A just social and economic order is based on equity. Iniquitous government policies create societal schisms. When large sections of the populace feel discriminated against, disenchantment sets in. On occasions this leads to social unrest.
We are witnessing increasing economic inequality and rising social tensions since Narendra Modi became prime minister. Demonetisation, faulty implementation of GST and heartless handling of the Covid-19 pandemic have inflicted untold misery on ordinary folk and businesses. Statistics, that are evidence of this too, are not going through “Achhe Din”.
The rich are thriving as the Sensex touches new heights, far removed from the landscape of the economic reality on the ground and deprivations consuming the poor. While the government is busy with its political agendas, to polarise India, it has paid scant regard to the real agendas that needed to be addressed. Reducing poverty, promoting equity and justice are the real agendas. Presently, the system has not only failed to protect the poor but also breeds discrimination. Let’s address the facts.
In 2020 alone, the increase in wealth of the top 11 Indian billionaires was enough to vaccinate the entire needy population of our country. This money could have even funded schemes such as MGNREGA for the next 10 years. The same year saw 75 million more people in India seep into poverty because of Covid-19. A large number of small and medium-size businesses were shut, jobs were lost and incomes fell, resulting in a deep economic recession. The Indian middle class may well have shrunk by a third while the number of poor people earning less than Rs 150 per day doubled (Pew Research Centre, 2021). A study by Azim Premji University (2021) estimates that around 230 million Indians have been pushed into poverty in the last one year. The rate of both rural and urban poverty increased by 15 and 20 percentage points, respectively. Around 150 million workers remained out of work by the end of 2020.
Our healthcare infrastructure in rural areas is next to non-existent. The pandemic has also demonstrated that the existing healthcare system is in a shambles. India has a doctor-population ratio far lower than the WHO’s standard of 1:1,000. In rural areas, the ratio is 1:25,000. It is tragic that only 13% people in rural India have access to primary healthcare centres, and only 9.6% to a hospital. For 70% of our population, the number of hospital beds is lower than the national average of 0.55 per 1,000 inhabitants. In terms of access and quality of health services, China, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Bangladesh are ranked far ahead of India.
Income inequalities are also a matter of deep disquiet. Almost 12% of our population is engaged in casual labour. Even amongst regular wage earners comprising 41% of urban households, rampant inequality prevails. In fact, 71% of regular salaried employees have no written job contracts; half of them are ineligible for social security benefits. The pandemic having coincided with a global slowdown, a public health crisis of this magnitude will adversely and negatively impact our economy. More people are likely to lose their jobs, resulting in harsher inequalities. The mindset of this government and its passion for a digital economy has marginalised the poor and the disadvantaged further. This government’s vaccination policy, with all above 18 years entitled to be vaccinated, has shown utter insensitivity by relying on web applications to get people vaccinated. I wonder how many people in this country, especially in the context of the extent of disadvantaged and marginalised, have access to such apps. Without registration, the opportunity to get vaccinated will not be available.
In urban areas, internet is generally available and people have access to smartphones. However, the situation is quite different in Indian villages. Digitally divided India has further curtailed the opportunities for the poor to be vaccinated. A prior registration process, apart from being user unfriendly, does not work in a country where 50% of the population has no access to the internet. The Union government’s insensitivity to make the Cowin portal and Arogya Setu and Umang apps the only means to register is tantamount to mocking the poor. Even a moderate internet connection does not allow for registration; one requires fast internet speed to track and book the available vaccination slots. Even so, it is taking days to complete the process owing to huge traffic on these web applications. Ironically, the government considers registration through these web applications more convenient for citizens. A government that lacks understanding of what access and convenience mean only caters to both confusion and rampant inequality. The poor are excluded and even those who have smartphones are finding it difficult to register for vaccination.
The digital divide in education is also a matter of great concern. Just over a third of our government schools have access to functional computers (2016-17). In fact, the overall percentage of schools with functional computers (2016-17) has reduced since 2012. Less than a quarter of Indian households have internet facility and only 11% have a functional computer. Among the rural households, only15% have access to internet. Online education, another passion of this government, has further marginalised 70% of our children. Poorer children are missing from online classes because of the digital divide. This divide is evident across class, gender, region or place of residence. Amongst the poorest 20% of households, only 2.7% have access to computers and 8.9% to internet facilities.
The time has come for India to adopt cohesive well-thought-out policies to ensure that inequalities are not fuelled by the government’s policy decisions. An unjust and unequal state will eventually result in disquiet and unrest. India deserves better.
Senior lawyer, Congress leader and member of Rajya Sabha