Dr Bharat Jhunjhunwala
The Naxalite attack in Chhattisgarh is a wake-up call. Naxalism first reared its head in West Bengal in the seventies. We have tried to suppress the rebellious poor for the last forty years with virtually no success. Problem is that we see Naxalites as misguided anti-social persons. We are unwilling to realise that they have support of a large body of the poor people of the country. We need to focus on the reasons why the poor support the Naxalites instead of denigrating them.
The main issue today is not of poverty. The main issue is that of inequality which has increased beyond socially sustainable levels. Certain degree of inequality is necessary for the growth of any species. The bees will not grow if all bees are reduced to the same level of equality. None will be able to become queen bee and procreation will come to an end. Or, the tribal society has collapsed because it was too equal. The division of labour required for making guns—miner, smelter, chemist, etc.—was not possible in an equal society. As a result they could not stand up to the invaders armed with guns. The unequal won against the equal.
On the other hand, inequality becomes a destructive force beyond a certain point. Lions of the herd will be starved if the king lion were to eat away all the meat. The lone surviving king too would hardly be able to hunt and survive on his own. Mankind has likewise both accepted certain degree of inequality; but also ensured that the upper classes do not capture all the resources. At the same time mankind has discarded equal distribution. Man will be reduced to a primitive existence if the resources are distributed equally. Every man will spend all his time growing food and weaving cloth and have little time left to make spacecrafts or computers. A particular level of inequality is best for the growth and survival of any species.
The immediate problem is that inequality is increasing beyond the point of sustainability. Incomes of the masses are stagnant, or increasing marginally, while incomes of the rich are increasing very rapidly. The difference of income between the street corner shopkeeper and his employee would be, say, 10 times. The shop keeper may earn Rs 50k per month and pay a salary of 5k to his employee. The situation is dramatically different in the case of Wal Mart. The annual profits are USD 16 billion whereas the average salary of the employee is USD 24k. The difference is 600,000 times. This happens because globalisation has enabled owners of Wal Mart to earn profits from across the world. Profits tend to increase with expansion of technology. The employee, on the other hand, has to compete with others workers from across the world. Hence wages tend to decline with the integration of the world economy. This is leading inexorably to an unprecedented increase in inequality in our society. This is not the first time this is happening though.
Inequality has increased throughout history. The productivity of labour increased manyfold consequent to the introduction of iron tools in ancient Greece. Those technological developments were no less exciting than those of the internet today. It was also an era of globalisation with Alexander’s empire stretching across Asia. But did it lead to an increase in the wages of the common man? No. J D Bernal writes in his seminal work Science in History: “The beauties of the Greek cities, temples, statues and vases blind us to the fact that the way of life for most people in civilised countries at the fall of the Roman Empire was much what it had been 2,000 years before when the old Bronze Age civilisation had collapsed.” Technological developments of the Iron Age and globalisation a la’ Alexander brought no improvement in the conditions of the Greek labour.
The historical precedent has another lesson for us. Leaders of that ancient empire were not able to reduce inequality. The slaves were disillusioned. They had an emotional disconnect with the leaders. Thus, they sided with the Berbers when they attacked Greece and the Grand Empire was reduced to dust. The British Empire was moving in the same direction in the nineteenth century. The leaders, however, saw the impending danger and brought in a spate of laws to reduce the length of work day, ensure payment of minimum wages and other similar measures. That ensured peace in England. The same British Empire could not secure improvement of the living conditions of the people in India and was thrown out from here. The lesson is clear. The leaders will survive only if they are able to establish some sense of equality and secure loyalty of the common man. The society collapses if the common man is disenchanted.
This has been described by historian Arnold J Toynbee in A Study of History. He says that a civilisation grows as long as the leaders pay attention to the welfare of the common man and obtain support of masses by their policies. Such leaders he calls ‘Creative Minority’. On the other hand, civilisations decline when the leaders impose policies on unwilling masses. Such leaders he calls ‘dominant minority’. Breakdown of civilisations takes place because the rulers instead of creatively leading the masses, try to dominate them.
The attack in Chhattisgarh clearly indicates that the common man is disenchanted. His resources of forests and minerals are being worked mainly to the benefit of the cities. He sees this as loot even though this may be leading to the development of the country.
Four out of 100 richest persons in the world live in India. Nearly half of the poor of the world also live here. It is this widening of inequality that lies behind the Chhattisgarh massacre. British NGO Oxfam has calculated that wealth of the hundred richest persons has increased by Rs 13k crore in the last year. Each of the poorest 100 crore peoples of the world would get Rs 13k if only the increase in their wealth were to be distributed.
The so-called welfare measures such as MNREGA and Direct Benefit Transfer have failed to mitigate this increasing inequality. These measures are welcome. They provide relief to the poorest people. But these are predicated on an increase in inequality. Taxes are collected out of the higher profits earned by the rich and used to provide these welfare measures. Therefore, increase in inequality is an integral part of the present development model.
We must put in place measures to suppress inequality. Suppression of rebellion will not work as it has not worked in the last forty years.