The recent pandemic has magnified the indifference of a certain section of population in India towards the plight of its vulnerable masses. Their insensitivity is not a sentiment exclusive to the pandemic. It is but a byproduct of the attempt at a systematic creation of such a class of people. Capitalism, in its then latest avatar, took centrestage with gradual implementation of neo-liberal policies in the Indian economy post 1980.
They ushered in a wave of changes on the lines of liberalisation, privatization and globalization. Consequently, a new societal class was created, which is often referred to as the new urban middle class. This class of people comprises the English-speaking, conventionally skilled, upper caste section of the population.
Such qualities made them employable at a cheaper rate in the booming service sector at that time, which was egged on by the global expansion of foreign capital. They spun themselves into a cocoon of formal employment, steady income and benefits, and their associated privileges. With the advent of increasing number of service sector firms since 1991, this class of people seized the opportunity to increase their disposable income and accumulate sufficient savings.
This gained them significant upward mobility on the social and economic ladder. Such achievements were attributed to their skills accumulated by dint of what was dubbed as ‘merit.’ Desperate to hold on to their accumulated social, cultural and economic capital, prime importance was accorded to a distorted version of merit and its associated individual successes. As a result, their subsequent generations inculcated this prioritization of self-mobility.
Thus, though individualism was not in itself a new phenomenon, it had a renewed and stronger influence among the newly created urban middle class. The nature of capitalism is such that it produces a variety of ostentatious goods. With marketing strategies, these in turn evolve to signify social stature and standing.
The newly created urban middle class served as an ideal consumer base for such goods, thereby furthering the narrow interests of capitalism. Concurrently, the country has seen a rise in its inequality figures since the 1990s. However, the individualistically driven minds of the urban middle class were shrouded by consumeristic desires and their apparent strive to achieve selfmobility.
Such tendencies translated into an apathy towards the ever-widening chasm of inequality that continues to ravage the country. Caught up in their self-set targets, they consciously turned a blind eye to any kind of social crisis as long as it did not affect them directly. Hence, their political passiveness ensured the maintenance of the societal gap. A case in point is the current scenario of the lockdown due to the Covid- 19 pandemic.
The mainstream media is flooded with grotesque pictures depicting deplorable and helpless conditions of people belonging to the lowest strata of society. There is a sharp contrast in the manner in which the lockdown affected the two classes of the same society. The aforementioned apathy of the urban middle class is glaring like never before.
People of the lowest strata, many of who are stranded away from homes without work, are at the mercy of NGOs even for one meal a day. In the meanwhile, apart from stocking up on what they consider as essentials, the elites are busy honing their culinary skills and seeking appreciation on social media. Besides, social media platforms are being availed for underlining, consciously or unconsciously, class privileges by sharing classist memes.
The lockdown has failed to arouse any kind of political opinion among these people. It turns out that even when their own lives are affected to some degree, they still refrain from connecting to the larger social issues at hand, since the status quo is still in their favour. Also, in sync with their consumeristic tendencies, they find it ‘difficult’ to stay away from the alluring grandeur of shopping malls, restaurants and multiplexes.
The big capitalists have stepped in as saviors to placate the collective pining of this class of people. One such instance is the conveyance of essentials along with few popular brands of fast food being served by food-delivery platforms to their doorstep. This setup seems to work well for both the elite consumers who are served in the comfort of their homes, and the big capitalists who are making the most out of this crucial situation to serve their own interests.
There are no qualms about endangering the lives of the delivery person who probably has neither adequate safety measures, nor sufficient compensation. Ignoring the larger social context, the elites are content with pompous display of solidarity by banging utensils and lighting lamps. Such incidences reveal the structurally created and nurtured indifference of this class. While ignoring class differences, the elite section desperately safeguards its caste and religious privileges as evidenced from the incidences of racism which have come to the fore.
Hatred towards certain minority communities has resurfaced. A New Delhi based organization, Rights and Risk Analysis Group (RARG), has brought out a report which documents 22 cases of hate and discrimination against ‘India’s Mongoloid looking people’ between February 27 and March 25, this year. The bigotry against certain religious minorities has become all the more blatant in the past one year.
It has spilled over even in the current times of crisis. Conspiracy theories linking the spread of the coronavirus as an Islamic agenda have been doing the rounds. Such beliefs are further bolstered by jingoistic media houses. When reality becomes too gruesome to tolerate, apathy of the urban middle class takes a backseat. In an attempt to ameliorate their prick of conscience, they resort to donations. We see its manifestation in the present crisis as well.
The elites choose to limit their responsibilities to philanthropy. This exonerates them from acknowledging questions raised regarding the very existence of the cause of donation. However, it must be mentioned that the very concept of charity work is an intended product of capitalism. It assumes a pre-existing condition of sympathy-laden superiority of the haves towards the have-nots.
An individual representative of the elite class is the ‘ideal being’ in mainstream economic theories. The oft celebrated economic models which lead to policy-making decisions assume selfcentered, rational, individual utility maximizing agents. However, continuing importance accorded to individualism fails to address the prevailing deep-rooted issues which plague our society.
To quote Jean Dréze, “If we want the human race to survive, we need to go beyond self-interest and foster different kinds of values and social norms… Nonetheless, through education, democratic engagement and social movements, you can still develop different ways of thinking and behaviour, and we have to do this somehow. Otherwise, we are doomed.”
(The writers are Research Scholars in Economics at the Centre for Development Studies (JNU), Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala)