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India’s tryst? Top 1% income share up 7% to 22%, bottom 50% down 23% to 15%

By Moin Qazi*
15th August is the most cherished date in the Indian calendar .it was on this momentous day, more than seven decades back, that we were born an independent and free country. Mahatma Gandhi’s luminous leadership finally made the British Quit India in 1947. It is certainly an occasion for celebration. More than that, it is a point in a nation’s journey when we need to introspect and evaluate whether we have been able to realize the dream of our Father of the Nation who guided the nation’s journey of liberation from colonialism .We must remember that Gandhiji had proclaimed that true freedom will be one where every Indian is able to live a life free of hunger and destitution. As the great philosopher Voltaire said, “The poor man is never free; he serves in every country.” Gandhiji himself emphasised several times that his mission in life was to wipe every tear from every eye.
In his famous ’Tryst with Destiny‘ speech, broadcast on the radio at the midnight hour of India’s birth as an independent nation on August 15, 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first Prime Minister, articulated the new nation’s promise to its people in words whose soul-stirring resonance still echoes today:
“The future beckons to us. Whither do we go and what shall be our endeavour? To bring freedom and opportunity to the common man, to the peasants and workers of India; to fight and end poverty and ignorance and disease; to build up a prosperous, democratic, and progressive nation; and to create social, economic and political institutions which will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman.”
My grandfather remembers how fired he and his friends were by Nehru’s sincerity and determination; indeed, how some of the venerable elderly elite who listened to that historical speech commented that they felt like the old and decrepit war horses who spring back into action propelled by the bugle call. They felt like they were hearing the Delphic oracle.
Nehru’s vision remains as inspiring today as when he first spoke the words but the goals remain equally elusive. India’s poor still wait for opportunity and justice; too many of their lives are still fraught with poverty, ignorance, and disease. No doubt, some of the worst exploitation of human beings occurs in India.
The great poet Faiz Ahmed‘s Faiz lament is laden with stark truth:
“…This is not the morning we’d fought for,
In whose eager quest, all comrades
Had set out, hoping that somewhere
In the wilderness of the sky
Would emerge the ultimate destination of stars…”
Indeed as Mahatma Gandhi had envisioned, the struggle for the larger freedom was the journey towards the second independence, the true but elusive freedom, the freedom from poverty.
Nehru reiterated Gandhi’s vision of independence:
“Mahatma Gandhi taught us to view our national struggle always in terms of the under-privileged and those to whom opportunity had been denied… We realised that there was no real freedom for those who suffered continually from want, and because there were millions who lacked the barest necessities of existence in India, we thought of freedom in terms of raising and bettering the lot of these people”.
On this day, as we all remind ourselves of the noble and grand vision of our father of the nation, you will be amazed to know that inequality gap between the rich and poor has widened to unbelievable proportions. According to 2018 World Inequality Report, which compiled data from the 1950s to 2014, India’s top 1% earners’ share of the country’s income rose from roughly 7% early 1980s to 22%in 2014. Meanwhile, the income share of the bottom 50% earners declined from roughly 23% to 15% in the same period.
This concentration of wealth and power in very circumscribed elite brings to fore many important issues .This culture strains the values which define democracy. A critical strength of a democratic culture is that it allows everyone to pursue their interests relatively freely. But, as Alexis de Tocqueville reckoned, the democratic individual can easily be trapped by the delusion that they are rich enough and educated enough to supply their own needs. “Such folk owe no man anything and hardly expect anything from anyone .They form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands.”
This is a very old problem. Pericles, the great champion of democracy in ancient Athens, praised individual initiative, but also cautined against citizens who live only for themselves He believed that such individuals have no right to be part of the city-state to which they owe their prosperity. He had a noun for such folks too, idiotes – from which we get the well-known English word.
India has certainly made great economic progress and is a global powerhouse, but its villagers continue to live in extreme financial stress. When India gained Independence in 1947 its population numbered about 340 million. The literacy level then was 12% or about 41 million people. In 2017, India’s population scaled 1.34 billion and literacy level reached 74% or about one billion. a life expectancy of 27, average life expectancy is nearing 70 years of age.
At the time of Independence India  accounted for only 3% of the world’s GDP or about Rs 2.7 lakh-crore. In 2017, India accounts for 8.5% of WGDP (source IMF) or about Rs 135 lakh-crore. The savings rate has risen from 8% of GDP to 31% now, and continues to be on an upward trend despite recent setbacks. While all of Britain, along with the rest of Europe and America, was electrified, the Raj connected merely 1,500 of India’s 640,000 villages to the electrical grid.
India produced about 50 million tonnes of food grains in 1947 and produces five times that. At the time of Independence the incidence of poverty in India was about 80% or about 250 million. When poverty numbers began to be counted seriously in 1956 BS Minhas of the Planning Commission estimated that 65% or 215 million Indians were poor (with annual income of Rs 220 ). In 2017, the number of people below that same poverty line of 2,200 calories a day is about 269 million, though the incidence has fallen to about 21.92%.
In 1947, agriculture accounted for 54% of India’s GDP. In 2017, it is at about 13%. But at the time of Independence 60% of India depended on agriculture for a living. In 2017, it is about 52% or 650 million people as opposed to about 200 million in 1950. Therein lies the tale of India’s colossal failure to make its tryst with destiny.
According to the Global Poverty Project 2014, women make up half the world’s population and yet represent a staggering 70 percent of the world’s poor. They earn only 10% of the world’s income and half of what men earn. As the report notes:
“We live in a world in which women living in poverty face gross inequalities and injustice from birth to death. From poor education to poor nutrition to vulnerable and low pay employment, the sequence of discrimination that a woman may suffer during her entire life is unacceptable but all too common.”
We have the best education facilities in cities but children in village go to schools where there is little learning. The fragile foundation of basic education augurs a dim horizon for India’s future human capital. The students are not able to learn the basics of reading, writing, and do not meet even elementary mathematics standards.
The Annual Status of Education Report 2017 covering 14-18 age group has revealed that over one in two students could not do a simple division, 24 per cent could not count currency correctly, 44 per cent could not add weights correctly in kilograms, 14 per cent could not recognize an Indian map and some 36 per cent couldn’t name the capital of India. While 79 per cent could name their native state, 58 per cent could not spot it on a map and 46 per cent didn’t know the capital. More than 40 per cent couldn’t tell hours and minutes from a clock, nearly 47 per cent 14-year olds could not read a simple sentence of English. It is not just English; 25 per cent could not read basic text fluently even when it was in their own languages.
Capacities for specialized problem solving and mass communication, until recently controlled by a few elites, are now accessible to anyone with a smartphone. There is the democratization of leadership, where everyone can potentially make and lead change. Yet our education system and other institutions remain geared towards the old, siloed, hierarchized, repetitive system leaving young people ill prepared for the cascading changes coming. Young people need to look outward, get out of their zip codes, and experience situations different from the ones they are conditioned to expect.
India is striving to build hundreds of smart cities, towns and villages. We must ensure that they are humane, hi-tech and happy places leading to the creation of a technology-driven but compassionate society. In this age of technological advance, machines are being pitted against men. The only way to survive this is to acquire knowledge and skills, and learn to innovate. Inclusive innovations linked to the aspirations of our people can benefit a wide spectrum of society as well as preserve our diversity.
It is time we understand that India will grow only when all of India grows. The excluded ones have to be included in the development journey. The hurt and the alienated have to be brought back into the mainstream. In these challenging times, Nehru’s ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech has great resonance:
“The future is not one of ease or resting but of incessant striving so that we may fulfill the pledges we have so often taken and the one we shall take today. The service of India means, the service of the millions who suffer. It means the ending of poverty and ignorance and poverty and disease and inequality of opportunity. The ambition of the greatest man of our generation (Gandhiji) has been to wipe every tear from every eye. That may be beyond us, but as long as there are tears and suffering, so long our work will not be over.”
One unique feature that has held India together is our respect for each other’s cultures, values and beliefs. It is our unique strength and we should safeguard it .The very essence of plurality lies in cherishing our heterogeneity and valuing our diversity. In the networked environment of today, a caring society can only be developed by harmonizing religion with modern science. Swami Vivekananda once observed:
“What is needed is a fellow-feeling between the different types of religion, seeing that they all stand or fall together, a fellow-feeling which springs from mutual respect, and not the condescending, patronizing, niggardly expression of goodwill.”
*Development expert

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