Friday, December 20, 2013

inequality indian style - there is no such thing as society


NYTimes | Nowhere is inequality — what President Obama this month called “the defining challenge of our time” — more in your face than in India. Brand-filled shopping malls spread. So do shanties. A rich man builds a 27-story house for his family in a nation of 1.2 billion people where more than a quarter of them — or roughly the U.S. population — lives on less than two bucks a day. Outdoor defecation is still widespread. Yet when Gulati, a social activist engaged in teaching poor Delhi kids through a nongovernmental organization called Manzil, tries to interest his peers in the subject of inequality, he tends to find the conversation goes nowhere, drowned by talk of some juicy real-estate deal for farmland south of Delhi, the latest Bollywood hot item numbers, or the Silicon-Valley success story of yet another Indian immigrant. 

“We are giving aid to America. It’s crazy!” Gulati tells me. “We are sending our finest minds all over the world to help enrich the countries they adopt, but not India, which desperately needs them.” He points to a shanty where “children lie in the mud while their parents look for work.” 

He gets exercised over the impunity of politicians cutting sweet deals for themselves and walking off with suitcases of cash, the greed-is-good top 1 percent, the lousy infrastructure and inadequate schools, the first-world privatized services for the rich and substandard public service for the rest, the blindness of privilege — and it strikes me that globalization has thrown up the same issues of inequality everywhere as mobile capital outsmarts immobile workers, and mass culture enshrines money as the supreme value, and well-paid lobbyists burrow away in the interests of the cosseted few against any social compact. 

The debate around these themes in India follows lines you hear around the world, with a rising nationalist right insisting the poor must work harder, that they receive too many entitlements as it is, that deregulation and the animal instincts of the self-made man are the answer, that the left with its handouts (and in India’s case the heavy post-war state planning of Nehru) has failed. While, from the other side, voices like Gulati’s rise protesting a me-me-me world gone mad; insisting that society does exist; that the social compact is essential and hinges on acknowledgment of the commonweal; that a livable minimum wage is important; that solidarity alone can provide shelter, education, equal opportunity and social protection to the neediest, as well as hope for a future in which income distribution stops heading in a U.S. direction where, as Obama pointed out this month, the average C.E.O. now makes 273 times the average worker compared to 20 to 30 times in the past.