Sunday, August 04, 2013

India's Middle Class: Beyond Self-Interest

"How do you engage the middle class on broader issues of society, issues that do beyond its own self interests?"

This is a question Sandhya Venkateshwaran articulated in a recent op-ed. She framed this question in the context of two recent events:

In December 2012, when a middle-class student was brutally gang-raped in New Delhi, the city witnessed spontaneous protests and angry demands for accountability. In sharp contrast, when over 20 school-children died after consuming a government-sponsored mid-day meal in rural Bihar, the incident was "greeted by an eerie silence".

So her question is -- - how often has India witnessed middle class protests against the death of poor children or for their right to education; how often have the middle classes raised their voice against the displacement of the tribal community or slum dwellers due to the construction of factories and malls; how often do they protest against the lack of accountability and quality in the public health system?

These questions, somehow, seem like a case of barking up the wrong tree. There have been numerous cases where individuals from the middle classes have given voice, and provided leadership to the poor, who had neither. Yet, have there been instances - anywhere in the world -  where affluent classes have risen in mass protests against inequality and injustices in their own society? I doubt it.

Surat, a city of diamond merchants, was hit by the plague in 1994. Even then, the middle class continued to see the filth and squalor of the city as somebody else's problem - until business came to a standstill, and many of them got quarantined in airports across the world. Once the problems of those outside their gated communities intruded into their homes, change followed.

A bureaucrat named S.R Rao was then able to push through reforms (1995-2002) that increased sanitation coverage to 97% of the city; extended drinking water supply from 60% to 95%;and increased daily garbage clearance from 40% to 98%. So it was hardly surprising when Malaria cases plummeted from 22,000 in 1994 to 496 in 1997, and to zero by 2002.

Public protests may provide good fodder for TV debates and newspaper bylines. They may even lead to enactment of new laws (which nobody implements anyway). But the middle class is unlikely to go beyond tokenism until their comfort zones are clearly encroached.


Venkateshwaran, Sandhya (2013): SILENCE OF THE MIDDLE CLASS, IE, 1Aug13 ---

Pallliparambil, Godshen R (): THE SURAT PLAGUE AND ITS AFTERMATH --

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