Opportunity as an economic enabler

It is time we talked about the Equality of Opportunity as an enabler. 

In just about three months from now, the United Nations will launch an ambitious development agenda for the world after 2015. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will carry forward the work of the Millennium Development Goals whose target date lapses this year.  The 17 draft SDGs on which intergovernmental negotiations are currently underway, represent the moral principle that in achieving the world’s vision of progress, no person and no country should be left behind. This is an opportune time to ask as citizens, what should be the overarching idea behind every government’s social and economic policies. In India’s case, the Equality of Opportunity could be one.

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There is an acknowledgement across the political spectrum in India that poverty needs to be addressed. But even as more Indians rise above the poverty line and Indians start to become the most prosperous in generations, we cannot ignore the growing income inequality in Indian society.  The IMF believes this growing inequality is part of a global phenomenon but for us in India, likely to become the most populous country on the planet by 2020, reducing inequality is particularly critical.

Historically, our focus on providing “distributive justice” did not always permit enough attention on ‘enabling’ the people to attain a better life by themselves. Over the last two decades, debates about inequality in India have been about increasing income levels among the poor with electoral promises suggesting “equal prosperity” and “development for all”. One school of thought emphasised the pursuit of GDP growth targets and curbing inflation asserting that a rising tide lifts all boats, while another held that inequality is best addressed by improving the income of the poor, for instance through direct cash transfer schemes.

Despite incremental progress, inequality persists in India and the gap between the lowest income-earners and the highest is expanding with every passing year.  More significantly, mobility of people between economic classes – such as from poor to middle class and from middle class to the rich – is not keeping pace with economic growth.

However, inequality is not about numbers alone. The reasons for people feeling society is unequal go far deeper than income and are often related to aspirations. It is common to hear in the poorest parts of India a desire for acchi zindagi – a decent life – often as a wish for one’s children. How then do we ensure that no matter how poor we are, our children have a better life than us? How can the people be persuaded that the State cares about their “moving forward” socially and economically?

The government could make a start by placing “equality of opportunity” as an underlying but well-articulated goal for its policies. There is more than one reason to do this. What the poor and now the middle-class in India resent most, more than poverty itself, is the lack of adequate opportunity to break glass ceilings. Income inequality when accompanied by a lack of opportunity breeds a sense of stagnation and injustice. In contrast, research underlying the draft Sustainable Development Goals has found that more equal countries (which tend to also be places of more equal opportunity) have higher levels of well being and happiness. The Equality of Opportunity is thus not just a means to pre-empt the perception of injustice, it is a way to improve the level of happiness among the population.

But how could the government turn into action the Equality of Opportunity? Here are three potential ways to start. First, A focus on education as an economic leveler. The government must prioritise funding schools in India’s 100 poorest districts and invest in teachers. It should ensure schooling till the age of 16 and not only the elementary education promised under the Right to Education Act. In a nuanced form of affirmative action, the best-performing students from schools in India’s poorest districts should be given priority in admission to colleges of national excellence such as IITs.

The paucity of jobs in India is rendered more acute with most graduates competing for jobs in a few select professions. Take for instance the competition between engineering and science graduates from all faculties competing for software jobs. Our education system is notorious for lacking career counseling. Equality of Opportunity would mean equality of awareness about career options that in turn could lead to a greater diversification of not just the skill sets in the population, but also of the economy. Minus that, we may continue to produce thousands of engineers, but not enough sociologists, scientists, soldiers, athletes, economists or entrepreneurs. Going beyond white-collar jobs, Equality of Opportunity requires targeted investment in skill development.

The government’s Vocationalisation of Secondary Education scheme needs to be rolled out to schools across the country. At the same time, the National Skills Qualification Framework (NSQF) needs to be a standardised and mandatory requirement for all tradesmen – whether they pass out of an engineering college or out of a polytechnic or vocational training school. This ensures Equality of Opportunity to all based on their competencies irrespective of which institution their circumstances permitted them to graduate from.

Second, investing in multi-modal connectivity for all villages and towns in India. The government has just launched three mega schemes to build 500 smart cities. While this is appreciable, physical connectivity remains a distant dream for the smallest towns. Giving Indians an equal opportunity would entail connecting every village and town of India to the rest of the country through investment in infrastructure. This is not only about building roads about increasing the modes of physical connectivity. The Railways committee under Bibek Debroy has come up with interesting recommendations to let states run suburban railways.

A National Connectivity Mission is needed to connect every tehsil or taluk in India with more than one mode of transportation and the pronounced aim to bring down the cost of transportation. Indians spend nearly 20 percent of their disposable income on transportation, among the highest in the world. Better physical connectivity will bring down transportation expenses. Connectivity has the ability to not only improve cost of living, but also to lift public morale by making them feel connected with the national mainstream. From better market access for farmers, to easier healthcare access, by simply connecting every village in India to the rest of the country, the doors to equal opportunity could be opened.

Third, by investing in ways to end the perpetuation of poverty. For instance, for every beneficiary of a government cash transfer scheme such as the NREGA, the government could put aside an amount for the secondary schooling of the beneficiary’s children. While the government provides for the child’s secondary schooling, the withheld amount from the scheme is to be paid to the parent only if the child continues in school. This could not only address the problem of drop-out rates and act as an incentive for children to be kept on in school, it will also reduce the problem of what economists call the “inter-generational transfer of poverty” caused by ill prioritised spending by families.

The Constitution of India looks at the Equality of Opportunity as a guarantor against discrimination. It is time we talked about the Equality of Opportunity as an enabler. The Sustainable Development Goals are likely to present an occasion for our own narrative to end inequality. And this could well be it. Beyond ensuring that every Indian earns enough to meet his needs, the “Equality of Opportunity” would be a promise that every Indian will have an equal chance at fulfilling his dreams.