A boy struggles to complete high school and he is the first person in his village to do so. A year later, when he cannot find employment, he ends up digging for sand on a dry riverbed. A dairy farmer breaks her hip while milking a cow, and is forced to sell her silver anklets to pay for substandard but expensive medical care. These are some of the heartbreaking, harrowing stories of India’s one billion plus that we encounter in Anirudh Krishna’s book.
Our age is marked by two grand narratives: globalization and democratization— which are not readily compatible. While the move toward democracy requires a certain civic equality among all participants, globalization in its present form accentuates social inequality. The Broken Ladder addresses the core issues of our democratic polity to underscore its faultlines. Our country represents a paradox, juxtaposing an impressive growth record and some of the trendiest investment opportunities with a large number of poor and undernourished people cut off from these opportunities that accrue from globalization.
Elites in India can only see how their futures might be more closely linked with a larger global project, and less intimately linked with vast segments of their own country, the poor and the disempowered. The rising inequality emanating from decisions based on such an attitude has costs that keep accumulating. An important source of difference that persists between India and the advanced economies of the West is that a greater share of the Indian population lives in rural areas. The hinterland is frequently seen as a drag on India’s progress, preventing the achievement of faster modernization.
There is enough evidence of growing spatial inequalities, and a widening rift between cities and villages. One part of the explanation has to do with what economists refer to as ‘agglomeration effects’. Another part has to do with attitudinal shifts and policy orientation. Market-driven agglomeration effects explain why financiers, suppliers of intermediate goods and maintenance services, and a mass of workers with diverse skills are commonly attracted to locations with superior infrastructural facilities and growing economic opportunities, namely, big cities. Specialized colleges, libraries and bookshops, shopping malls crop up in the clusters of big cities that are inhabited by highly skilled professionals and their families. As this dynamic gathers pace, the separation between the groups widens.
This poses serious challenges to our democracy. Disaffection grows among the poor since national and international trade deals, as tools of globalization, are viewed by them as working only to the advantage of the o1ne per cent, while imperilling the lives of the majority. Education reinforces these inequalities. During the colonial era, a small class of people—urban, middle class, English-speaking and college educated, ‘Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes and opinions,’ (to cite Macaulay’s infamous policy document)—came into being that amassed considerable cultural and intellectual resources, acquiring disproportionate economic weight and policy influence. This colonial-era policy has not been reversed and the bias in educational management has persisted well into the seventh decade of democratic rule.
‘Members of the Indian middle class conceptualise a distinction between the children of the poor and their own children,’ explained the political scientist Myron Weiner. A distinction is made between children as ‘hands’ and children as ‘minds’—that is, between the child who must be taught to ‘work’ and the child who must be taught to ‘learn’, the acquisition of manual skills as distinctive from cognitive skills. The resultant policies have enabled the middle class to send their children to separate private schools, while the lower classes send their children to underequipped municipal and village schools. The state as well as opportunities remains at a considerable distance, both physically and cognitively, from this group of ordinary citizens.
The author examines the wasted potential of the two-thirds of the Indian population that is effectively locked up in villages by a lack of education, networks, and job opportunities. The belief that they can’t move up in society is well established but also self-reinforcing, and the author convincingly argues that India will never succeed without tapping into this reservoir of talent. He shows why the problem cannot be fixed with macro-level policies, such as easing licensing requirements and courting foreign investment. The bottom-up policies that he suggests—building roads and schools (with motivated teachers), local control of school boards, village-level mentorship pro-grammes, internships for village children in cities, more rural libraries, empowered field-level officials and new local institutions to hold them accountable and carry out effective social audit—are rooted in this development paradigm.
The author underlines the basic paradox of our modernizing drive, that poverty is being created even as it is being reduced. How can policy interventions aimed at poverty alleviation take this into consideration? The central question in this book is about the ladder that leads out of poverty: why is it broken in so many places? How can it be fixed? As the author rightly points out, these problems don’t assume a single monolithic solution. While we look at the bigger picture we need to find solutions that can work, are localized and, more importantly, sustainable. Though technology can provide transformative solutions to some of the pressing problems, it must be used with caution to avoid its centralizing impact. Our policy makers may recall the talisman Gandhi once gave: ‘Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him.’
Satish C. Aikant is a former Professor and Head, Department of English, H.N.B. Garhwal University, and former Fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. He is a critic and translator.