On the 26th of January, 2023, India reminded herself, yet again, that she is a Republic. As the winter sun rose in the east and gently waded across the smoggy skies of the National Capital Region, yet again, we witnessed shows of patriotism and love that we shower on ourselves in the form of tableaus and speeches. What remained understated, however, as usual, are the tenets that form the pillars of our Constitution in whose memory we celebrated this day. The Constitution describes us as a Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic Republic which assures all its citizens justice, liberty and equality. The sun that reflected off the bullet proof glass behind which the speeches are delivered and shone the glitter on the costumes of the dancers and performers also lighted up the the hinterlands of this country during the same hours; a country that is so vast from the North to South and East to West that we sometimes conveniently ignore that the aforementioned equality is supposed to have been enjoyed by us all.
Ten days before this event, on the 16th of January, 2023, Oxfam released its India Supplement of the Annual Inequality Report at the World Economic Forum in Davos. The report does not reveal anything unexpected or even radically differ from the previous versions of the same report; for that matter, it does not reveal anything different from other reports on the same matter by other agencies, official or otherwise. The report also does not contradict anything with regards to the outcome that was to be expected since we long ago chalked out pathways and trajectories for ourselves that could get us nowhere better. From our geopolitics to our economic systems, all of which have not been in our control, circumstances have ensured that this is exactly where we would be. And for the record, this is not even the outcome, the finality; the worst is perhaps yet to come. But the said report will get its due; it will get all our attention for a grand total of twenty-four hours and then it will be forgotten on the wayside along with what are now trampled remains of justice, liberty, democracy and the whole lot as we march along proudly.
The Oxfam Report uses numbers very well. Numbers do a good job of showing what needs to be shown but also not-showing what needs to be shown. It uses the now-often used device of percentages of people against the percentages of wealth. In other words, it is focused on economic inequality and to be specific, focuses on the inequality around wealth distribution. The report states that 1% of the richest Indians have 40% of India’s wealth. Then as is mandated by contemporary sensibilities it juxtaposes this information with another contrasting ratio, perhaps to pique our interest further. It states that 50% of the people at the bottom have only 3% of India’s wealth. The shock treatment achieves the desired result. People can be put in camps immediately. There is an urge in all of us to find out if we are in that 1% or that 50%. Where are we, we ask ourselves. It is also a good conversation starter. Food for thought. And thoughts over food, for some of us at the least.
This thought, that there are two extremes, the 1% and the 50%, sets up a misguided narrative though. That the rich and poor are divided by some unmentionable demarcation line. A line so thick that it takes 49% of us to etch it across this landscape. In fact the narrative is so long and old that it has enabled the growth of a very safe class that exists amidst this polar opposition. The middle-class; the class to which most of us belong. 49% is a whole lot of people, and when we are not indulging ourselves with percentages, it is about 68 crores of us; half the population. This is why the summary of the report needs to be re-written so as to do justice to the numbers. What the report is saying is that, there are 1.4 crore among us who own 40% of the country’s wealth while there are 70 crore of us who have access to 3% of the same and there are 68 crore of us who have access to the rest 57% of the country’s wealth. The last part is where it gets interesting and stable. Half of the country does have ownership over more than half of its wealth. There is no juxtaposition or shock value in that but there is a whole lot of truth and tragedy.
However, it is easy to get carried away by this. Hence we shouldn’t. To stay grounded, we need to understand that the number games are always rigged in favour of what is presentable or presented. The lines that demarcate the rich from the middle-class or the middle-class from that bottom-half (as the report calls it) are not so black and white. We should wonder about the second 1% of people in India’s top 2% of the richest and think about how much they own, then about the 3rd 1%, and then about the 4th and the 5th. We’d soon find out that there are about 10 crore among us whom we would like to see as owning more than half the country’s wealth. The case remains the same, in the inverse at the bottom. Is there a bottom half or a little more than the half? A few percentages perhaps can be added. Is it 1, 2 or a generous 3? What emerges from this is the fluidity and malleability of what is the middle-class. A story that is exploitative, exploited and at the same time shrewd and cunning; the class that contains anything between 50 to 70 Crore people who not only dictate the economy of the place but also the politics of it. A class that dictated the trajectory of the country for the most period of time and has successfully steered the country into religious fundamentalism today.
It can be alarming what one finds when one considers how the middle-class thinks of itself; mostly pious and harmless; mostly victims of a system; causing a stampede trying to trip over each other when the need arrives to huddle along with the bottom-half and then intellectually and physically separating itself when the time comes to facilitate and enable their masters. And because the master’s wealth is spoken of in large numbers, wealth owned by seemingly few, the middle class slips from feeling comparatively poor to actually feeling poor. So the middle-class convinces itself that it is as miserable as the bottom-half because it has ownership and privilege that “only” runs into thousands and lakhs and not crores. Another factor that compounds this psychosis is the 1%. People tend to think of this as 1 or 2 people, from the telecom and oil billionaires of today to the industry emperors of the past and if one is in the South then the IT maharajahs of the present. All very rich people, of course. No one cares to notice that 1% is a crore and a half people out there, many of them unnamed and unnoticed who live among us in the best areas of the best cities, exploiting us all and using up resources and energy that in fact should have benefited a lot. All of which eventually translates to the abstraction called money or wealth.
What people fail to see is that these corporate emperors cannot build their empires on their own. In fact they would be on the streets if the middle-class did not exist. What people fail to see is that it is impossible and comical for these masters – all 1.4 crore of them – to walk out in the morning and bark instructions to the working-class and then slyly underpay them in the evening. That is not how it works. The thick demarcation line that separates the master from the bottom-half is thick due to the simple nature of self-preservation. The 1.4 Crore of us who get to keep the 40% of India’s wealth get away with it because there are 68 Crore of us who can only be called “enablers” of this process. This includes the the salaried class, the manager class, people with savings, fixed deposits, mutual funds, stocks and shares, people with inherited land, purchased land, people with cash crops in their land, people with rental income, gold on their fingers, gold in their lockers, people with quasi-investments called children who they will squeeze until death for resources. Basically anyone who’s only reliable source of living is not just their own labour. Not all have the means to production but all of this middle-class have a clear influence and delegated control over the means to production either directly because they are appointed so or due to real-estate or capital and savings. There are a whole lot of us who ensure that we neither have to actually work hard in a day and break a sweat nor will be so rich that we will fall under this “evil 1%” and feel ashamed to look at ourselves. We have generationally survived and will happily die in our armchairs without having the risks of either the bottom-half or the top few percent. What surmises is that when the reality of our world is presented as”1% that owns 40%” vs “50% that owns 3%”, we are severely under-describing the scenario.
Without any damage to the integrity of the report, what needs to be read is the following. 50% of our people have 3% of India’s wealth. The rest of the 50% of our people own 97% of India’s wealth. Yes. 97% of India’s wealth is owned by half of us. To put that in crores, 70 crore among us live off the labour from the other 70 crore. There is no need to further divide richness or wealth. This is because the variation in richness between the first 1% on the top and the 50th percent on the top is mild and fluid. It is a drastic drop as one goes into the realm of having no means to production. No capital to invest. No children who are future banks. No children who will climb the ladder or go elsewhere and bring in the capital. No scope to get loans with middle-class privilege and repay them with upper-class privilege. Instead, the bottom half has everything to lose including their lives. Also, the middle-class is in the churn, climbing up and down the ladder but at least with the possibility of doing so. Not everyone gets close to their masters. Some do; some fantasize. The rags to riches stories from middle-class to rich are in fact more real than the rag to riches stories from the streets to wall-street. The latter is material for movies. This perspective does not change the shock-value and if anything enhances it. But it also enables a pathway to introspection. Many among us do not have a way now to escape into fantasy-land by declaring ourselves out of the equation. Now, if we were to ask the question again, (Where am I in this 50-50?), we would certainly get honest answers.
What this new perspective should do is to enlighten us about our complicity in the problem. It should hopefully drag us away from the lethargy and convenience of having to do nothing, having to set-right nothing. Too many of us spend our time concluding that we are victims. Victims we are, there is no doubt about that but half of this country are not victims alone. Even if we were to keep aside the thousands of ways in which we play the role of enablers and facilitators, there is one that stands out. Consumerism. How much can the 68 crore, i.e the middle-class as per the Oxfam report, consume? Well, apparently, enough to make the aforementioned 1% very rich. From mobile phones to clothing, from services to luxury, the said population consumes a lot of products that are coming our way while the stolen labour to manufacture or produce those products bypasses us in the other direction.
Now imagine a radical change. What if the 68 crore did not consume mass produced products and services sold by the 1.4 crore of the super-rich or the 10 crore of the rich or their subsidiaries and instead consumed small scale and preferably handmade products that were made by the bottom 70 crore, enabling them fairer wages and dignity of labour? More often than not, any suggested change in consumption pattern is taken to be a call to change what or how much is consumed. Instead, this is about the where. Where is the product or service coming from and in turn where is the wealth flowing? What defeats any radicalism in consumption patterns is that the middle-class usually gets carried away from one evil to another. The change in what and how only leads to discussions on alternatives, and we need to be vary that these alternatives are not what we think they are. They are alternative modes of mass production where the old wine is supplied in new bottles with the exploitation and direction of flow of wealth remaining intact. To fix this, consumption would have to be seen as inseparable from production. The middle-class would have to become enablers and facilitators for their countrymen, the other half of this nation.The middle-class would need to use their investments, innovation, skill time and labour in solidarity with the class that has suffered the most. Only then would the dynamics shift completely.
A radical change like that would ensure that a good chunk of that 97% of wealth to be immediately re-distributed among what is called the bottom-half. And let us not assume that the 40% of wealth that the super-rich claims to have is not malleable. In fact if such a radical shift is possible with initiation from the middle-classes the richest would lose the enabler role that makes such wealth accumulation possible. All that the privileged among us have to do is consider investing in local initiatives, in small-scale industries, in risky ventures whose tangible risk is as bad as life and limb for the working class but only a few thousand rupees for the privileged ones. It is to be noted here that even such changes can be codified and commodified under “Startup ventures”, “Made in India” and such. This isn’t about that process. Instead, it is about truly localizing the solutions. It is about looking for local economies to support well within our physical reach. It is about looking for farmers, artisans, weavers, cobblers, potters and fishermen to support with capital and help build circles of economy that are easier to manage and provide maximum value and dignity to labour.
We know where 3% of the nation’s wealth is. If it is so thinly spread across that 70 crore among us have to share it, it must be in the form of the bare minimum. Basic food, clothing and shelter; basic education and health. We also know that the ultra-rich, that same top percentage flaunt their wealth and that combined with some of their public lives, there is nothing left to imagination. What about the rest of it? What we need to understand is that a whole lot of it is either lying idle in speculation or saving or is usually spent on luxurious activities that half of the nation cannot afford. From grand weddings to parties, from multiple apartments to cars, from weekend getaways to entertainment. The middle-class spends a whole lot of it on such pursuits. All it takes is to turn that wealth into means of production. For the farmers, that would be a small patch of land and seeds. For the artisans it would be safe storage and shelters. For the weavers it would be access to small looms and yarn. For the small entrepreneur, it would be a piece of appropriate technology. All that the middle class has to do is change from being the guardians of the master’s means of production to providers of means of production to the working class in an equitable fashion. Note that the call here is not to own the means of production, that is exactly what is wrong with the middle-class today when they turn entrepreneurs. That is exactly the wrong kind of change desired in society.
The report explicitly calls for taxation of the rich. But why should we stop there? Even the so-called middle-classes should be taxed much more than they currently are. But taxation is only the legal way forward; a matter of policies and politics. The moral, practical and ethical way is to recognize that half of this country is very lucky to have sustained an unfair system and find itself at the better side of the resulting chasm. Some of us will take no time at all before we fall into the depths. Some of us will survive longer because of our indifference to these facts, even when presented in numbers that we can understand and get shocked by. But if we are to avoid a situation of total conflict, we have to recognize that the only way forward is with personal sacrifice. Apart from playing a better role, that of a producer-consumer in society instead of being caretakers and enablers of the rich man’s Capital there is another requirement here and this one is a higher calling. Many of us have to voluntarily give up privileges. We have to give up high-paying jobs that send the money upwards and instead make ourselves vulnerable. We will need to put in a certain amount of personal human-labour on a daily basis. Also, we will need to completely give up on buying things if they cannot be made with dignity for human-labour and without conflict with nature. But most importantly we need to participate in some real nation building, not the kind that happens today over the internet or political rhetoric but the real kind where we invest in our compatriots and in their sweat and blood and share the joy of gains and the sorrow of losses equally. Then, and only then can we claim to be truly equal.
Ratheesh Pisharody, Writer, Bangalore