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Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2008 > June 14, 2008 > Capabilities’ Qualifier: Can the Gap be Bridged?

Mainstream Vol. XLVI No 26

Capabilities’ Qualifier: Can the Gap be Bridged?

Sunday 15 June 2008, by Uttam Sen


The development of capabilities can liberate people from ancient snares and provide them lives of reasonable dignity and contentment. The ability to lead healthy lives, read and write, form opinions and share them constructively with one’s milieu are the foundations on which the idea of composite well-being has been built. The skills required to draw incomes and nurture livelihoods are integral to the process but their acquisition is not spontaneous and is dependent on a host of externalities. Rural inhabitants are moving from the country to the cities creating pressures on urban resources. Employment, except in highly specialised sectors, is uncertain when it is not at a premium. The pursuit of happiness with the greater social good in mind is not a new one but the effort to respond to contemporary issues is. For example, the perception that society as a whole is rendered vulnerable if too many among a demographic aggregate are perched on the brink, brings to mind farmers’ suicides and the question whether their survival should concern those who live in the cities. Despite the wider ramifications, enlightened opinion considers the subject critical because it is a humanitarian one and people need succour when they are in trouble.

One has sometimes to look beyond one’s immediate environment for answers to the complexities of human development, for example, at rural penury, a legacy of the hinterland’s exploitation by the big coastal centres. The picture can get clouded over when the predicament is not the nearest in time and space to one’s own. Exposure to the inversely prosperous urban-industrial sector can confound the subject further. But the continuum is brought round again when we are reminded that the Indian middle-classes were a direct product of the 19th century mercantile establishments and that recovery of the hinterland has been an unfulfilled promise from the time of independence.

Yet treating the material ways of the prosperous sections of the urban sector with superior disdain can be counterproductive. Professional and business members of society are intimidated at the end of the day by perceived political grandstanding. Insult is added to injury when seemingly academic dimensions of ethics are delineated to prove a point, particularly when they go against the grain of the indiscriminate, random, often vicious, negotiation of the marketplace. This is probably the decisive juncture and open to debate. Can the virtual covenants of equality and justice made by law-makers with the people be gradually ignored as the State withdraws and a spoils system takes over? If not, why should the empowerment of the majority aggravate certain sections more than half-a-century after the founding fathers had made the unprecedented decision to bestow universal adult franchise on the whole country? On the other hand, the devil’s advocate could argue that such alleged political subsidy to the poor amounts to catering to a vote-bank. Is it distinguishable from superseding enterprise and affluence with apathy and indigence?

In all humility these are not questions framed in an accusatory or combative mode. Law-abiding citizens feeling harassed at the thought of constitutional pledges being redeemed is a paradox. On the ground, a vital aspect of the capabilities project, namely, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme was best implemented in the BJP-run State of Madhya Pradesh. Popular commitment can be created where the compulsions for doing so are clarified along with the roadmap ahead.

Scholarly tomes tell us that wider empowerment will translate into greater involvement of people in civic life. Conversely, as noted, impoverishment even on the periphery is fraught with the danger of the entire body politic eventually getting infected. The moot point is whether this churning will gradually change the public mindset and create in the psyche of ordinary people in general an ambience of security in which the cavalier benchmarks of the spoils system are tempered. One has to be bigoted to resent the free play of market forces on level ground. Equipping farmers with technology that makes them prosperous and keen to cultivate their land rather than seek refuge in the city, or creating access for the average city-dweller to higher professional skills so that he can gradually gain empowerment and secure his entitlements, provide the basis of a well-being package.

The irony of the situation lies in the partial reality that the urban elite have never had it so good, that economic growth has been dramatic, that business, science and technology, even military capacity, have at places attained the cutting edge of global standards. Claims to big power status have credible support. The prevalent high growth rate, excess savings and a comfortable balance of payments position are leading Indian business houses to purchase Western assets while the inhabitants of Europe and North America focus on consumption. The phenomenon promises to go much further with all-round growth, a prospect that is reason enough for celebration. A shift in global balance (in favour of BRIC, namely, Brazil , Russia , India and China ) is emerging as an out-of-the-way proposition already. The budding excellence demonstrated by avant-garde Indian corporates is therefore not to be trifled with.

BUT the other part is the story of jobless growth, asymmetry within the city and between town and country. Leaving aside the theory on the sustainability or otherwise of this condition for the moment, it is the humanitarian aspect of the disparity that fleshes out sensitive responses in the public sphere. Basic security and effective voice to these sections, and others like the urban lower middle classes, would also have enabled them to articulate their resentment against inflation and force the government’s hand on pernicious trading practices ( to the extent possible because high oil prices and inflation are now global phenomena). The incompleteness of representative democracy when a large segment feels deprived and powerless reflects a glaring blight that can rebound on the government. If these people were more integral to mainstream discourse they would have been better disposed to appreciate the fact that beyond a point, national and State governments themselves need support and changing them at election time because of rising prices does not necessarily resolve the problem. Stability can be ameliorative. For such a condition to come about transparency in governance and convincing expression of policy are important. This cycle appears to predicate that closer attention to the otherwise voiceless can pay tangible dividends.

The media and the public sphere have been broadly seen as instrumentalities in the process of exploration. There is reason to hope that as in trend-setting science and technology, rigorous research will unravel solutions. Compared with the domains of intellectually exacting specialisation, the realm of communications provides relatively less challenging and more accessible portals to knowledge (though the exclusion of certain subjects sometimes belies that expectation). Science and technology have been reduced to casualties when denied openness and exchange. Discourse will hopefully remain positive to developments. It could lend a hand in disseminating the probing that is under way, as it mostly does.

It helps, for instance, to learn that Europe’s agrarian crisis was resolved by large migrations of classes corresponding to marginalised farmers to the New World, or that the erstwhile Soviet Union succeeded in resolving the problem through its agricultural surplus. India does not have similar comfort on the horizon but it can shore up livelihood systems faced with extinction. It is true that migrants are flocking into prosperous cities across State boundaries. But a city like Mumbai has been facing them for more than a century as droughts and epidemics drove in the destitute from as afar as Kutch. Attention to detail would show that investment in education, health and housing makes the “son of the soil” not only secure but competitive and wanted in the job market. The rural migrant, or the inter-State itinerant, could become a welcome rarity rather than an intimidating intruder. An advertisement on television is imaginatively projecting the potential autonomy of the individual through the NREG programme. Preferences would inevitably point towards augmenting capabilities (or abilities) for a better quality of life.

Constitutional and legal commitments have to be seen in their current perspective. A demographic explosion has shifted the goalpost for poverty amelioration by increasing the number of mouths to feed. Economic liberalisation has admittedly reduced controls and at places unleashed productive forces but it has also reduced the State’s writ and allowed unscrupulous cogs in the economic wheel to maximise personal profit, at the expense of others. There are enough indications that the poor and the vulnerable need the State’s protection not only to nurture their livelihoods but maintain some of their democratic prerogatives. ( The reported liquidation of an NGO worker involved in the NREG programme in Jharkhand is a grim reminder of the potential danger). Even tangential participation in governance through the voice to acquire indispensable requirements is one of them. The State’s interventionist role in providing essential services, health, housing and education, maintaining food supply through the public distribution system and keeping prices within the compass of the average person through suitable policies, are therefore appropriate. But the private sector’s growing presence and efficiency can also bring private-public partnerships into the picture, particularly in the delivery of services. A measure like the Right to Information Act has given the average person unprecedented reach into the working of governance, though its functioning is still at a formative phase; there has been reluctance on the part of officialdom to part with what it considers classified information and frivolous public interest litigation.

Equally pioneering work has been done in bringing hunger to the attention of the political parties and the government, a legislation enacted and the necessity of finding the means to resolve the problem eloquently expressed. Employment for food through a national programme has on balance appeared promising. An overall urgency towards capacity creation can also work towards the making of a purposeful meritocracy, a vital facilitator of welfare. But should the reformist zeal be dissipated in solely mobilising the disadvantaged for political ends, the results could be anti-climatic.

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