Inequality in India is rising so fast that the famous quote of France’s Marie Antoinette, “Let them eat cake!” is becoming highly pertinent.
On 17th January 2022, Oxfam released their “Inequality Kills” report which revealed that in the period of the pandemic close to 4.6 crore Indians moved into ‘extreme poverty” while the combined wealth of 142 billionaires was close to USD 720 billion!
Exactly 20 days later, the Prime Minister unveiled the “State of Equality” in Hyderabad, as a 216-foot-tall tribute to 11th-century social reformer Ramanujacharya. There is also a 120 kg gold statue of the saint in the inner sanctum of a project that cost Rs 1000 crores through donations from devotees!
Welcome to the dawn of the “Amrit Kaal” of a “New India”.
An India where diamonds will become cheaper but medicines will not.
An India where wealth tax will be abolished but GST on bicycles is not.
An India where corporate tax has been brought down from 30% to 22% whereas taxes on LPG and gasoline have gone up unabated over the last 36 months.
An India where there is too much cake but too little bread!
Reminds me of the response “Let them eat cake!” assigned to Marie Antoinette of France when told that the peasants do not have bread in Rousseau’s autobiography Les Confessions.
Frills and Fanfare
The 2022 Union Budget address, while sombre in overall tone, did have its moments of fluster and as Tharoor would exclaim, filibustering. The Finance Minister talked about the need to address and treat mental health. The National Tele Mental Health Programme was announced based on inputs from the National Mental Health Survey of…2015-16! Millions of lives have got devastated in 2020-21 and the programme is formulated based on data of 5 years ago. Bizarre!
There was media fanfare about the Capex on health and family welfare being doubled over 2021 to…Rs 5632 crores! Just 10 medium-capacity hospitals would take up that entire budget, leaving aside the cost of land.
The combined budgetary allocations on health and education have hovered around 5% of the annual budget for close to 20 years now. The Oxfam report says that allocation on health has increased by 0.09 % over the last 22 years while that on education by 0.07% over the last 18.
It has obviously been the nefarious motive of government after government to keep the general electorate illiterate and infirm as that allows for freebies and doles when elections are near. The present government is no better than the ones it lampoons every day and blames for all the ills of the nation.
This infographic below shows that health did not even feature in the top 10 allocations in the 2020 budget! This is when even advanced countries in the EU typically allocate a minimum of 5% of their annual budget to each subject every year in spite of the already high levels of health and educational support.
Another example of the usual apathy is the National Policy for Rare Diseases announced in 2020 which basically asks patients and their kin to resort to crowdfunding platforms like Ketto or go to NGOs for raising funds for treatment. If you belong to a minority or fringe in India, you basically fodder for the fluster!
Depressed and Desperate
Recently a bunch of aspirants of Railway jobs set a train on fire in Gaya. Close to 1.2 crore people had applied for a mere 35 thousand openings!
CMIE says that in December 2021 there were 53 million unemployed with 3.5 million searching for jobs. The workforce in manufacturing has drastically dropped from 51 million in 2016-17 to 27.3 million in 2020-21.
This is a snapshot of the state of unemployment in India on the CMIE website as on 15.02.2022.
The states that lead to unemployment are Haryana at 23.4%, Rajasthan at 18.9, Tripura at 17.1, J&K at 15, Delhi at 14.1, Himachal at 13.9 and Bihar at 13.3. Right now, there are 12 states and UTs above the national average of 7.6%. as we see from the chart, the situation is equally grim in the urban and rural workforce. Here, India and Bharat are on the same boat!
Economists say that India needs close to 190 million jobs to be firmly back on the track of sustainable growth. The 2022 budget has assured us 60 million over the next…5 years. Even conservative economist like Bibek Debroy admits that we need 8 million new jobs every year.
The Economic Survey points out that of the new jobs created in 2019-20, a whopping 71% were in agriculture, a sector plagued by low mechanisation and low productivity. This implies that the new jobs are not productive ones leading to the creation of a future dead-wood workforce. NCRB data shows an increase in suicides by people in agriculture going up by 18% in 2020 alone.
The protracted death of small and micro enterprises right from demonetisation through GST and the pandemic has dealt a crippling blow to the morale of the average employable Indian. Coupled with that, the one definitive source of employment of at least 100 days in a year has also been deliberately under-invested in by the present government. The budget for MNREGA in 2022 has gone down to Rs 73,000 crores from Rs 98,000 crores in 2021.
The most worrying factor is that a significant portion of the unemployed has stopped looking for jobs. In 2019, close to 9.5 million searched for jobs every month. It drastically dropped to 6.5 million in 2021. The pandemic has taken away the very energy and hope of the average wage-earner to look for a job and get one. Despondency is a mental state that can lead to desperate measures and outbursts that no state intelligence can anticipate and state machinery can quell!
The Prime Minister had promised in 2015 that farm income would double by 2022. This implies that from the 2015-16 level of Rs 8059, it would go up to Rs 21,146 budgeting for inflation. However, NSSO data shows that the pre-pandemic level in 2018-19 was a mere Rs 10,218. No wonder the farmers stuck it out for one full year to get the Farm Laws repealed, more as an emotional outburst to empty promises than a rational reaction.
Lumpen and Luddites
A despondent and desperate unemployed youth is the ideal target for a political party to create its cadre of lumpen. The “Bike Bahini” of the TMC in West Bengal, the “Salwa Judum” of the Congress in Chattisgarh and the “Bajrang Dal” of the BJP in UP are classic examples of outfits created out of disgruntled youth, arming them with a bike and a weapon and allowing them to give vent to their frustrations. The mushrooming of such outfits is a demonstration of the diabolical undercurrents of a rapidly wasting socio-economic framework. They do not stand for any pro-worker or pro-employment ideologies that movements like Naxalbari stood for, however misguided.
The other risk is a sudden social upheaval and reactionary movement reminiscent of the 19th century Luddite Movement in England where textile workers went about smashing newly introduced machinery that was rendering them jobless. They took inspiration from Ned Ludd, a textile worker in Leicester who in 1779 smashed two knitting frames in a fit of rage.
If India were to experience 100 farmer protests across the country at the same time, the entire governmental machinery would collapse. If the unemployed industrial workers join them, Charu Mazumdar would finally smile!
As for Marie Antoinette, she died by the guillotine in 1792, possibly still perplexed why the peasants could not eat cake.
Also Read: Fake news: It’s all about a twist of words
(Avik Chattopadhyay is co-creator of Expereal India. Also, he is the former head of marketing, product planning, and PR at Volkswagen India. He was associated with Maruti Suzuki, Apollo Tyres, and Groupe PSA as well.)
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