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Of Birkins and basics: An unequal nation

Monday, 28 January 2013 - 8:30am IST | Agency: dna
To posit Birkin against basics may seem facetious. But the point needs to be made to give a sense of the awesome challenges that lie ahead. If everyone has the basics, and some have Birkins, it is one thing. India faces a starkly different situation.

On India’s 64th Republic Day, it was good to learn something new about the nation, its new ‘hip’ lingo and about oneself. Now, I know that I am destined to remain multibagamous. In most spheres, the prefix ‘multi’ is a marker of plenty, a sign of prosperity. But as far as bags are concerned, it is reportedly the opposite. A national newspaper says ‘monobagamous’ is the thing to be, if you are lapping in luxury and cannot bear the thought of others not knowing it. To take a vow of ‘monobagamy’, you must swear by your Birkin and take it everywhere. Yes, it is the same Hermès Birkin handbag that grabbed headlines when Pakistan’s foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar came visiting this country in 2011.Those in monobagamous relationships, however, cannot be complacent anymore as the love of luxury spreads in the country, and monobagamy is at risk of losing its lustrous exclusivity.

For the rest of us, the multibagamous masses who possess several ordinary bags, this is good news. Indeed, on a day when we are typically assailed by a surge of notions about the nation, one was struck, once again, by the continuing paradox that is India. Some worry about Birkins; others barely have the basics.

Despite the gloomy forecasts about the economy, India’s luxury market is forecast to grow to $14.7 billion by 2015, says a 2012 market guide of the Paris-based Luxury Society. Meanwhile, even the government now concedes that though the incidence of poverty has plummeted over five years from 2004-05 to 2009-10, disparities have increased.

Using the standard measure for inequality, the Gini Coefficient (a Gini coefficient of 0 signifies perfect equality of income and a coefficient of 1 signifies perfect inequality and the closer the coefficient is to 1, the more unequal is the income distribution), a mixed picture emerges. The Planning Commission’s own figures show inequality worsened in the rural areas of 10 states and the urban areas of 18 states. For example, inequality rose sharply in rural areas of even an affluent state like Punjab (0.26 to 0.29), Kerala (0.29 to 0.35), Bihar (0.19 to 0.22), Madhya Pradesh (0.24 to 0.28) and Assam (0.18 to 0.22) but came down in the rural areas of Goa, Delhi, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Haryana and Chhattisgarh. The situation in urban India is more disturbing: Barring Chhattisgarh, Goa and Tamil Nadu, inequality rose in almost all other States.

The inequality is not just an inequality of income but also of opportunity. An unacceptably large number of Indians do not have the basics for the development of their human capability and therefore have slim chances of tapping into opportunities even if the economy roars.

To posit Birkin against basics may seem facetious. But the point needs to be made to give a sense of the awesome challenges that lie ahead. If everyone has the basics, and some have Birkins, it is one thing. India faces a starkly different situation. Here, for example, there are glaring differences even in the chance of survival of newborns. According to the latest Annual Health Survey (2010-11), the neo-natal mortality rate (death in the first four weeks after birth, expressed per 1,000 live births in a year) across 284 surveyed districts ranges from 11 in Rudraprayag, Uttarakhand to 75 in Balangir, Orissa, a seven-fold variability. And this is only one indicator.

One could, of course, point to the wide disparities in the developed world. A Hispanic baby born in Colorado, United States, is 63 per cent more likely than a white baby to die in the first year of life, according to data compiled by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. One can also argue that China, which has seen the highest economic growth, is seeing a spiralling disparity of wealth.

But to take refuge under such comparisons does not help in the long haul. Each country has to  formulate its own strategy to deal with inequalities. India is predominantly young and aspirational. For those aspirations to fructify there has to be equality of opportunity so that everyone can benefit from the India growth story. That should be a non-negotiable. The cost of ignoring inequalities is simply too high. And this is not just a pet peeve of left-liberals of the world any more. The just-concluded meet of the World Economic Forum in Davos flagged the the Global Risks 2012 report’s warning that  economic imbalances and social inequality risk reversing the gains of globalisation.

Patralekha Chatterjee is a Delhi-based writer




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