The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Setting impossible goals for the nation serves the politicians’ purposes

The author is chairman, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta

The government of Madhya Pradesh has put in an advertisement in Economic and Political Weekly (and presumably in other papers as well) declaring that it is “Beginning to End Inequality”. Its aim is not the modest one of eliminating poverty, malnutrition and illiteracy or even of merely reducing inequality. It is the more ambitious one of putting an end, hopefully once and for all, to inequality itself. Such an aim may be appropriate to a messianic religious cult, but it is difficult to see how the government of Madhya Pradesh, or any government, can bring inequality to an end. Messianic zeal in a secular government can lead to unforeseen, not to say unfortunate, consequences.

It is difficult to know what, apart from a diffuse feeling of benevolence, the authorities might have in their hearts and minds when they embark on a mission to end inequality. There are many different forms of inequality, and it would be unreasonable to expect all of them to be brought to an end immediately or simultaneously. Some forms of it, such as the practice of untouchability or bonded labour, are odious and reprehensible beyond any question. But these practices have already been abolished by law. If all that the government of Madhya Pradesh is saying is that it will strive more diligently to ensure that the laws are not violated with impunity, it is difficult to see why it should make such a dramatic declaration of intent.

Inequalities based on caste and gender are widespread in Indian society although more and more members of the educated middle class feel uneasy about them, whether or not they themselves are women or belong to castes hitherto regarded as inferior. In the past inequalities of caste and gender were taken for granted and even regarded as a part of the natural scheme of things. Today the law is against discrimination on grounds of caste and gender, and public opinion is also turning against it although such opinion may not have a very wide reach. To the extent that any government is attempting to rally public opinion against the forms of invidious discrimination inherited from the past, its efforts must be endorsed.

Before embarking on a mission to bring inequality to an end, it may be useful to take stock of the way in which our society works and has been working for the last 50 to 55 years. Its operation is not governed wholly or even mainly by legislative and executive enactments. The history of India since independence has shown that it is easy enough to replace bad laws by good ones, but extremely difficult to change immemorial customs. Before independence, we blamed the British for making bad laws or not making enough good ones. After independence we set about making good laws with a vengeance, but the social effects of those laws have been, at best, mixed. Our laws are now based on the premise of equality, but the bias of custom still remains largely in favour of hierarchy.

It is far from my intention to propose a fatalistic response to the obduracy of social custom; at the same time, we should not take recourse to utopian fantasies. Social customs relating to both caste and gender have in fact been changing, though very unevenly, in the last 50 years. The change is very marked in the metropolitan middle class, but almost imperceptible in remote rural communities. The loosening of customs has come about mainly through changes in education and employment. Populist politics has been more often a hindrance than a help in this process of change.

I am convinced that the long-term trend of change in Indian society is towards the weakening (though not the disappearance) of discrimination based on caste and gender. I believe further that the time is now ripe for organizing public opinion against such discrimination. But the weakening — or even the disappearance — of inequalities based on caste and gender will not bring all inequalities to an end. The very processes through which traditional forms of discrimination based on caste and gender are weakened create their own forms of inequality. What I have particularly in mind are the inequalities generated by a competitive educational and occupational system.

We cannot create a dynamic and competitive economy and at the same time bring all inequality to an end. Even if the competition is open and fair, there can at best be equality before the competition but not after it. The outcome of competition, whether in education or in employment, is not equality but inequality. That inequality is no doubt different from the one that is fixed at birth by race, caste or gender, but it is inequality all the same. It can no doubt be regulated by placing limits on the rewards of success and the penalties of failure. Such regulation has its limits and, when pushed beyond those limits, it brings development to a halt without leading to any significant reduction of inequality.

It is difficult to see how a modern university or hospital or bank can be run if all inequalities of income, esteem and authority among its members are levelled out.

A policy of levelling was tried out in the Soviet Union in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution. It was known as uravnilovka. Stalin realized that it would not work when he found that the engineers were dragging their feet because sufficient disparities were not being maintained between them and ordinary manual workers. Being a practical man and no mere ideological visionary, he soon denounced uravnilovka or levelling as a petty bourgeois fallacy. No one can accuse Stalin of being unaware of the dictum that all men are equal but some are more equal than others.

The problem with public institutions in India is not that there are ineluctable inequalities in them but that those inequalities take such crude and offensive forms. They offend not only our moral but also our aesthetic sensibilities. While some inequalities of income, esteem and authority are required for the operation of all modern institutions, they are, in India, elaborated far beyond those requirements, and what is elaborated acquires a life of its own. The apparatus of governance itself outdoes all institutions in the creation and elaboration of superfluous and wasteful hierarchical distinctions. Here I am talking not only of the costly and extravagant lifestyles of ministers but also of the proliferation of ranks and their corresponding perquisites that run through the entire governmental hierarchy. The long-suffering citizen will naturally wonder whether all or any of this will be touched by the fanfare attendant on the beginning to end inequality.

It is perhaps in the nature of things that politicians should set goals for the nation that they know will not be realized and that are perhaps unrealizable. The striking thing in India is that the extravagant statements made by politicians about the need to end inequality are so widely echoed by our public intellectuals who are nothing if they are not self-consciously virtuous. These extravagant statements divert attention away from more modest objectives such as controlling poverty, hunger, malnutrition, ill-health and illiteracy, and eliminating the more egregious forms of hierarchical distinction that pervade our public institutions. But that perhaps is what they are meant to do.

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