from 50% in 1993-94 to 23% in 2016-17 in rural areas and in urban areas correspondingly from 32% to 13%. The unrecognised fact is that even rural infrastructure in terms of roads constitutes 72% of the road length of the country. But, these developments must not make us complacent as there is a lot more ground to cover.
The Oxfam report highlights two aspects: the gap between the rich and the poor, and even among poor, gender inequality — 2,153 persons had more wealth than 4.6 billion people. The report on India fails to mention the political constituency that is full of billionaires. If the perverse subsidy regime has to be reversed, it should start from this constituency in favour of poor women of the country.
The wide divergence is attributed, however, to the underpaid and unpaid care work of women at home. The report patently ignored the intangible contribution of women in India – a culture of caring for home and bringing up the family to prosperity.
VV Giri, the 14th child of the family, became the President of India and he married an SC woman who was also a poet. While this is not to mention that there was virtue in big family, upbringing of the child to the expectation of the mother is still sacred in many an Indian home. Mother is the first teacher. Monetising her ‘care’ is the value she creates for the human resource.
During the last three decades, influenced by globalisation and imbibing western culture, the otherwise high-value and culture of Indian youth suffered such care. Indian women demonstrated in the past a unique balance between home and work, whether in rural or urban areas. This balancing act is at the core of the ‘care’. The feminist and human values argued by the Oxfam report needs a relook at least in India. It is not right to belittle the role of mother.
My mother, though formally educated till only class V, studied the Indian epics Mahabharata and Ramayana, Bhagavatham and Bhagavadgita apart from several books in Telugu literature and learnt English with her children. She always used to say with pride that her contribution to the GDP was substantial and lay in the NRI remittances of her two sons who went abroad and the grandchildren working in the information technology sector abroad. The progeny of my parents is 100 and half of them are working in different parts of the globe. She brought us up when my father started his income at Rs 23 per month in 1936 of British India to Rs 250 per month on the day of retirement in 1974!!
Measuring women’s contribution to India’s GDP, terming it as one of the lowest in the world at 17% needs correction as the GDP hides more than what is revealed. The issue, it rightly says, at one point, is not just limited to women’s participation in the workforce alone.
Violence against women is another aspect that has been widely reported both in the report and outside. There is also regional difference and across the castes in such reports. Dalit women were invariably the target, mostly in northern and western India compared with the rest of India.
Villagers invariably debate on the need for girls to get married at the age of 15-16 to provide security to them. It is not so much the unpaid care work of women that is the source of violence and to support such argument citing Krishnaraj report of 1990-91 EPW is perhaps a travesty of the current trend.
During the last three decades, the self-help group movement has substantially gained traction in empowering women economically. Economic empowerment for sure is the best way of providing sustainable intervention in women development.
Of course, what needs correction certainly is to make sure that ‘40%’ of 15-18 year-old-girls go to school. Empowering women will be empowering the nation. It is this context that calls for reservation to women in every field to move to one-third of the population irrespective of caste or creed in the place of all existing reservations. Once this happens, women in SCs, STs, backward castes, and OBCs will automatically fall in the reserved category and would rectify the societal imbalance. If this decade is dedicated to women, the 71st Republic Day, 2020, will write the future history differently.
(The author is an economist)