Poverty in India: A tale of a country's ancient legacy

A country’s past and legacy has a great effect on what they are today. This is strongly shown through the income inequality and poverty in India today. India today is one of the most socially and economically unequal nations, ranking as the 12th most unequal in the world on the gini scale (Sengupta, 1). This, however does not line up with the other statistics of India, being the country with the fastest growing gross domestic product in the world (the Wire,1). Another thing that is unique about the rates of inequality in India is that it doesn’t follow the patterns of change in inequality that most countries do. It is normally expected for small changes in inequality to happen, but after a short period of time, it settles itself back out (Kashmir Times, 1). India doesn’t follow this pattern. In India, income inequality has remained, and has not decreased over time (Sengupta, 1). Looking at these factors, it would seem very unclear as to why India acts that way. However, to find out, you need to look back to India’s past and its lasting legacy that shaped India into what it is today.

Indian boys living in poverty (www.shareyouressays.com)

In today’s society, everywhere you go, there is at least a slight degree of inequality. It is only natural for these differences between different people. This isn’t a problem, though. Having some inequality in a society promotes hard work through competition and a stable economy. For these reasons, most of today’s societies tend to have small amounts of inequality between individuals. Another trend found in income inequality in different countries is that it changes. This was discovered by economist Simon Kuznets in the 1950s (Chakravarty, 1). He said that inequality fluctuates, many times when countries progress and develop in a short period of time. He saw that as a country progressed, inequality would rise for a short period of time and then balance out again. His reasoning for this was as new industry emerges, people start to move into smaller and denser cities with many people fighting for the same jobs and as a result the majority gets paid less. So while bosses and business owners get rich, most of the workers remain poor. However, after a period of time, the government can afford for better public services for the lower classes such as education and healthcare, and the wage gap shortens. He described the changes in income inequality as an upside down “U”.

Economic curve as described by economist Simon Kuznets (www.wikipedia.com)

The trend described by Kuznets does not apply to India. In India, the strict social classes prevent people to be treated the same, so the income inequality that happened when new business began to grow, is probably lasting for longer than you would expect. It is thought that these social and economic inequalities will threaten the country's economic stability (Kashmir Times, 1). To prevent this from happening, the Indian government stepped in to try to correct the economic differences as it did in the 1990's by putting economic reforms into place as an attempt to decrease income inequality. This plan, however, backfired and ended up increasing national inequality. This is because the programs put in place to aid lower class citizens weren't reaching the targeted population (Kashmir Times, 1). Another factor affecting the country was the drastic increase in inflation, especially with food prices over the past three decades (S, 1). With most people unable to afford their basic necessities to live, the percentage of Indians living in poverty rose from 37% to 51% in the same period of time (the Wire, 1).

In recent years, India as a nation has been thriving in its economy, being the the country with the fastest growing GDP in the world (Sengupta, 1) As a result of this, there are many extremely wealthy and successful people in India with a sharp increase of million and billionaires in recent years. This does not reflect on India's general public, however, but rather shows an inverted effect resulting in an increased class divide (Sengupta, 1). As wealthy people of select social classes have children, they will receive the best education and as a result get good jobs and also become wealthy. Poorer families are not able to afford a proper education for their children if at all, so they will become poor as well. Because of this, wealth remains in families and works as a cycle, going against Kuznets theory. Also, generally, in times of prosperity, inequality rises while in times of distress like war, it goes down. In India, there have been no recent wars and there is a rapidly increasing GDP so the rich continue to get richer and the poor become poorer (Kashmir Times, 1).

Indian millionaire, Ratan Tata standing in front of his golden car (redff.com)

India’s class inequality is a result of its religious, Hindu traditions being part of peoples’ social lives. Hinduism is India’s main religion. It was one of the main principals India was founded on, and it has been accepted and practiced in India for thousands of years. Over time, Hinduism began to become part of people’s everyday lives rather than just their religion. The biggest aspect that would affect people’s social lives is the Hindu concept known as the caste system. This concept states that based off of people’s past lives, they are born into different religious rankings. As Hinduism began to become part of people’s everyday lives, the caste system came with it. Today, it acts as a social ranking and shows one’s worthiness. This affects many factors in people’s lives such as job opportunities, marriage, education, and politics (Chakravarty, 1). Discrimination based on caste remains, despite it having been illegal for the past 60 years (the Wire, 1). As a result of this, many people of lower castes will never get the same opportunities as those of higher classes will which causes them to be unable to be employed and must live in poverty. The reason why using the caste system in people’s social lives is such a big problem is that people are born into a caste for life based of off their parents’ castes. This means that not only are people of lower castes treated poorly based off of something they can’t control*, but also their children will have to live through that too since Hindus will typically marry through similar castes. Another problem that this causes is with people who are not Hindus. In Hinduism, there is a caste reserved for these people called the Dalits or outcasts. Hindus believe that if someone was very bad in their past lives that they would be born as Dalits and never understand Hinduism so they will never achieve moksha. Because of this, the Dalits are thought to be the lowest caste. This poses as a very big problem for Hindus in lower classes. Living in a primarily Hindu society, they know that they and their children’s lives will be in poverty, but rejecting Hinduism would make it even worse for them (Chakravarty, 1). For this reason, India’s economic inequality does not follow the curve that Kuznets had described and inequality only gets worse (Sengupta, 1).

Indian woman cooking in poverty (www.nytimes.com)

Kuznets described that in many countries after a period of income inequality based on rapid economic progression, there is an evening out because of improved education and public services for the poor that ultimately result in their getting better jobs. But in India this has not been true, because of the caste system. Even after the people in the lower castes get a good education, they still do not get higher paying jobs. In India income inequality has become a persistent problem because of the underlying religious traditions and beliefs India was founded on.

*Hindus believe it can be affected in past lives.

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