Indians never had it so good. Prosperity is at its peak. After decades of rationing and shortages, stores are chocka-block with the fanciest goods. Democracy has made everyone equal, the era of nawabs and rajas is over; no foreign tyrant can stymie our ambitions.
Economically and militarily, we are one of the strongest nations in the world. Yet, almost paradoxically, we are ranked at number 132 in the World Happiness Index. What prevents us from being happy? Not even poor health, as life expectancy has almost doubled to 68 years, since Independence.
I daresay that the impediment to our happiness is the pent-up hate and anger in our minds. The ill-will and slugfests witnessed on Twitter and WhatsApp point to a society deeply at odds with itself. What else could explain the blood-letting on simple issues of parking or fights between children degenerating into riots? Or the instant mob justice meted out to persons suspected of theft or pickpocketing?
The situation has degenerated to the extent that incidents of mob violence and even lynchings are reported almost daily, forcing even the Supreme Court to take note and suggest that the Government bring a law to control mob violence. Holding social media responsible for the increasing instances of mob violence, our Information and Broadcasting Minister has warned WhatsApp to develop technology to track the origin of forwarded messages.
A high-level committee, formed by the Government to deliberate on the reasons for mob violence, has recommended that social media providers like WhatsApp should trace and block malicious content. However, all these well thought out suggestions fail to address the core issue: “What would prompt Indians, who are a peace-loving people, to harbour so much hate and anger against their own countrymen?” As a nation founded on the twin principles of truth and non-violence we must strive to identify the reasons for this malaise.
One reason could be the inequalities in our society which have been exacerbated after the opening up of the economy in 1991. Our Constitution promises equality of status and opportunity to all citizens but statistical data suggests that inequalities in wealth and income are now on an uncontrolled upward spiral. Recently, Thomas Piketty and Lucas Chancel in their aptly titled study Indian Income Inequality 1922-2014: From British Raj to Billionaire Raj have pointed out that currently the richest 1 per cent of Indians earn 22 per cent of our total income; up from to 6 per cent in the early 1980s and somewhat higher than their 21 per cent share in the 1930s.
The Annual Global Wealth Databook published by Credit Suisse highlights the fact that the richest 1 per cent of Indians own 53 per cent of the country’s wealth ~ up from 36.8 per cent in the year 2000. On the other hand, the poorest 50 per cent of our countrymen own only 4.1 per cent of our nation’s wealth.
Further, according to Credit Suisse, the richest 1 per cent cornered 61 per cent of the extra wealth generated between 2000 and 2015. The difference between the rich and poor can be gauged from the fact that India has more than 30 crore persons living below the poverty line but 2.5 lakh of our countrymen figure in the top 1 per cent of the world’s richest people. Not all the money with the superrich has been earned honestly; in addition to the various scams our banks have lost about Rs.12 lakh crore to bad loans.
Accumulation of wealth in a few hands can be addressed only if the taxation regime closes all avenues for earning tax-free income and accumulating wealth beyond a point but in our current dispensation a sufficiently rich and tax savvy person can achieve both these objectives within the four corners of law. This was not the way our taxation system was designed to work.
Prof. Nicholas Kaldor, who was an advisor to a number of European governments, was invited to India by Nehru in 1956 to propose a system of taxation for the nascent Republic. He proposed two new taxes ~ Wealth-tax and Gift-tax in addition to the existing Income-tax and Estate Duty, intending these new taxes to function as instruments to prevent transfer and concentration of wealth rather than as revenue collection measures. Sadly, all these taxes except Income-tax have been repealed leading to an unprecedented concentration of wealth in a few hands.
The social ill effects of inequality ~ disharmony, increased crime and social unrest ~ are now playing out in our society. Post-liberalisation, Governments have embraced the “trickle-down theory”, which postulates that big corporates with sufficient funds at their disposal create jobs and the Government needs only to ensure that big businesses do well to ensure prosperity for the poor.
Evaluating the success of the trickle-down theory from the time we embraced it in 1991, we can see that initially the economy had a bull run but after the global meltdown of 2008 we only had jobless growth and growing inequality. To reduce inequality, the Government certainly needs to have a re-look at the way we tackle poverty.
Despite numerous Citizens’ Charters and Public Delivery laws, the arrogance and rapacity of lower level officers, with whom the common man has to interact daily, has only increased. Then, the common man has to face the tyranny of the new-age Maharajas and Rajas ~ the political class and big business ~ who have all the trappings of their predecessors and whose “in your face” attitude adds to the ordinary citizen’s feeling of helplessness.
A socialist leader’s son travels in a Lamborghini, a DJ is threatened when she sings about broken roads, the death of scores of children caused by shortage of oxygen is termed as a natural disaster ~ the instances of arrogance are too numerous to recount. An airline official is publicly beaten up by an MP, platitudes are trotted out but no action is taken against the MP. Even after seventy years the courts of law have not metamorphosed into courts of justice and speedy resolution of disputes is still a pie in the sky. Dejection, caused by extinction of the hope of positive change, has definitely contributed to the common man’s angst.
The feeling of the general public’s dissatisfaction is augmented by the perceived genuflection of the legal system before the high and mighty. Numerous mega scams perpetrated by politicians and politically connected persons have been investigated but never has the defalcated money been recovered or the guilty have ever been brought to book. At politically opportune times politicians remember such scams only to discredit their opponents, not to ensure that justice is done. No wonder that bereft of any expectation of justice, the common man only wants to get on in his day-to-day life ~ venting his anger on those below him.
The lack of job opportunities brought about by our jobless growth has stymied the hopes and dreams of the younger generation. Even after studying at the best institutes, most of our youth fail to land a job. It is easy for persons in power to advise youngsters to go for start-ups but capital and/or entrepreneurship is required to strike out on one’s own.
Does our education system give our young men this kind of confidence or training? In desperation, young men with Doctorates and MBA degrees often apply for Group D jobs. The hopelessness of these young men soon transmits itself to their family members. Can anyone placed in such a situation not be angry?
Then there is the fight for scarce resources. Food production, housing, roads, college admissions, train seats etc cannot increase at the rate we are reproducing. On the other hand, there are connected people who get admissions in colleges, reservations in trains and house allotments just by making a phone call. The super-rich do one better; they send their children abroad for education and jobs, far away from the perennial struggles of India.
To bring a smile to every face, we have to rebuild our social capital which would mean addressing the four main issues that have eroded social trust and confidence in the fairness of the Government. The first initiative should be a set of policies aimed at reducing income and wealth inequality which would mean an expanded social safety net, wealth and inheritance taxes in tandem with greater public financing of health and education that would provide quality education in public institutions and quality healthcare in public hospitals. The second initiative should be to improve social relations between communities and individuals.
Any act or word aimed at fostering hatred should be roundly condemned by all. Any move by communities to restrict individual freedom should not be countenanced. The third priority should be the reform of our judicial system so that justice is quick and affordable. Our final priority should be to root out corruption. Till we reform our institutions we will not be able to get rid of the anger and disharmony in our society.
The writer is a retired Principal Chief Commissioner of Income-Tax.