A just social and economic order is based on equity. Iniquitous government policies create social schisms. When large sections of the population feel discriminated against, disenchantment sets in. This sometimes leads to social unrest.
We have seen an increase in economic inequalities and a rise in social tensions since Narendra Modi became Prime Minister. Demonetization, flawed GST implementation, and heartless handling of the Covid-19 pandemic have inflicted untold hardship on ordinary people and businesses. The statistics, which are also proof of this, do not go through “Achhe Din”.
The rich thrive as the Sensex soars to new heights, far from the landscape of economic reality on the ground and the deprivations that consume the poor. While the government is busy with its political agendas, to polarize India, it has paid little attention to the real agendas that needed to be addressed. Reducing poverty, promoting equity and justice are the real programs. At present, the system has not only failed to protect the poor, but also breeds discrimination. Let’s get to the facts.
In 2020 alone, the increase in the wealth of the first 11 Indian billionaires was enough to immunize the entire needy population of our country. This money could even have funded programs such as MGNREGA for the next 10 years. In the same year, an additional 75 million people in India fell into poverty due to Covid-19. Large numbers of small and medium-sized businesses have been closed, jobs have been lost, and incomes have plummeted, resulting in a deep economic recession. India’s middle class may well have shrunk by a third, as the number of poor people earning less than Rs 150 per day doubled (Pew Research Center, 2021). A study from Azim Premji University (2021) estimates that around 230 million Indians have been pushed into poverty in the past year. The rural and urban poverty rate increased by 15 and 20 percentage points respectively. About 150 million workers were unemployed at the end of 2020.
Our health infrastructure in rural areas is almost non-existent. The pandemic has also shown that the current health system is in ruins. India has a doctor-to-population ratio well below the WHO standard of 1: 1,000. In rural areas, the ratio is 1: 25,000. It is tragic that only 13% of people in rural areas of India have access to primary health care centers 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 far ahead of India.
Income inequalities are also a matter of deep concern. Almost 12% of our population is engaged in casual work. Even among regular employees representing 41% of urban households, creeping inequalities prevail. Indeed, 71% of regular employees do not have a written employment contract; half of them are not eligible for social security benefits. With the pandemic coinciding with a global slowdown, a public health crisis of this magnitude will have a negative and negative impact on our economy. More people are at risk of losing their jobs, leading to greater inequalities. This government’s mindset and passion for a digital economy have further marginalized the poor and disadvantaged. The vaccination policy of this government, with everyone over 18 allowed to be vaccinated, has been utterly insensitive in relying on web applications to get people vaccinated. I wonder how many people in this country, especially in the context of the spread of disadvantaged and marginalized people, have access to such apps. Without registration, the possibility of getting vaccinated will not be available.
In urban areas, the internet is generally available and people have access to smartphones. However, the situation is quite different in Indian villages. The digitally divided India has further reduced the chances of getting vaccinated for the poor. A pre-registration process, in addition to being not very user-friendly, does not work in a country where 50% of the population does not have access to the Internet. The Union government’s insensitivity to making the Cowin portal and the Arogya Setu and Umang apps the only way to register is tantamount to mocking the poor. Even a moderate internet connection does not allow check-in; one requires fast internet speed to track and reserve the available vaccination slots. Even so, it takes days to complete the process due to the huge traffic on these web applications. Ironically, the government finds registration through these web applications more convenient for citizens. A government that does not understand what access and convenience mean only responds to both confusion and rampant inequality. The poor are excluded and even those with smartphones find it difficult to register for vaccination.
The digital divide in education is also a matter of great concern. Just over a third of our public schools have access to working computers (2016-2017). In fact, the overall percentage of schools with working computers (2016-2017) has decreased since 2012. Less than a quarter of Indian households have Internet access and only 11% have a working computer. Among rural households, only 15% have Internet access. Online education, another passion of this government, has marginalized even more than 70% of our children. The poorest children are missing from online lessons because of the digital divide. This divide is evident depending on class, gender, region or place of residence. Among the poorest 20% of households, only 2.7% have access to computers and 8.9% to Internet facilities.
Now is the time for India to adopt coherent and thoughtful policies to ensure that inequalities are not fueled by government policy decisions. An unjust and unequal state will ultimately lead to worry and unrest. India deserves better.
Senior Advocate, Congress Leader and Rajya Sabha Member