A fortnight ago, the Prime Minister flagged off the Planning Commission's 12th Plan exercise with stirring targets of 9.5 per cent growth for the next five years, and greater focus on water, health education and infrastructure. The emphasis, he advised the Plan panel consisting of his Cabinet members and the deputy chief, Mr Montek Singh Ahluwalia, would have to be on “policy and governance reforms…”
As is typical of Dr Manmohan Singh whose stratospheric vision tends to lose sight of the grimy reality below, his advice had an unreal quality about it. Seven decades after Independence, two decades after liberalisation and eight years into high growth, planners have to be reminded of the sorry fact that the basic necessities of life are still in short supply. No wonder the inclusive growth rhetoric of this government rings hollow.
PUSHED TO THE PERIPHERY
Less than a month before the PM's homilies, northern India had been almost paralysed by Jats demanding job quotas and membership of that unique institution, the Reservation Club.
You might wonder what exactly the connection is between these two events: The former spells a rosy future the latter a troubling present, a way station the Indian Gravy Train can skirt around on its way to 9 per cent growth.
But agitation by Jats for an assured place on the train to prosperity, fierce and prolonged as it was in Uttar Pradesh Haryana and Rajasthan, was an eloquent reminder of just how growth, of which policy planners seem so proud, had left behind one of the most prominent constituents of the mainstream economy.
The Jats of northern India are not anywhere like the dispossessed tribals of Orissa or Thane district outside Mumbai, or even the Gujjars of Rajasthan that have set a record for voluntary downward mobility, first as backwards and then as scheduled tribes.
The Jats have historically been the backbone of agriculture in northern India, the real authors of the Green Revolution. For decades their social and economic ambition has contributed greatly to the dynamism of Indian enterprise and politics across parties, and their daring for the unknown has made them a vital part of a silent and, sometimes, invisible Indian diaspora across the world as farm hands or as budding entrepreneurs. Who would have thought that such a community would look to downgrade themselves into that club meant to provide a leg-up to the unprivileged?
The violent agitation for social descent by the Gujjars four years ago and the Jats' demand for a similar leg-down may appear part of the hurly-burly of Indian politics but, at the core, it spells a more profound shift in the worldviews of communities that historically have not required reservation to acquire the basic entitlements for upward mobility.
When an upwardly mobile community like the Jats seek in so virulent a form the safety net of job quotas, the message they transmit is not so much their inability to cope with the demands of the “competitive economy” as as the failure of the absorptive capacity of that economy. For the Jats, the reservation route is like the dole in Western countries, and when an increasing number seek the comfort of food coupons, policy planners read in them a case of economic failure.
The agitation by upper castes that have been economically active in the mainstream economy for reservation status could set the precedent for further protests by other communities historically blessed (brahmins, for instance) but economically deprived.
India now has two sources of dispossession; one located in history and the other in economic growth's exclusivity. One might say this is common enough in large parts of the world unable to cope with globalisation. India's uniqueness lies in the range of world views confronting that growing inequality all at the same time.
The demand for downward mobility is one of them; suicides by an increasing number of farmers unable to cope with stress of market economics is another, while the quiet acquiescence to the power of the gun by tribals who have never known what democracy means spells the third. All of them are contemporaneous. Together they shatter the neon-light fantasy of India's growth. All three represent self-perceptions and, most of all, ideas of what India means to a wide swathe of Indians outside the alpenglow of 9.5 per cent growth.