Democracy does not automatically guarantee equal opportunities for people. In several east European and Latin American countries, inequalities have in fact sharpened after they became democracies. There is enough evidence to prove that poverty and income inequalities in most democratic countries are increasing. Today, the richest 20 per cent earns 78 times more than the poorest 20 per cent. In 1960, the disparity was only 30 times.
A report by the Commonwealth human rights initiative, an independent non-governmental organization, reveals that of the 2,000 million people in the commonwealth, around 700 million people in countries like Ghana, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Zambia, Uganda, Gambia and Sierra Leone live on less than a dollar a day. Even the relative prosperity of developed democracies has failed to eradicate poverty or erase inequalities. In the United Kingdom and Australia, more than 13 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line. In Canada the figure is 17.6 per cent.
The Economic Survey of India talks about declining poverty levels in India every year. The figure for 1999-2000 is a record low of 26 per cent — a decline from 55 per cent in 1973-74. But how far this decline is the result of changes in the estimation method is arguable. Moreover, the sample surveys do not take into account the poverty ratios of small states and Union territories, that of neighbouring big states are superimposed on them.
Democracies are better at avoiding catastrophes and at managing mass starvation. In India, famines were common under colonial rule. Around 2-3 million people died in the 1943 famine. But India’s performance in famine prevention since independence has been quite successful.
In contrast, in non-democratic countries as well as those somewhere between democracy and authoritarianism, there is no such guarantee of timely governmental action. During 1958-61, famines in China killed nearly 30 million people. The absence of democracy is believed to be the central cause of this. And one of the worst famines in history continues in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, having already killed almost one in 10 citizens.
True, a stable democratic system is the best guarantor against famines because these are conspicuous miseries which easily attract attentions of free press, parties in opposition, and active parliamentarians. But public criticism seems to be less effective when deprivations are less extreme and more complex to analyse, such as non-extreme-poverty, hunger and undernourishment.
On the middle path
Why are democracies so tolerant of poverty' Mainly because democracy favours direct rather than indirect attacks on poverty. Direct attacks include subsidies, job reservation, transfer of assets and other poverty alleviation programmes, most of which end up as mere doles. Subsidies and other entitlements are cornered by the non-poor and middlemen; job reservations benefit mainly the creamy layer among the beneficiaries. Doles neither assuage the psychological frustrations of poverty-stricken people nor are they economically sustainable. Still they are preferred because they are far more visible to voters.
Democracies today are majoritiarians rather than egalitarians. The middle classes, caught between the high-income group (around 15 per cent of population) and the working class (around 30 per cent of population), have more votes. It makes sense for politicians to encourage entitlements for the benefit of the majority instead of the poorest 30 per cent. Poverty alleviation programmes are paraded in the name of the poor but benefits are reaped by the middle class.
As the former Indian prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi said, only 15 per cent of loan subsidy went to the poor farmers. The rest of the money was appropriated by various elected and non-elected officials and middlemen. Suffering of the poor continues in democracies all over the world.