The problem

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INEQUALITY has been one of the most widely talked about subjects in human history, second perhaps only to God. Even when its forms and patterns vary, inequality exists and matters almost everywhere in the human universe. As an aspect of everyday life, inequality shapes institutions, identities of social groups, their perceptions and aspirations. It also influences settlement patterns, economic well-being, consumption habits and political orientations. It thus has various dimensions: social, cultural, economic, political and spatial. Expectedly, it has been a subject of interest for a large variety of experts: economists, sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists and geographers, who have employed a variety of theories and concepts to capture its range and complexities. But inequality is more than simply a subject of academic research. It encapsulates larger moral and ethical concerns and has been a source of political contests, upheavals and revolutions.

Even though the idea of equality, as we understand it today, originated in modern times, references to it are found in many religious movements and ideologies of the past centuries. In more recent times, questions of equality and inequality have become among the most central political and social concerns: from the rise of liberal democratic politics in Western Europe during the 19th century following the French Revolution to the socialist revolutions of the early 20th century and anti-colonial struggles and the nationalist movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The more recent uprisings against oppressive regimes in the Middle East and some parts of the world, or the everyday contestations and mobilizations around questions of gender, race and caste also articulate different shades of the idea of equality.

Academic writings on the subject are vast. Social science thinking on inequality evolved in close conjunction with the rising political appeal for equality over the past two centuries. Scholarship on equality and inequality though emanating mostly from the western context has covered a wide range of its dimensions, some of which are still being explored. From Rousseau’s distinction between natural and moral inequalities and Marx’s analysis of class conflict to the feminist emphasis on personal and intimate being a critical sphere of inequality and power, and the more recent anxiety about the possible politically destabilizing effects of growing economic inequalities at the national and global levels, research on inequality has been pursued by a variety of actors with varying agendas.

Most academic writing and popular discussion in different media on the questions of equality and inequality has tended to revolve around its economic manifestations: disparities of income and wealth across individuals, groups or nation states. Economic disparities are indeed critical and relatively easy to measure; they also determine aspects of ability and access. Economists have also worked out robust methods and modes of calculating inequalities at the macro level for comparisons across societies and countries.

However, inequality is much more than economic disparity. Even though the popular discourse – academic and otherwise – continues to be dominated by economics, the ideas of equality and inequality have travelled substantially, and in different directions, over the past two centuries or so. A good example of this is the idea of citizenship. Following T. H. Marshal, we know how democratic states expanded the sphere of citizenship by institutionalizing universal rights and entitlements in the spheres of education, health care and housing.

Beginning with the student’s movements of the 1960s, the so-called ‘new’ social movements foregrounded questions of equality, dignity and politics. Using different linguistic vocabularies, they demanded the expansion of the normative sphere of culture. Yet, despite changes in political regimes and social attitudes, older questions of race, caste and gender remain. Those pursuing these questions tend to articulate their experiences of marginality, exclusion and humiliation through categories such as discrimination and denial. Citizenship entitlements are thus not simply a matter of equal wages; they are also about human dignity.

The state systems and global institutions are aware of the critical need of managing the growing inequalities that have almost always accompanied the process of economic growth. They attempt to intervene through a range of political and policy initiatives. The socialist regimes that emerged during the 20th century promised an end to inequality through nationalization of economic and political life. The ‘open’ societies of the West argued instead for the institutionalization of a political and institutional regime that would ensure equality of opportunities. Inequality of outcomes, they argued, was not only less problematic to manage but possibly, even desirable for a healthy realization of human potential and national growth. For countries of the South, global developmental institutions such as the World Bank and UNDP have underlined the need of targeting absolute ‘poverty’ through direct state action. More recently, they have also argued for recognition of long-standing social exclusions grounded in group identities and the need for targeted policies for their empowerment and human development.

The past decade has seen some interesting developments. The triumphalism of the neo-liberal economic regimes during the early 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union, turned out to be short lived. The unending economic crises in the leading western economies on the one hand, and the growing economic strength of China and other countries of the South on the other, are rapidly changing the world. Additionally, following the neo-liberal turn in many states, issues related to accessing rights and entitlements, for example around health care or dispossession resulting from economic development projects, have acquired new visibility.

The growing concentration of wealth in a few hands is not simply a matter of economic disparities. When merely one percent super rich own nearly half the global wealth, they also seek to shape political regimes as per their viewpoint, hoping to control minds through the media and shape aspirations to serve their interests. As Thomas Piketty and many others have stressed, such economic disparities pose a serious challenge to democracy.

India too has been a site of interesting developments and debates over inequality during the past two decades and more. While the country continues to have the largest number of the chronically poor, numbers larger than for Sub-Saharan Africa, it also hosts the third largest number of billionaires in the world today. If we were to compare India’s total national income in terms of purchasing power parity, it is already the third largest economy in the world, after the United States and China. Already the absolute number of rich Indians – middle and upper-middle classes – exceeds the total population of many big countries of Western Europe.

More importantly, inequalities in India are not only relative and economic. A large majority of the poor live in absolute misery, with no guaranteed housing, health care or even basic nutrition. Poverty and prosperity in India overlap with other older and ascriptive forms of inequality – of caste, community, region, settlements and gender.

Unlike during the earlier phase of capitalist expansion following the industrial revolution in Europe, few countries of the world have today any viable political force that seeks to confront inequality head on. Nevertheless, its presence continues to trouble and remains an important subject in the social science academy, in everyday life and in politics and policy.

This issue of Seminar aims to bring together scholars from a variety of disciplines to ‘rethink’ social inequality by focusing on its different dimensions in the contemporary Indian context. Besides revisiting old subjects such as class, caste, community, gender and their inter-sections, it also attempts to explore newer concepts and concerns. These range from exploring cultures of inequalities, middle class consumption, luxuries and privileges of the elite to the exclusions and humiliations of the marginalized; those relating to enduring compelling social and political concerns: education, health care, and citizenship to those directly relating to statecraft: law, affirmative action and violence.