Corruption yesterday, sexual violence today, the middle class is protesting because its real income has been eroded
The agitation in Delhi and many other parts of the country over the recent gangrape of a young woman (the victim unfortunately died), reminds me of the Anna Hazare-led agitation against corruption. Just as the latter fizzled out in a few weeks’ time, I predict that this agitation too will soon fizzle out. And just as the Hazare mobilisation has not led to the reduction of corruption in the country by even 0.1 per cent, so also the present agitation will not lead to anything.
Of course, I would like to see the culprits severely punished under the law. What I have to say, however, is this. First, serious problems are not solved by emotional outbursts such as we are seeing (hyped, no doubt, by many of our TV channels), or even by amendment of the law (as some are advocating), but by great social change. Second, gangrape is not the only serious issue before the nation, as some people seem to be contending. There are several equally, if not more, serious issues facing the nation. For example, massive poverty, high rates of child malnutrition and farmer suicide, abysmal healthcare and education for our masses, massive unemployment, skyrocketing prices, etc. Our TRP-led media does not hype these equally, if not more, serious issues and we seldom see huge crowds of middle-class people at Jantar Mantar or on Ramlila Grounds or at India Gate agitating against these issues.
In my opinion, however, the Hazare agitation and the present agitation against the gangrape are symptomatic of a deeper malady in the country, and it is this: there is great discontent in our middle classes, which is making them go to the streets. What the cause of this deep discontent is, is what has to be examined.
India has a population of about 1.2 billion, of which 80 per cent or so are poor. However, there is also a middle class of about 15-20 per cent of the population, which emerged after Independence (due to a certain degree of industrialisation) and which enjoys a higher standard of living and higher incomes than the 80 per cent poor in our country. It is this middle class that is responsible for the relative stability of India after Independence (there was no civil war in India, for example). This middle class provided a market for our industries, which in turn provided employment to many of our youth.
However, over the last few years, real income and consequently the standard of living of the middle class has rapidly eroded due to steep price rise, worldwide recession (which has impacted India too, resulting in rise in unemployment), etc. Suppose someone was earning Rs 20,000 per month. If prices double, his real income becomes Rs 10,000, though ostensibly he appears to be still earning Rs 20,000 (because income is relative to the level of prices).
This is the real cause of the discontent in the middle class in India and it is the real factor driving them to the streets. Hence, if the apparent issue behind the recent agitations had not been corruption or gangrape (and I agree these are serious issues), there would have been some other serious issue (and there are dozens of other serious issues in our country) on which some of our middle classes would have taken to the streets.
It is this deep discontent in our middle classes (for the reasons I have mentioned) that is converting the period of stability India has enjoyed since Independence to a period of instability.
If the people at the helm of affairs do not understand and seriously address this malady, I am afraid India is entering a prolonged period of chaos and anarchy.
( The writer, a former judge of the Supreme Court, is chairman of the Press Council of India. )
Published in The Indian EXPRESS on 07/01/2013.