IN 1820, German philosopher Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, in his seminal work Elements of the Philosophy of Right, remarked that “the important question of how poverty is to be abolished is one of the most disturbing problems which agitate modern society.” We are nearing the end of 2023; poverty continues to be a festering sore in countries such as India, but no one seems to be particularly agitated about how it can be eradicated. The only solution politicians have to offer when elections are round the corner is caste-based reservation. The Bihar Assembly recently cleared a Bill to increase reservation in government jobs and educational institutions from the existing 60 per cent to 75 per cent. Bihar’s caste census has shown that one out of every three families in the state is poor. What were the ruling classes of Bihar, or for that matter any state, doing all these years? They possess unimaginable power but they are not bothered about poverty.
The rulers at the Centre tell us that the caste census goes against the nation. Both sides cleverly sideline the only solution to poverty — redistribution of resources. Are our ruling parties really unaware that power can be creatively used to redistribute resources through the generation of employment and progressive taxation? They choose to ignore a basic value coded in the Preamble to the Constitution — equality. They refuse to engage with fundamental questions that should bother every right-thinking Indian: Why are people poor? Why should they remain poor?
Hegel had an answer to the first question: “Once society is established, poverty immediately takes the form of a wrong done to one class by another.” Poverty is the outcome of an unjust and unequal social order. It traps human beings in a never-ending spiral of want and deprivation, humiliation and despair. The answer to the second question follows. If society is responsible for the creation and reproduction of poverty, it should be responsible for eradicating this rotting blister in a profoundly unjust society. In this society, the rich have far, far, more than they need. And 80 crore Indians have to be given free rations because they go to bed hungry. The poor live much below the level of what we recognise as a worthwhile human life. This is obscene.
There is more to poverty. People are not only poor; they are socially marginalised and politically insignificant because they have only a vote and no voice, and are routinely subjected to humiliation. To be poor is to be robbed of the opportunity to participate in social, economic and cultural transactions from a plane of equality. Poverty, therefore, is not only about lack of access to resources — it is about inequality.
Though poverty can be theorised in abstraction, inequality is a relationship. People are poor because a minority has cornered the resources of society. Witness the extent of inequality: elected politicians ride in luxury cars, wear designer clothes, sport luxury watches and sunglasses and reside in palatial homes. And little children beg at traffic lights. Can we reflect on poverty without taking into account background inequalities? And unless we take on background inequalities, will poverty not continue to be produced and reproduced ad infinitum? Inequality reflects poorly on the ethics of society; it is also the result of bad politics that is indifferent to human want.
Egalitarians do not deny that people should benefit from their entrepreneurship. They want that all human beings should be given the chance to access opportunities that enable them to hone their talents and skills so that they can live a life worth living. Egalitarians want society to recognise that social, political and economic institutions systematically disadvantage people and deny them access to opportunity. Inventive and imaginative political interventions can redistribute resources through provision of public goods, say, education and health, and progressive taxation. This can be justified in terms of putative obligations that we owe our fellow citizens. If background inequalities force certain people to live below the poverty line, this should be seen as a serious infringement of the right to equality granted by our Constitution.
Notably, the cause of poverty in the country is not only economic. A substantial number of the poor belong to the Scheduled and Backward Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Reservation was originally designed for the doubly disadvantaged — those who were economically disprivileged because they were socially discriminated against. Over the years, the ambit of reservation has been widened to include the Backward Castes and the economically deprived. In the process, redistribution has disappeared from the political agenda and replaced by reservation. It has become a soft option. As the demand for reservation reaches a crescendo, the original justification for this departure from formal equality has become more difficult.
Much of the discontent over political demands can be resolved if reservation is seen as a second-order principle. Priority should be given to redistribution. But for our ruling classes, redistribution is too much work. They would rather offer reservation as a fig leaf to conceal their misgovernance. A flawed vision can only be righted when we agree that people have rights to basic goods that enable them to take advantage of the opportunities society has to offer. After that, special protection can be offered to the double disadvantaged. For this, we have to extend the political discourse on poverty to redistributive justice.
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