More than a month has gone by since I last posted. But I have been busy. I spent almost the whole of January preparing for my son's wedding next January, and then travelling around Delhi, Rajasthan and Agra with my family, including my future daughter-in-law who was on her first visit to India to meet the two grandmothers. Delhi is now unrecognizable as the city where I spent my university years between 1968-73, but that may have been because I was confined to the parts of Delhi I was least familiar with. Rajasthan and Agra were quite a delight, bringing back memories from previous visits. I revisited the Taj after 48 years. The changes to it were less damaging than I had expected, but the Yamuna was a pitiful sight. Economically, I'm feeling quite exhausted, but we should consider ourselves part of the lucky minority in our country that is able to spend on this scale.
And here I have to touch on something that makes me acutely uncomfortable. The seven of us occasionally spent on one meal what amounted to a little more than five times the average monthly per capita expenditure (MPCE) of farm households across India, which, according to a report by P Sainath quoting figures from the National Sample Survey Organization's "Situation Assessment Survey of Farmers", was Rs.503 in 2003. This average itself conceals huge inequalities across various states of India. I could go on with more details about this statistic, but the question for me is: how do I relate to this reality? One doesn't after all need statistics to actually see the immense contrasts between poverty and prosperity in my country. The moment I step outside the "five-star" cocoon, or the taxi or bus that carries me around, or simply go out into any public area, I am confronted with the reality of the dire deprivation that many people in my country have to suffer. What effect, if any, does this have on me?
At a purely emotional level, I feel repelled, angry (both at the world and at myself) and guilt-ridden. I don't think I'm special in this respect. Most human beings - unless they are pathologically insensitive - are, I'm sure, distressed by the distress of other people.
At an intellectual level, I try to find rationalizations. The discipline of economics provides some relief, because economists will tell me that it's the (collective) spending of the rich that helps the (collective) poor survive. The artisans, gemstone cutters, bricklayers, gardeners, water carriers and a myriad other professions that created the palaces and other monuments to ingenuity and beauty that we visited in Rajasthan and Agra would not have been able to survive without the patronage of the courts. Besides, it's not as if I am personally responsible for the misery and destitution that I see in my country. Nor - on the face of it - are my personal spending habits contributing to the malnutrition and other forms of deprivation that persist there massively. Much of the social sciences urge the view that the causes of misery, seen collectively, are structural. But acknowledging the structural nature of the misery of millions of people in my country can also be a way of numbing oneself to it, like an opium of the intellectuals.
When one recognizes the structural causes of oppression and suffering, what obligations, if any, does that recognition impose on the individual? This is a really tough question for me, because if I acknowledge that there ARE obligations (as I indeed do) it forces me to confront my ingrained habits of living, my reluctance to give up my accustomed comforts, and the fact that my actual behaviour shows little recognition of any obligation at all. But it's an important question because it connects the larger social-structural issue with the more intimate personal issues of one's own way of living. The reason why I don't think it's possible to deny these obligations is because it would involve numbing myself to the pervasive ubiquity of suffering even more than I already do, which would probably make me psychopathic.
I think that, at the very minimum, the recognition of other people's suffering, even when structural, imposes the obligation not to remain indifferent to it, but to try and do whatever one can to relieve it. A very good way of mitigating the distress both for oneself as well as for others is to work - to whatever extent one can - to relieve suffering. This is not merely altruistic, because in working to relieve the pain of others, one does, to some extent, relieve one's own pain of self-hatred, guilt, and impotence. What makes it difficult is the fact that we live in societies that are dominated by impersonal institutions like the various organs of the state, and organizations like corporations that enjoy the rights of living persons with none of their responsibilities. At their worst, these institutions enable the most horrendous cruelties to be perpetrated in the name of professionalism or profit or the national good by decent individuals who probably wouldn't dream of doing something similar in their personal relationships. At their best, these institutions keep the individual sufficiently tied down by "professional" responsibilities to not afford the time to devote to relieving suffering. "Professionalism" in most definitions requires the clear separation of the personal from the professional, which often translates into a well-trained blindness to the connections between private affluence and public squalor, or between public misery and personal well-being.
There is a breed of sophisticated intellectual who would immediately characterize the above as the hypocritical and impotent hand-wringing of a "bleeding-heart liberal", or of a "Gucci socialist" who has his feet firmly planted in the new emerging five-star India, but likes to blather on about the wretched of Bharat. This kind of personal abuse is usually a form of playing to a (jeering) gallery, that succeeds only because it slyly avoids the substantive arguments that it purports to attack.
We "Gucci socialists" and "bleeding-heart liberals" are often accused of being concerned with distribution (the size of each slice of the cake) at the expense of production (the size of the cake itself). When the whole cake is bigger, all of us get a bigger slice - so why not all work at making the whole cake bigger, rather than worry about the size of the slices? This is fine, but no economist has, to my knowledge, advocated only redistribution, but no growth. When economists criticize the traditional obsession with economic growth, they are calling for greater attention to be paid to the costs and negative externalities that are generated as a result of growth. Among those who advocate a more careful focus on the quality and the type of growth, many also favour redistribution to the poor, so that the benefits are shared more equitably.
For me, as for many others, there is something morally repulsive about an economic arrangement that tolerates or creates vast inequalities in opportunities and entitlements to a civilized life, especially when the size of the total cake is expanding rapidly, as it is now in India. Everyone's slice of the cake is expanding, but for some people already with enormous slices of cake, each year their slices get bigger much more rapidly than those of others. And there are some, like the farmers Sainath writes about, for whom the slice has been shrinking rapidly. When the interest on car purchase loans is 8% and for agriculture 14%, one can be quite certain that this suffering is NOT inevitable, and there is a serious disordering of economic prioirities. But for a disconcertingly large number of middle class intellectuals, inequality isn't a problem at all, and certainly doesn't amount to injustice. People should be rewarded according to their contribution to the collective well-being, and the poor are simply sand in the wheels of India's progress.
Meanwhile, should I just go on spending money on the scale I described earlier? No, I shouldn't, primarily because I can't. I probably DO need to curtail my own spending, especially on books that I buy on impulse, or on eating out when I don't really need to. But I don't routinely spend on the scale I described earlier, because most of the time I'm not on vacation with six other members of the family. The more important and complicated question is whether there is any connection between the economics of a reasonably well-off middle class family in India and the endemic poverty in the country.
People's personal consumptions patterns and habits do seem to have an aggregate effect - usually a positive one on the macro-economy, as explained above, and a negative one on the ecology - obvious when you visit a landfill, or just peer into the trash of a middle class family in Turkey or India. They probably also have a distortive effect on the allocation of resources away from more important and urgent uses. Why else would loans for buying a Mercedes cost a little over HALF of agriculture loans? But if my own personal or family's consumption habits are responsible for the structural misery in the world, the connection is rather opaque and/or indirect, and certainly depends at least on aggregation over large numbers of families in similar situations. And, even if relatively prosperous middle class families like mine could curtail their high-consumption lifestyles, it is not at all certain that that would necessarily result in a better life for those worse off than us - the farmers who are committing suicide all over the country, for example.
So, in response to the question: how do I respond to the structurally imposed suffering of others where my own individual action counts for very little? I find I am left on the horns of the classic dilemma that I must live with for now: my own action on its own will do nothing to alter the situation in the desired direction; concerted, organized action stands half a chance, but I have little time to devote to it. But it's still possible for me to do whatever I can, whenever I can. Although this kind of atomized response to the problem - as opposed to organized collective public action - is one of the things that salves my conscience, it keeps the problem alive. As for the specific question of living more frugally, it's probably a very good objective that needs a more honest and compelling justification than "I am doing this to pull poor people out of poverty"!