Culture & Life

How to address the entrenched inequalities and injustices in India as an ordinary citizen

I wrote the following as an answer to the question ‘What are the common forms of inequality prevailing in India‘ on the platform Quora:

We have, in every city and town, and every village, a large section of people – of human beings, of folks like us – who do not possess even the basic necessities for a decent life. We in India are so used to these inequalities around us that we don’t even register them as such, and hardly think of them as unjust, or think of their eradication as worthy of collective efforts including our own.

The Q asks about ‘common forms’ of inequality,but inequality is so ubiquitous in India that one doesn’t need to do any specific pinpointing. Some general direction will do.

Let’s consider those very very very few among us who can afford to buy a private jet and fly around in it (like the character of Ranbir Kapoor does in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil). Now almost everyone reading this answer on Quora will know that there is a gigantic difference between that super-wealthy person and themselves: the former can easily peer down at a city from the clouds whenever they want, and we cannot. But is that inequality? I would say no. Primarily because an ordinary, decent human life does not need a private jet as a means for fulfillment. I, for one, cannot dream of buying even an ounce of the fuel that a private jet needs, but I am leading a comfortable enough life. I can’t fly in a jet whenever I want, but I can definitely eat to my heart’s content whenever I want. If the elements of nature are troubling me – if the sun is searingly hot, if there’s a roaring rainfall, if the cold is cutting away at my skin – I can quite easily access a comfortable shelter, either my own home or a friend’s home or my office, etc.

Now consider the life of this woman and her family (extract from the NYTimes piece The City of My Birth in India Is Becoming a Climate Casualty. It Didn’t Have to Be):

“This is what we say to God: If a storm comes, kill us and our children all at once, so no one will be left to suffer,” said Malati Mandal, a 30-year-old homeless mother of four. She lived on a sidewalk along Rashbehari Avenue, a 10-minute walk from my childhood apartment. When the monsoon came, she would watch the sky for clues. When the clouds darkened, she would cover her bundle of sleeping mats with a plastic tarp. If it rained all night, she would gather her children close, sit under an awning and wait for it to pass.

What for us is the distance between us and the private jet, for the underprivileged it is the distance between them and a roof over their head (or food in their tummies, or medical care for their ailing loved ones). This is inequality, when the means for an ordinary, decent human life – a life lived with dignity – are extraordinarily difficult for someone to obtain, and quite easy for someone else to obtain. And this has nothing to do with hard work or will: the homeless woman who weathers the hourly stresses of living on the streets works harder, and has a much stronger willpower, than most of us.

A few years ago one of our wisest thinkers, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, wrote a piece for the Caravan: “Breaking the Silence: Why we don’t talk about inequality—and how to start again.” Mehta says that talking about inequality in India is a very difficult job as there is a “culture of avoidance” around it:

For those at the bottom of a deep well, the mere act of looking up at the heights to be scaled can be dispiriting; for those at the top, the act of looking to the depths at which human beings are confined is likely to cause vertigo. The net result is a taciturn avoidance played out in Indian homes and streets.

We – the privileged ‘middle-class’ and upper class folks – see inequalities of all kinds all around us, but we have developed some very elaborate psychological mechanisms to ignore them and sweep them under the carpet.

When books like Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, or even Hollywood entertainments like Slumdog Millionaire, enter middle-class consciousness, they cause discomfort. This is not because they remind Indians of something we had forgotten, but because they represent an assault on the elaborate psychological fortifications we have constructed to cope with a reality we know all too well. But the avoidance has created a self-perpetuating system, which is rarely frontally challenged. Everyone hopes the system will change, but absolves themselves of the responsibility for bringing about that change.

Now of course that big Q always pops its head when we discuss such highly entrenched forms of social problems: Is there a solution? It is normal to get bogged down by the enormity and complexity of India’s abundant problems. That should not, however, lead us to forget these problems, especially under the pretext that “in any case what can I do from my side?”

Mehta ends his essay by saying that “ultimately, a new politics of equality will require the imagination of a new idiom to replace those that have been exhausted.” It is this new idiom in the politics of equality which we can all contribute towards in our own little ways. This new idiom could be one in which we begin to actively call out and talk about the countless instances of injustice and inequality that characterise our daily lives in India.

For example, next time you travel by train in the AC coach and your little kid asks why there are people sitting so uncomfortably and almost one upon the other in the ‘general’ compartment, try to answer in a way that will make the kid think that this is wrong and need not be that way. What we have been doing until now is to make our future generations believe that such injustices and inequalities are just a ‘natural’ default condition of human life. We must ensure that from now on, the people who are going to inherit the rich civilization of India will grow up with an acute awareness of the inherent inequalities and challenges all around them. An awareness that, for example, the girl with torn clothes tugging her begging mother’s saree on the street is not simply an ‘unfortunate’ kid ‘destined’ to be in that condition – but a kid forced into that condition because we as a society, together with our governments and politicians, have not worked hard enough to ensure that she and her family receive the most fundamental conditions necessary for a life of dignity.

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