Equality Vs Inequality

An Alternative Path for India

Bharat Dogra

India in the 75th year of its independence today stands at a very important juncture of history, faced with very serious problems and critical challenges, and at the same time also with significant opportunities if only these can be grasped. The choice people make between various paths of development, for example the path of equality and harmony versus the path of increasing inequalities and polarisa-tion, will be very important for deciding whether the problems get accentuated or the opportunities get utilised optimally.

The two most important features of the present day world are- (i) the deepening of a many sided ecological crisis in critical ways so that it has now become a survival crisis threatening the life of countless species and endangering even humanity, and (ii) the continuation of many conflicts, invasions and wars in a situation of more and more destructive arms race including huge arsenals of weapons of mass destruction which can destroy the entire world.

These two problems may appear separate but are related in significant ways, not the least because the kind of international effort needed to resolve the first listed survival issues will simply not be possible in a situation of conflicts and wars.

In the context of this wider situation of the world, India must pioneer a path which, while solving India’s basic problems of poverty and deprivation, should at the same time show the way forward for resolving the most threatening problems of the world.

For such an achievement to be possible, India should try to establish broad consensus on three overwhelming priorities-(i) very significant, durable reduction of poverty and inequalities, ensuring basic needs of all, (ii) protection of environment with special emphasis on checking survival threatening problems such as climate change, water depletion and loss of bio-diversity and (iii) peace and social harmony at all levels while ending all discrimination.

With 2 per cent of the world’s land, 1 per cent (or less)of oil and gas resources but 17 per cent of the world’s population, India’s quest for meeting the basic needs of its people and providing them satisfactory livelihood on a sustainable basis is a huge challenge. If this can be met while also protecting environment and keeping down GHG emissions, this will truly be a very commendable achievement.

India is a nuclear weapons power which shares borders with two other nuclear weapons powers. India has been extremely prone to terrorist attacks from across its borders. It has already fought five wars with neighbouring countries, with aggression generally coming from the other side of the borders. It has coped with several secessionist movements and insurgencies. . India has seven major religions (plus many more religious sects and religions with smaller number of believers), around 6400 castes and 1600 languages.

The much-discussed idea of India is that despite all these outward differences, all people can live without discrimination in India with security and equal opportunities. If anything governance reforms including significant reduction of corruption and crimes (and related criminalisation of politics) and improved transparency are essential preconditions for success of this agenda based on justice, equality, harmony and protection of environment.

But what has been happening in recent times is a far removed from the real needs of the country. Today India has a system of crony capitalism tied closely to inequality and injustice based globalisation, with a big role also for some of the most infamous multinational companies and institutions. Highly favoured are those MNCs which are known to be very aggressive in trying to dominate food and seeds sector, using very hazardous technologies. To pave the way for such corporate led growth, the Planning Commission has been shut down arbitrarily. The environment is threatened more than ever before with aggressively marketed and ecologically destructive projects of big corporate interests.

In such adverse circumstances it is all the more important to hold high the banner that another path exists- a path that can make India a pioneer in reducing poverty, inequalities, environment ruin and GHG emissions, while promoting peace and harmony at all levels.

In several critical areas of the economy the public sector should continue to play an important role. The private sector obviously should also have an important role but subject to the condition that no industrialist or company can dominate the economy, its one or more important sectors, to acquire excessive power and interfere unduly in the functioning of democratic system and its policy making mechanisms.

Corporate sector should be regulated carefully for responsibilities relating to environment, workers, consumers (or other end-users of their products) and to the wider society. Multinational and foreign companies should be regulated very carefully. Cooperative sector should be reformed and strengthened to accept increasing responsibilities. Certain products and areas can be reserved for small-scale and cottage-scale entrepreneurs, cooperatives, small farmer groups and self-help groups, particularly of women, with emphasis on meeting basic needs of villages and small towns as well as generation of more diverse livelihoods there.

Economic planning should retain an important role in ensuring the availability of goods and services which meet the basic needs of people, reducing inequalities, protecting livelihoods, keeping unemployment and inflation at low levels, providing essential infra-structure and avoiding foreign indebtedness. The Planning Commission (including state planning organisations) should be re-established with some important reforms to strengthen it and the process of five-year plans (including state plans) should be re-started.

In foreign trade imports of all non-essentials including luxury goods and gold should be minimised. Steps which reduce excessive dependence on imports in meeting essential needs (in terms of consumption goods as well as capital goods and intermediates)should be emphasised, while the sovereign government's powers to reduce or stop those imports which are harmful for health, livelihoods or other vital interests should be reaffirmed. Similarly patent laws should be in line with national interests. India should play an important role in reform of the WTO, the World Bank and the IMF with the aim to make them more transparent and responsive to the real and economic justice based needs of world.

There should be a relentless campaign against the substantial 'black' part of the economy so that illegally held money can be recovered and used for constructive development tasks. This includes efforts to bring back black money deposited abroad using various secretive devices.

High priority should be given to rural areas. The distorted thinking which necessarily equates development with very rapid urbanisation and migration of displaced villagers to mega-cities should be rejected. Villages should be the main base of India's development. Even though land availability per family is declining with the passage of time, more diverse livelihoods can be provided in rural and semi-rural areas by encouraging village and cottage industries, including khadi, and protecting artisans' livelihoods.

Ecologically protective, low-cost, location-specific technology which seeks to make best use of local resources and conditions should be emphasised, an approach which includes organic farming, protection of traditional seeds and biodiversity, soil and water conservation, increasing green cover and forests. Organic farming should avoid the pitfall of avoidable expenses like costly certification and should be based on self-reliance and low costs, including mutual certification by farmers of each other’s crops. Farmers' seed rights should be well-protected and seed-banks of traditional diverse seeds should be set up with the close involvement of farmers including elderly farmers and women.

Water conservation as well as protection/regeneration of greenery provides the base for survival in the form of meeting basic needs of life and supporting basic rural livelihoods. Some existing provisions like rural employment guarantee can be strengthened for this. In terms of resource use, concentrating attention on smaller watershed progra-mmes as well as proper maintenance of existing canals will yield much better results instead of various new big and medium projects of dams and canals. Of course this will also be ecologically much safer and will help to avoid a lot of displacement.        

Protection and regeneration of natural mixed forests should get very high priority. The practice of raising monoculture plantations of commercial species of trees in place of natural forests should be given up forever.

Animal husbandry should be encouraged with special emphasis on regeneration of pastures and fodder trees as well as protection of indigenous species of farm animals. Protection of indigenous breeds of cows and bullocks should get special attention. Availability of essential food items in public distribution network should be linked to strengthening of small and medium farmers in all rural areas.

Steps should be taken to free various kinds of produce from the grip of a few big traders and speculators so that farmers get justice and sudden escalations in price for consumers are also avoided.

The country should aim, to the extent possible and practical, for self-reliance to a significant extent in all essential consumer and capital goods.

While private, public and cooperative sectors all have important roles, domination by any single industrialist or use of unfair means to surge ahead of others in one or more sectors should not be allowed. Public sector should be strengthened and reformed to fulfill its wider social responsibility while maintaining high standards of efficiency and entrepreneurial ability.

The important role of nationalised or public sector banks and insurance companies (mainly Life Insurance Corporation of India) should continue. These should be reformed and strengthened to improve their efficiency, basic financial soundness and social responsibility and to minimise the possibilities of corruption and irregularities.

Public sector companies should continue to have an important role in creation of strong and adequate infra-structure for development of country. While infra-structure should be adequate, unnecessarily expensive and grand projects should be avoided. Care should be taken to minimise the problems relating to environment and displacement.

Special care should be taken to reconcile development and environment protection objectives in the area of energy, as both are important. For rural areas in particular decentralised mixed renewable energy systems can play an important role.

Mineral wealth should be used in the wider interests of people with special emphasis on the rights and welfare of communities living in mineral rich areas.

A strong foundation of good health can only be established by good nutrition and fulfillment of other basic needs. In addition essential health services, medicines, vaccines and investigations should be accessible to all. Adequate budgetary provisions should be provided for this. To utilise this properly, tendencies of extracting very high and unethical profits in the supply of medicines and medical care (including investigations) should be strictly curbed, or else the higher budget can be gobbled by profiteers. Important changes in medicines policy are needed to make available all essential medicines at a fair price, with special emphasis on supply of generic medicines, while those medicines and vaccines with high risks and side-effects should be discarded. The public sector should fulfill an important role in this. The government should accept the responsibility of health care, medicines and vaccines. As far as possible, all medicines should be provided free in primary health centres and all government hospitals.

While emphasising right to education for all, the education budget should be increased significantly. At the same time the tendencies of rapid privatisation and extraction of high profits should be checked. Improvement of government schools should get the highest priority, while those schools which aim to sincerely pursue important educational objectives should also be encouraged. Children of weakest and vulnerable households (like migrant workers and nomadic groups) should also be included with a system of evening schools/bridge courses and later integration with the mainstream.

Tendencies towards communali-sation of education (or linking it to the dominance of one faith or religion) should be curbed. Instead a secular approach to moral/ethical education should be introduced with emphasis on universal values such as not causing distress to anyone, equality of all human beings, rejection of all kinds of discrimination, compassion for all forms of life, honesty, hard-work and a spirit of service.   

Child labour and all forms of exploitation of children should be eliminated. Trafficking of children should be curbed strongly and missing children should be traced with a sense of urgency. Trafficked and exploited children when rescued should be rehabilitated properly.

Progress in science and technology should be linked closely to the country's real needs. Technical skills not only in institutions of higher learning but also in rural areas, in farms and workshops and factories should be recognised, encouraged and provided adequate avenues.

Senior citizens should have a place of respect and dignity and to facilitate this better social security particularly pensions are very necessary. Extensive pension reforms should be taken up to create a system of universal and adequate pensions.

All forms of discrimination based on caste, religion, gender, colour, ethnicity etc. should be curbed strictly in keeping with the constitutional precepts. Apart from implementing legal provisions this should also be taken up as public campaigns.

Continuing efforts should be made, and not just at the time of tensions, to maintain communal harmony or inter-faith harmony.

The existing reservations should continue till real equality in all important respects is not achieved. A big effort should be made to provide some land to the large number of Dalit (or other) landless farm workers and provide other assistance to help them to emerge as small farmers cultivating their own land. The ban on manual scavenging must be backed by adequate rehabilitation opportunities. Artisan work relating to bamboo, leather etc. should be improved so that new opportunities emerge and better, cleaner work-conditions are available.

Land rights of tribal communities should be carefully protected and land allocated earlier illegally should be restored under the due process of law. The implementation of recent Forest Rights Act needs to be substantially improved and any possibilities of large-scale displacement should be checked.

Nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes and groups deserve sympathetic understanding. Both options of improving their present life pattern and satisfactory rehabilitation are open.

In all categories the most oppressed and neglected groups deserve special attention and help. Particularly among OBCs there is a need to be careful that the genuinely oppressed, left-out and neglected castes get more help.

Hard-won rights of workers and trade unions should be protected. Reforms or codification should not be used as a pretext to reduce or undermine these rights. Occupational health and safety need much more attention. The rights of unorganised sector workers deserve more attention and funds. Social security of these workers should be ensured in a big way. Women workers deserve special attention in terms of protection and care. Existing laws which protect rights of workers should be implemented in the right spirit. Within the organised sector also the rights of contractual workers deserve more attention.

Protection of environment is of the highest importance not only for preparing the base of sustainable development but increasingly for sheer survival of various life-forms including human beings. Protection of environment and reduction of pollution should get priority at all levels, including reduction of air and water pollution, soil and water conservation, protection of forests, reducing the spread of various toxic products and wastes etc. New forms of pollution such as threat from radiation of nuclear plants, or the threat from mobile phone towers, or the irreversible risk of genetic pollution should be given adequate importance in the environment protection agenda. Protection of rivers should learn from past failures and concepts of ecologically adequate river flows as well as free river flows should get more appreciation in policy, along with adverse impacts of dams and barrages.

Long pending police reforms should not be delayed any longer. These reforms should be aimed at not only increasing the efficiency of the police but also their sensitivity and humanity. Dignity of policemen at lower levels should be protected.

Reducing crimes should have a multi-dimensional approach with special emphasis on reducing the social causes of crimes as well as breaking the nexus between crime and corruption and political power at higher levels.

The justice system is breaking down particularly in rural areas because of long pending cases and repeated visits to courts from long distances which only lead to further dates. Therefore rural decentrali-sation should include some judicial provisions for settling disputes locally but with suitable safeguards.

Jails need extensive reforms to create more human conditions, with special provisions firmly in place for recognition and human treatment of political prisoners.

[This is a shortened version of a longish article written by the author for social activists who are trying to organise masses in the context of destructive policies pursued by the successive governments irrespective of their colour to allow the corporates to loot the country.]

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Vol 55, No. 14-17, Oct 2 - 29, 2022