Category Archives: Poverty

The Indian Constitution and Human Dignity: for Economists

The field of law and economics is a glamorous one with economists such as Ronald Coase, Gary Becker and Richard Posner. It was Coase who provided the inspiration to law and economics through his introduction of ‘transaction cost economics.’ And Becker was the one who extended the domain of economics to virtually any social phenomena. Issues such as law, crime, marriage, family, etc came to be studied by economists. Although, the tools used never varied. It was the same old microeconomic baggage of neoclassical economics. Suddenly, neoclassical economics started feeling successful all over again. Their theory of value and pricing started explaining various social and cultural processes in the economy. However, this post is not a commentary on law and economics that is practised. For an excellent commentary on its origins and methodology, see the article by William Davies ‘Economics and the ‘nonsense’ of law: the case of the Chicago antitrust revolution’ in Economy and Society published in 2010.

The content of this post certainly falls under the label of law and economics. However, this post discusses certain aspects of the Constitution of India in the the light of economic policies undertaken-that of liberalization. The quotations in this post are from Dr. Durga Das Basu’s Introduction to the Constitution of India, reprinted in December 2009.

Economic Justice

The banishment of poverty, not by expropriation of those who have, but by the multiplication of the national wealth and resources and an equitable distribution thereof amongst all who contribute towards its production, is the aim of the State envisaged by the Directive Principles. Economic democracy will be installed in our sub-continent to the extent that this goal is reached. In short, economic justice aims at establishing economic democracy and a ‘Welfare State’.

The idea of economic justice is to make equality of status meaningful and life worth living at its best removing inequality of opportunity and of status-social, economic and political.

That is, an increase in growth rate is seen as the way to banish poverty. This principle is certainly based on the idea that growth trickles down. As has been witnessed in India, all that liberalization has achieved is ‘jobless growth’. Hence, the need for policy documents to shout for ‘inclusive growth’.

Now, all those who contribute to wealth by being producers are supposed to be compensated. It is on this class, that the burden of development falls. For, they do not have the adequate social and economic voice to demand for ‘just distribution’.

Can India claim social justice just by making opportunities equal? Equal opportunities perform their function only in an already just and equitable society, and not in countries where inequality of income and wealth is so skewed. Thus, an active intervention is necessary at the level of production as well as distribution of GDP.

Nehru’s idea of Socialism is that “every individual in the State should have equal opportunity for progress.” However, this idea cannot hold any water until the institutions in the State are examined- judiciary, executive, military, private enterprise, unorganised sector, etc. For instance, some groups of people are exploited as producers, where they are paid less than minimum wages. Therefore, as a consumer, they get exploited as well. This then passes on to their access to health, schooling, sanitation, housing, and so on.

Individual Liberty

The Preamble, therefore, says that the State, in India, will assure the dignity of the Individual. “All citizens men and women equally, have the right to an dequate means of livelihood, just and humane conditions of work, and a decent standard of life and full enjoyment of leisure and social and cultural opportunities.”

When economists and policy makers talk of ‘inclusive growth’, it is the dignity of the individual which is at stake. Often, India’s characteristics such as high reliance on agriculture, a large percentage of unorganised sector, immobility of labour and the like are labelled as detrimental to India’s growth and development. One cannot help but ask: Whose growth? Such perceptions by the academia are largely a result of the manner in which human beings figure in micro and macro economics. If you take a moment to think about it, you will realise that poor people-who are a heterogeneous group- is absent from our theoretical edifice. Why? Who are we analysing? And to discuss poverty, we have created a sub-discipline called ‘development economics’.

In any case, human dignity appears to be of lesser importance than the computation of growth rates using yearly and quarterly data. We are satisfied to decipher whether stock market exhibits volatility or not? Or whether market A is co-integrated with market Z. Does this satisfaction come from the fact that stock market data is easily available? What about the farmers, the child labourers, the migrant labourers who are forced to leave their place and family, of street vendors, and all the others who actually engage in production?

Until dignity of human life features implicitly or explicitly in economics, it will continue to be a lifeless endeavour. Sadly enough, we are taught economics is the study of choice? Whose choices? Those who have the ability to choose? It is time we discarded such economics and re-visited economists such as Adam Smith, Joan Robinson, Amit Bhaduri, and others whose works show a concern for humans.

India and it’s ‘Segregated Growth’

This article tries to show that high rates of GDP in India need not trickle down to the rest of the masses and also strives to explain why ‘segregated growth’ further fuels inequality. By ‘segregated growth’, I refer to growth which takes place in sectors which employ relatively a small percentage of the total labour force.

The IT revolution is happening but the GDP contribution of agriculture is decreasing.  One inference from this change could be that, labour from agriculture is migrating to the services sector; but that is not the case in India. India is witnessing farmer suicides, increased debts, droughts and low productivity in the agricultural sector.

Sustained economic growth requires progress in several dimensions – education, health, infrastructure, legal institutions, etc. [Noll 2006] For the whole of the population to enjoy sustainable growth, it is essential that growth takes place in all sectors of the economy. Otherwise, it will lead to growth, but only in a few sectors, like the IT boom which India faced. This growth is not sustainable in the long run. Another consequence of such ‘segregated growth’ is that, the GDP figures will show an increase. And as the GDP is the most commonly used (By the media) measure among the masses to portray economic growth, the picture presented will appear rosy.

Moreover, the per capita income will also show a rise due to the increase productivity coming from ‘such sectors’. This increased GDP will not trickle down as many economists and others state. This increased income accruing to the denizens of ‘such sectors’ will only be spent in conspicuous consumption. Thorstein Veblen coined the words ‘conspicuous consumption’ in his book ‘The Theory of the Leisure Class’. The basis on which good repute in any highly organised industrial community ultimately rests is pecuniary strength; and the means of showing pecuniary strength, and so of gaining or retaining a good name are leisure and a conspicuous consumption of goods. [Veblen 1899]

On Poverty

And though the country (India) has made significant strides – poverty levels are roughly 35%, down from close to 60% in the 1970s, (by the World bank’s $ 1 a day definition of poverty, though precise numbers are the subject of never-ending debate) – the benefits of this rapid growth are yet to trickle down to the masses. [Bhusnurmath 2006]

Development agencies define poverty as an income of less than $2 per person per day (about $3,000 annually for a family of four). By this standard, nearly 3 billion people are poor. [Noll 2006]

I wonder why India still defines poverty as an income of less than a dollar per day for a person. I had argued for a restructuring of the current poverty line in another article of mine. Probably the present estimate makes it easier to state that poverty levels have come down from 60% to around 35%!

On Development

Amit Bhaduri, in his recent paper in the Economic and Political Weekly, wonders if it is Developmental Terrorism or Development which is taking place.

Destruction of livelihoods and displacement of the poor in the name of industrialisation, big dams for power generation and irrigation, corporatisation of agriculture despite farmers’ suicides, and modernisation and beautification of our cities by demolishing slums are showing everyday how development can turn perverse. [Bhaduri 2007]

Conclusion

Thus, the Indian populace is dichotomized in terms of economic growth; there are certain areas where growth levels are very high along with a majority of sectors which are witnessing a decline. Thus, this kind of ‘segregated growth’ fails to ‘trickle down’ to other sectors of the economy.

References

1) Roger Noll, The Foreign Aid Paradox, SIEPR Policy Brief, October 2006.

2) Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899. (Full book available here)

3) Mythili Bhusnurmath, Time for a reality check, www.forumblog.org, November 25, 2006.

4) Amit Bhaduri, Development or Developmental Terrorism?, EPW, February 17, 2007.