Opinion

‘Aspirational India’ story bites the dust

Puja Mehra | Updated on May 26, 2020 Published on May 26, 2020

Today’s desperate, hungry migrants, once dubbed by optimists as the ‘neo-middle class’, have been orphaned by public policy

It’s been nearly 60 days since India slapped a draconian lockdown that shut down the economy, immobilised people and disrupted earnings. The self-induced paralysis could not crush the epidemiological curve. But it has crushed a large section of the population — informal workers stranded in now-closed workplaces, desperate to return home. Even weeks after the lockdown was announced, most have no reliable recourse to escape the indignity and suffering. In Aurangabad, a train accident left 16 such Indians crushed on railway tracks.

Distressed migrant labourers are being called ‘invisible workers’ in the public discourse. They are a large share of the country’s informal workforce, that powers half of the GDP. To escape poverty, they come to the cities where they construct homes, offices and comfortable lives for better-off Indians. Are these people invisible, though? Hasn’t Prime Minister Narendra Modi dubbed them the “neo-middle class”?

The neo-middle class comprises the newcomers to the urban economy, wrote political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot, explaining the term Modi devised ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. “Their joining the neo-middle class is related to their work in a factory, a sweatshop in the informal sector, as a chaiwala (à la Slumdog Millionaire) or as a driver (like the key character in Aravind Adiga’s novel, The White Tiger). They may not earn much, since the wages of the labourers are very low in Gujarat, but at least they have jobs (since the unemployment rate — perhaps correlatively — is also very low), and they have hopes of a brighter future. The “neo-middle class” is an aspiring category.”

First approach

The construction boom 10-12 years ago raised labour wages and gave this class some economic ascent. Lakhs flocked to the cities in response to surging demand for drivers, house helps, private security guards and other support staff needs of the better-off classes. Working for the privileged had made the neo-middle class acutely aware of the growing economic disparities between them and those they work for. The city earnings were a shade better than the wages in the villages, but there was no escaping deprivation. A single shock, sickness or accident, could push them back into poverty. Modi promised them upward mobility, pledged to create a better future, the “achche din”, and won a decisive mandate for change.

The aspirations lie in the dust now. The last time Modi spoke of this class was in the 2019 the Lok Sabha election campaign at the “Vijay Sankalp Sabha” address near Panaji, Goa: “Poverty reduced in the past five years, and a neo-middle class is emerging in the country.” The Prime Minister’s address to the nation on May 12 announcing a ₹20-lakh crore economic package made no specific reference to the neo-middle class. Subsequently, in media interviews, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said her efforts are constrained by the unavailability of data, administrative mechanisms and policy instruments for delivering relief in a targeted way to this class of workers.

It seems the aspirationals have collapsed into forgotten destitutes.

Economic trouble

The faultline between promise and policy had first emerged after demonetisation, which hurt the neo-middle class disproportionately. The breach deepened with the BJP’s national executive seeking to explain away the informal economy’s pain as “creative destruction”, necessary for driving formalisation. Their struggles increased when the GST and the unravelling of the NBFC sector sent the construction industry scrounging for cash.

But Modi enjoys an advantage. He has unmatched resources for targeting people with carefully-crafted messages on social and mainstream media. The Prime Minister succeeded in projecting demonetisation as a soaking-the-rich move. The aspirational class forgave the indignity and loss of incomes. The economic conditions did not improve, but public trust in him remained high.

Ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, he turned to populism to appease the neo-middle class. A constitutional amendment for 10 per cent reservation on grounds of economic backwardness was rushed through Parliament with the Opposition’s full support. A so-called welfare paradigm was invented for providing publicly-funded toilets, housing, small-ticket Mudra loans and cooking gas connections. The Interim Budget 2019 introduced an old-age pension scheme, the Pradhan Mantri Shram Yogi Mandhan, for informal workers in the leather, handloom and construction sectors, with a token allocation of ₹500 crore. Workers were asked to start contributing ₹100 every month to receive a monthly pension after crossing the age of 60. The government promised to match the contributions.

None of this was a sure path out of economic difficulties and insecurity for the neo-middle class. Instead of the economic security and dignity of sustainable livelihoods, peanuts were thrown at them. Is hanging about the cities even a choice? The lakhs on roads are not invisible Indians. They were once aspirational Indians. They are now forgotten Indians.

The writer is a Delhi-based journalist and author of The Lost Decade (2008-18): How India’s Growth Story Devolved Into Growth Without A Story

Published on May 26, 2020
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