Sunday, January 24, 2010

Lingering Inequalities

Lingering inequalities

The Hindu, 24 January 2010

Our weaker sections are weak in more ways than one and that is a powerful indictment of our democracy…

The innocent phrase we use in India to describe the poor and the marginalised — the ‘weaker sections' — hides a literal, anthropometric truth about our Republic that our leaders are too guilty to speak about. The weakness that unifies dalits, adivasis, women, urban and landless workers and small landholders is not just social. For, these groups are also physically weaker than those more privileged, as reflected in their stunted growth, aging faces, and shorter lives, lived at the edge of destitution.

There is, of course, nothing uniquely Indian about these disparities. In his book, Durable Inequalities, the sociologist Charles Tilly describes how attributes we take as natural markers of difference like height, for example, are deeply imbued with inequality. At the start of the 19th century in London, poor teenaged boys were a good foot shorter than aristocrats and gentry of the same age. In India, at the start of the 21st century, this difference is visible around us, most clearly in the rural poor in the resource rich regions of India, but also in the populations that throng the bus-stands, the urban slums, and all the spaces that the indigent inhabit. A country of short people, some might say. A country of the chronically undernourished would be more accurate.

According to health experts, one third of all Indians have a body mass index less than 18.5 which puts them at starvation levels. The figures are even worse for SCs and STs, where over 50 per cent of the populations can be said to be in a state of ‘ permanent famine'. The Tendulkar Committee's recent estimate put the national poverty ratio at 41.8 per cent in rural areas and 25.7 per cent in urban areas, but when one thinks of the very small sum of money — Rs. 19 per day in urban areas — that puts one above the poverty line, such statistics merely underline the tragedy of our low expectations. This inequality in food consumption and the startling decline in food absorption is, like height, not something that is ‘natural'. Rather, as Utsa Patnaik has shown, it is clearly related to the deflationary and trade policies the country has followed since liberalisation.

The ‘Minnesota starvation experiment' conducted on healthy volunteers in 1944-45 showed that prolonged deprivation of food led to depression, feelings of social isolation and a lack of will to resist. What should surprise us is how, in India, so many people with so little to sustain them, still retain the capacity to resist the injustice they face, through a variety of social movements, some violent but mostly not. Or perhaps, this explains why more people are not fighting.

Blame game

When the government and media express concern, they look for easy palliatives. A recent story on starvation deaths in Rajasthan had as its focus the fact that the family in question was unaware of their rights under NREGA. The issue for the media was not the fact of landlessness, nor the fact of the husband's illness, which studies have shown tip a family from poverty into destitution, nor the chronic hunger which such families face. Like height, ‘lack of awareness' or ‘ignorance' is something that is seen as an inherent problem of the ‘weaker sections'. As the Class IX Social Studies Textbook in Gujarat tells us under the heading “Problems of the Country and their solutions”: “There is very poor socio economic development among the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes in India…They have not been suitably placed in our social order, therefore, even after independence they are still backward and poor. Of course, their ignorance, illiteracy and blind faith are to be blamed for lack of progress because they still fail to realise importance of education in life.” No one is asking what they could do even if they were more aware, in the face of coercion and corruption by those in power.

When adivasis have realised their poverty is not inevitable, and that it will only worsen if their lands are acquired, what good has this knowledge done them? When people protested peacefully with the Narmada Bachao Andolan to get cheques they had been awarded they were beaten and jailed. When trying to reclaim land that was illegally alienated from them, as in Narayanpatna, Orissa, through mass non-violent struggles, their leaders were shot.

It took 26 years for a charge sheet to be filed against a senior politician for his complicity in one of the worst massacres the country has seen (Delhi 1984), 19 years for one family to get justice for a daughter driven to suicide (Ruchika), and 17 years for an official report to be tabled on an issue of critical national importance (Babri Masjid). By this yardstick, the victims of Gujarat 2002 and Salwa Judum (2005- ongoing) have a long time to wait their turn. In none of these cases has the problem been lack of awareness — indeed, the whole country and all those in power were fully aware of what the denial of justice meant.

Weak citizens and weak institutions do not make for a strong State, leave alone a democratic republic. If we really want to ‘stand tall' amongst the community of nations, the first thing we should be attending to is our weaker sections.

The author is Professor of Sociology with the Delhi School of Economics.

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