Understanding Our Social Transition

The Economic Times - November 26, 2007

 Over the past five years, ever since the India story started getting more credible, one has been asking annoyingly often by foreign business audiences about the caste system and whether rising inequality would cause severe social tension and breakdown of law and order and constitute a major country risk. One did not believe that this was the correct interpretation of events, and wrote earlier in this column that the anatomy of social tension in India was not street wars and bloody violence, but institutions at loggerheads with each other, through every institutional and constitutional means available.

But after reading about the growth of the Maoist belt, one thought that maybe there were things one wasn’t seeing, and started to examine this issue from the other side of the table – the poor people themselves (the politically correct term nowadays, is not poor or have-not, but people at the bottom of the pyramid, the BOP!). In the course of all the low-income consumer insight work that one does and sees, one hears the voices and views of people young and old, about their outlook to life, their goals and hopes, their optimism levels, what makes them angry and bitter, what they feel is unjust, their view of big businessmen, politics, people in the share bazaar and so on.

The prime minister says that “such vulgarity (displays of wealth) insults the poverty of the less privileged”. With apologies for the "choti mooh, badi baat " one would like to suggest that such a statement about the poor insults their poverty and their outlook on life, far more than rich boys flaunting expensive toys do. The poor do not have the mind space to be concerned with how much the ‘haves’ have, or how they spend it; they are totally occupied with whether their own quality of life and amenities are improving or not.

They know that there is a new world with a lot of new things happening, which they can see all around them and on television. They are not burning up energy feeling envious but they are struggling hard to make their children a part of the new deal, whether it means scrapping up money to send the boy to a private school or borrowing to get a surgery done to make a sick winner fit to work again or fighting to not get their land taken over against their wishes, because the government wants someone to do something else with it.

Urban poor (here one is describing the lowest social classes D and E) are far more exposed to “vulgar display” or new wealth than rural poor, but rural poor have always seen a huge amount in equality, as shown by the Hindi films of the 1950’s and 1960’s. However, in both places what makes them angry is not how much the rich guy has, but their lack of amenities and facilities. What makes them angry is why they have to wake up at three in the morning to fill water, or walk several miles to do so, or do not get reasonable medical treatment. They know what state-of-the-art medical facilities are because they are not backward or ill exposed. They live in an information-exploded age.

"Hamare bache bhi padh kar kuch baney ", is the most often repeated statement. They are smart enough to evaluate the difference in education between private schools and government schools, and are opting to spend more and send them to private schools because they say that there is no hope of a decent education in the government system. They also rage at the injustice of a rich kid in a fast car killing innocent pedestrians - but they are not talking about whether or not the rich have cars. They are talking about how the police will let him go scot-free because his father has connections, and they have no redress. It is a different kind or social injustice.

Javed Akthar, poet and writer, once recounted the change in Indian society as seen from the progression of villains in Hindi movies. In olden times it was the sahukar of the landowner who snatched land from the poor and made them homeless and helpless. Then it was the businessman who was a slave driver and tried to break the back of trade unions. Then it was the politicians. Movies today, he said, don’t seem to have villains. But yes, the recent hit with young people Rang De Basanti did have a villain and it was the politician and his system. And that charming phrase that the man on the street will spit out "sab chor hain", usually does not refer to the head honcho of a company with many zeros in his salary. It refers to the person who came to ask for the vote and then betrayed them.

And the Maoist belt is about poor governance and unemployed youth. Having rich people live more simply may be good for the rich people, but it will not stop the Maoists from taking over the distinct administration and terrorising the neighbourhood. Better education leading to better opportunities to earn, will. This is the "kaun banega karodpati" generation. More than demanding social justice, they are seeking economic opportunity. And to say to them that we will not give it to you but we will remove temptation from your way so you don’t know what is possible is insulting.

Maybe India Inc should negotiate for taking over the management of the education sector with the government infrastructure and money, and it should be the only narrow focused, high impact CSR that it will do. The prime minister in turn should focus on governance and stopping the leakage of funds on programmes earmarked for the poor.