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Rising disparity

Recently, newspapers in Karnataka have understandably been loaded with condemnation of a terribly unfortunate incident that occurred in Mangalore. This involved the harassment of a group of women at a bar by some hooligans of an organisation called the Sri Rama Sene. The State government acted too slowly and perhaps did too little, to send an effective message that such incidences would not be tolerated. The fact is politicians are persuaded not by what is correct but by what they determine as political compulsions. The guilty rarely get punished by anything more than a rap on the knuckles, thus encouraging others to become adventurous. Instances such as this are apparently common in Mangalore, but rarely get reported. Only this time, the owner of the bar was related to a senior politician from a political party in opposition. This is a sad reality of falling governance standards in our country where basic human rights coupled with law and order, are subservient to the vagaries of the political process.

The Mangalore incident is actually an outcome of a larger development that is presently taking shape. This concerns the distortion of India’s social equilibrium due to imbalances in economic development. The coefficient of disparity has constantly increased over the past fifteen years, not only between States of the Union but also within them. Certain pockets of urban India have prospered, whilst others remain mired in the clutches of a constant struggle to find suitable employment. Young people from middle-class families with appropriate university education find attractive employment in manufacturing and service businesses. They acquire aspirations that are grounded on western ways. Millions of others, who are left out of this developmental process, find it hard to resist the attraction of single ideology organisations steeped in religious fanaticism. They express their frustrations in targeting those that have moved ahead. The Mangalore incident is basically a reflection of this rising social, economic and cultural disparity which is viewed somewhat simplistically as religious fundamentalism. There is a serious risk that things will get worse before they get better.

India is now a strange paradox of several socio-economic communities struggling to live with each other. There is a ‘first world’ India comprising of urban upper middle-classes, businessmen and executives employed in large corporations who have adopted modern ways and contemporary lifestyles. Then there is the ‘second world’ of urban dwellers that have ambitions to break out of their form and aspire for better things which nice jobs and wealth can bring about. Finally, there is a third world India, which remains trapped in time – largely in rural and semi-urban geographies. An entire growth story of economic development of a nation and aspirations of its people, has bypassed them. You simply need to drive out, for fifty miles, from a metropolitan city to discover this. For the people who live there, nothing seems to have changed in the decades since the 1950s.

Frequently, social tensions and problems of law and order find their origins in economic issues. That is the reason the Chinese leadership is paranoid about its economy growing at a rate of 8%. This is the minimum level required to create enough jobs for younger people that get added on to the workforce each year. A slowdown in economic growth they realise will, in the least, lead to social tensions and often a law and order situation. Growth is not an economic nicety but really a social imperative with repercussions on political stability.

Social and cultural problems eventually link up to economic disparity. When most people are poor, it is not so bad to be poor. However, as large sections of society move up the economic pecking order leaving others in relative backwardness, problems such as the recent hooliganism in Mangalore are bound to happen. The solution lies essentially in more reform that encourages efficiency in the use of capital, more investment and hence wealth creation. Eventually, as this process continues the benefits of economic growth will spread down through society. But till then the struggle will continue.

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