Book Review: India Exclusion Report 2015 by Centre for Equity Studies; New Delhi: Yoda Press, 2015

Uncovering exclusion in India is akin to the child shouting out the visible truth. Exclusion and discrimination in India is as old as the country’s history. It is a lived reality as much as it is part of our history; stratification and dominance run along the axes of gender, caste, race, ethnicity and class. The sheer adaptability of the process of exclusion in Indian society is what makes contemporary studies of it relevant. Does the process display an interlocked nature of inequalities along the axes just mentioned above—they do. What changes are the forms, the overlaps, and the mutually reinforcing mechanisms and this report presents formidable evidence of the same.

The roots of such exclusion in India date back to the premodern and far outdate the idea of a state, at least, the modern idea of the European state as a democracy and as a welfare provider, among other things. This distinction is important because the rise of the contemporary study of social exclusion is traced to the shortcomings of the welfare state in France in the 1960s.

Rene Lenoir,1 then a minister in the left-leaning Chirac government had come up with the identification of the excluded (Les Exclus: Un Francais sur dix, 1974—The Excluded: One French Out of Ten) in France. Lenoir identified a 10th of the French population as the excluded, based on socio-economic conditions. Lenoir’s list included people who were mentally and physically handicapped, suicidal people, aged invalids, abused children, substance abusers, delinquents, single parents, multi-problem households, marginal, asocial persons and other social “misfits.” The list can be read as one of people who were left out of the productivity calculus of a capitalist economy with a multiparty democracy; a sort of admission that things were not well in the post-war period of Western capitalism (also referred to by some scholars as the golden age of capitalism), and even more so with the functioning of the welfare state.

The departure point of social exclusion was also partly to do with the French intellectual dissatisfaction with the British concept of poverty.2 Thus, the term exclusion could signify multiple meanings and hence it becomes important to define it precisely for a coherent usage. Otherwise, Oyen’s (1997: 63) scathing observation on new research in this field becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, that is, new entrants are seen as proceeding to “pick up the concept and are now running all over the place arranging seminars and conferences to find a researchable content in an umbrella concept for which there is limited theoretical underpinning.”

The report under review builds its foundation on the idea of public goods and exclusion—it proceeds to ask “who, if anyone, is excluded—or adversely included—from equitable access to public goods, why and by what processes is such exclusion or adverse inclusion accomplished, and what can be done to change this to a more just and equitable set of outcomes?” (p 1). It is however this foundational aspect, which suffers from certain shortcomings, and I address these in the next
section. The report is broadly divided into four sections: Section 1 deals with the conceptual issues of defining exclusion and a deft overview of the entire report; Section 2 deals with inequitable access to public goods; Section 3 is a fascinating analysis of taxation through the lens of exclusion; and Section 4 maps some of the highly
disadvantaged communities and their disparate access to public goods. One of the most interesting features of this report is the acknowledgement of collaborative efforts, and the result of such cooperative research is there for all to see. Each chapter is well researched and extensively referenced providing a wealth of information for anyone analysing certain aspects of discrimination and social exclusion in India.

Conceptual Overview

Mander offers an exhaustive explanation on how exclusion is to be understood followed by an excellent overview of the report. I concentrate only on the conceptual overview. The first step the author employs is to borrow the specific notion of the public good and use it to generally define exclusion. This is not easy, as the economist’s (even the neoclassical) definition of public goods is quite precise and narrow, that is, a public good is one which is non-excludable and
non-rivalrous in consumption. For example, the air we breathe, or the street lights in our localities.

Employing this specific definition of the public good which employs exclusion, or more precisely non-exclusion, as a defining feature to conceptualise exclusion runs the risk of becoming a tautology. Moreover, it might not fit the broad spectrum of issues that needs to be covered in a report such as this, so the author takes the next step which is to differentiate from the economistic definition and to fall back on the greats (Rawls, Nussbaum), that is, the “tradition of social and political philosophy;” to define public goods which then includes “goods, services, attainments, capabilities, functionings and freedoms—individual and collective—that are essential for a human being to live with human dignity” (emphasis mine). These leads to more tautologies.

Mander further argues that it is not the intrinsic “publicness” of the good itself but something that is determined by the “political community at a particular point of time.” To be fair, the author is well aware about the obvious problem of unequal citizenship and the contested terrain of what is the political community and who then is a member of the “public.” So he then goes on to derive the “definition of public goods from the premise of equal human dignity of human beings,” but by this time he is probably aware that this definition will become an easy prey for critics, because in his own words it runs the “risk of turning into a tautology.”

As a way out of the tautological roller coaster, he speaks about the unshakable belief the authors commonly share about “human-ness.” The last line of defence is to appeal to an overlap with other “sibling ideas” such as human rights, human development and human security. This makes the definition suffer from the problem of additivity—one can bunch as many items together to make a definition and in the process it ceases to be a definition.

Here too, he employs scholars such as Gasper, Mahbub ul Haq and Amartya Sen (who were articulating very specific concepts from rights to human development) to the defence of what by now seems to be a wish list rather than a conceptual definition of exclusion. In fact, Mander himself says so explicitly that “this list will grow” (p 3). One final word about the “public” in the Indian context and the perils of ignoring a theorist of Ambedkar’s calibre, specifically when one is trying to conceptualise exclusion is to reiterate what Ambedkar said not too long ago: “Caste has killed public spirit. Caste has destroyed the sense of public charity. Caste has made public opinion impossible. A Hindu’s public is his caste” (1936). So which public is Mander referring to?

The tautologies and additivities aside, the rest of the report bears testimony to an impressive level of research and scholarship.

Inequitable Access

There are three interrelated chapters in this section. The first on urban healthcare and exclusion by Nambiar et al, the second on urban water supply and sanitation by Anand et al, and the third on women’s exclusion from just conditions of work by Lahiri et al.

Chapter 1 provocatively titled “Who Cares?” brings out the multifaceted exclusions and barriers that the urban poor face in accessing healthcare. The tragedy of urban areas with a relative abundance of services, still inaccessible to the urban poor is brought out quite poignantly—but the question remains, who cares?

The trade-off is quite stark—more urbanisation does not necessarily translate to better healthcare facilities for the poor as it does for the non-poor in urban areas. In fact for the urban poor, the overlap of vulnerabilities may be exacerbated along other axes of exclusion like that of being a single woman or denial of access for women to just conditions of work, or special health exclusions of other major social groups, such as Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims or the particular vulnerabilities faced by the differently abled and homeless children. The chapter also highlights the stigma of homelessness or being a sex worker and how healthcare eludes these sections. It highlights the multiple morbidities suffered by the urban poor and links it to the denial of access to decent work for the same population.

Chapter 2 on urban water and sanitation points to the persistence of similar disparities as with healthcare. The fact that caste/tribe status has a direct link with access to drinking water is brought out—only 55% of Dalit and 57% of Adivasi households have drinking water within premises (the national average being 71%), similarly almost double the number of Dalits and Adivasis defecate in the open  as compared to the national average of 12%. Much of the same is also true for female headed households. The chapter nuances our easy understanding of exclusion by pointing out that there is no significant difference for location and exclusivity of water sources across religious groups unlike that which exists for the axes of caste and gender. The chapter brings to the fore multiple exclusions faced by vulnerable groups as with urban health and also to class and regional biases in terms of disparities.

Chapter 3 looks into the persistence of the most stubborn form of discrimination—the multiple burdens instituted by patriarchies for women workers. The underlying logic being that of undervaluing work done by women, and also to look into the processes which multiply such burdens for women across caste, class, religion and ethnic identities. nThe chapter focuses on the dialectical burden of being a woman under capitalism—on the one hand being defined in terms of a propertied notion that impinges on women’s freedom, exemplified by the vulnerability of singleness that has to be borne by some women and the paradoxical fact on the other, that this very singleness unsettles patriarchies as these women are outside the perimeter of their control.

Tax Regimes and Exclusion

This section is an analysis of a tax system for inclusive development titled “Some Aspects of Tax Incidence and Tax Mobilisation in India” by Malhotra and Kundu. The entire chapter is premised on the fact that tax is a burden for an individual (p 149), but the state has to rely on such revenue generation techniques (using direct as well as indirect taxes) to provision public goods.

The chapter effectively raises two primary issues, that is, whether India has been mobilising tax revenue in accordance to its developmental stature and whether India’s tax strategy exacerbates poverty and inequality.

The explanation requires a two-step process, first the authors establish that India has a low direct tax collection due to low declaration of income, non-collection of data, etc, which easily corroborates the oft-repeated observation of other scholars regarding “tax avoidance behaviour of Indians” (p 156). So the authors prove conclusively that the coverage of direct tax regime in India is incommensurate to the growing size of its economy.

Second, is the overt reliance on indirect taxes, which according to the authors are regressive since they fail to distinguish between a poor and non-poor tax payer. The authors provide empirical evidence that “significant proportions of the population are being pushed into poverty” because of the burden they face because of inflated consumption expenditure due to indirect taxation on such items. The authors give an interesting example by way of explanation, of no tuition fees to be paid by households for elementary education in public schools, and in some states, for the school education of girl students. There is, however, a cost to be borne by each household because they have to purchase pens, pencils uniforms, paper, etc—all these items come under the indirect tax regime. Hence, the government’s taxation policy on these goods could push a household into poverty in the process of providing “free” education to their children.

Overall, in terms of methodology, the use of income data is best for the kind of analysis the authors deploy, but they are forced (since the national statistical systems do not collect direct income data of households) to use a proxy—consumption data—which itself suffers from underreporting of inequality. The authors use the Tendulkar poverty line, which has been criticised for underreporting poverty.

Notwithstanding the methodological challenges (mainly leading to under calculation of the magnitude of poverty and inequality produced by such a tax regime), the authors manage to drive home the point about the abysmally low tax-gross domestic product ratio in India, the progressive but limited impact of direct taxes and the regressive nature of indirect taxes.

Thereby, the authors ask the important question of inclusive development and the tax burden. What might also be important is to read this in tandem with the fact that there are tax concessions for the corporates and which could very well be placed as evidence of a certain class bias of Indian democracy, since democratic governments do decide on tax rates! We shall come back to the inclusive nature of such a state in our conclusion.

Highly Excluded Groups

The next section looks at five of the highly excluded groups in India: Gandhi et al on single women; Hasan on the survivors of communal violence; Barbora et al on the survivors of ethnic conflicts; Premchander et al on the devadasis and John et al on the Jarawas of the Andamans.

Chapter 1 in this section deals with a diverse category—“single women”—which includes widows, divorced, abandoned or separated women, and never married women, all held together by the common kernel of patriarchal propertied notion of women. The agency that is imputed to such women in this chapter is a result of the fact that this is a “troubling” category since they “survive independent of male control.”

The chapter looks at how these exclusions are embedded and continue to reflect in design and implementation of state policy—implicitly in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, National Family Benefit Scheme, Short Stay Homes, Indira Gandhi National Widow Pension Scheme, Widow Pension, Targeted Public Distribution System, Integrated Child Development Services—and explicitly in the inheritance, divorce, and maintenance laws. The reduced priorities for women in the budgets and the multiple barriers faced by such women in male led panchayats and jamaats in different states are also mentioned.

Curiously though, a crucial theoretical understanding that the authors miss here is the concept of “surplus woman” as enunciated by Ambedkar (1916) in “Castes in India” where he establishes why society is troubled by the surplus woman as she threatens the very existence of the system of control.

The next chapter presents the actual working of the process of communal violence in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts in western Uttar Pradesh in September 2013. Based on meticulous participatory research, Hassan points out that this violence led to 52 deaths and the displacement of around 50,000 people (mostly poor Muslims) from 74 villages and shows how communities surviving the violence in Muzaffarnagar have been the subject of discriminatory treatment due to the institutional bias of the state.

The resultant effect of such violence is the mass scale displacement that follows (in this case, the author claims that the figure could be as high as 50,000) and could result in a process of ghettoisation that evolves with the rehabilitation and resettlement efforts. There are similar lessons to be learnt from Jaffrelot’s3 brilliant work on the planned pogrom of the riots in Ahmedabad and the subsequent ghettoisation of Muslims who were resettled in the outskirts of Juhapura.

Barbora et al map the processes of exclusion faced by ethnic communities due to recurring cycles of mass violence in the Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD) region of Assam, since 1990s. Th authors extensively trace the roots of such conflicts between the indigenous Bodos and the two set of settlers—first, the descendants of indentured labourers brought to the tea gardens by the colonial rulers from among the tribes of the Central forest region of India in the mid-19th century and the second, the entry of Bengali migrants (mainly Muslims), from what is now Bangladesh, for settled agriculture since the early 20th century.

The authors conclusively establish a fourth mode of exclusion—territorial—which plays a crucial role in the violence and delineates the exclusions faced due to insecurity, from relief and rehabilitation and exclusions from land and livelihood.

The following chapter is on one of the multiple vulnerabilities faced by devadasis and the inextricable link to the modes of subjugation perpetrated by the caste system. The last chapter is a “classic” case of adverse inclusion of the Jarawa tribe (or the Ang as they describe themselves) into the developmental concerns of the Indian state. This chapter clearly lays out the perils of such paternalistic policies of inclusion by taking the case of the Jarawas and points out to the most dangerous outcome of adverse inclusion, that is, the extinction of the particular group itself.

Pathways of Inclusion and the Question of Accountability

Each of the chapters recommends, often in great detail, the various pathways of inclusion that the Indian state can follow to include the excluded. It is a menu of choices for the Indian state, should it wish to follow.

For lack of space, I am not discussing the various pathways which could lead to inclusion; the interested reader is encouraged to look at the recommendations painstakingly put together by the researchers. I wish to bring to light one particularly troubling aspect of this otherwise progressive report: the higher moral claim of accountability which the chief architect of the report refers to in his overview.

It is quite clear that the nature of the democratic Indian state is producing such exclusions and it is to be held accountable. But what about the concrete role played by the unaccountable and unconstitutional bodies like the (erstwhile) Planning Commission, NITI Aayog, National Advisory Councils or Marg Darshak Mandals? It is after all these councils of the wise that coin the slogans of inclusion and harmony and push for policies that often paper over the exclusions perpetrated by the very government they advise.

One wonders if the diverse contributors to this report are bound by a kernel of shared normative and political convictions related to ideas of accountability and advice to the democratic Indian state. This brings us back to the fable regarding the emperor and his new cloth—it was after all the council of wise men who corroborated that the cloth the king was wearing in the fable was such fine muslin that nobody could see it. Much like the muslin of inclusion—sometimes all it takes is a child to pierce through the veneer.

Notes

1 See Sen (2000) for a historical trace of the coming into being of this concept in academia in the last few decades. According to Omtzigt (2009), the term was first used by the French economist, Pierre Massæcopy; in his report titled Les dividendes du progress (The Dividends of Progress) in 1964 and in 1965 by another French commentator, Jean Klanfer, who had published a book titled L’Exclusion sociale: Étude de la marginalitæcopy; dans les sociæcopy;tæcopy;s occidentals (Social Exclusion: The Study of Marginality in Western Societies).

2 See Silver (1994) and Arjan de Haan (2011) for a succinct analysis of this dissatisfaction.

3 See Jaffrelot and Gayer (2012) for details of such processes of marginalisation and ghettoisation.

References

 

Ambedkar, B R (1916): “Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis andDevelopment,” Indian Antiquary, Vol 41.

— (1936): “Undelivered Address to the Annual Conference of the Jat-Pat-Todak Mandal of Lahore, Section XIII,” Selected Works of B R Ambedkar, http://drambedkarbooks.wordpress.com, accessed on 16 October2016.

de Haan, A (2011): “Rescuing Exclusion from the Poverty Debate: Group Disparities and Social Transformation in India,” Working Paper No 517, International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague.

Jaffrelot, C and L Gayer (eds) (2012): Muslims in Indian Cities: Trajectories of Marginalization, India: Harper Collin.

Omtzigt, D J (2009): “Survey on Social inclusion: Theory and Policy,” Report Working Paper, Oxford Institute for Global Economic Development, Oxford University.

Oyen, E (1997): “The Contradictory Concepts of Social Exclusion and Social Inclusion,” Social Exclusion and Anti-Poverty Policy, Charles Gore and Jose B Figueiredo (eds), International Institute of Labour
Studies, Geneva.

Silver, H (1994): “Social Exclusion and Social Solidarity: Three Paradigms,” International Labour Review, Vol 133, Nos 5–6, pp 531–78.

Sen, A (2000): “Social Exclusion: Concept, Application and Scrutiny,” Social Development Papers No 1, Office of the Environment and Social Development, Asian Development Bank.

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