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The Mirage of Middle Class Disillusionment

In a New York Times article of October 30, 2011 entitled Protests Awaken a Goliath in India, it is pointed out that recent anti-corruption protests have stirred India's middle class which has benefited most from growth, but remained disengaged from the political system. While this could be interpreted as a favorable development if indeed millions of them join the Hazare movement or take steps to protest against corruption at all levels.

The middle class often bribes government officials to get their needs met, whether it is for admission to a government college, obtain a license, or transact a real estate deal without heavy tax burden. They cannot, however, afford to pay big bribes as the rich and the companies do to win bids and get special favors. After all, politicians and senior government officials have raised their price for bribes from lakhs of rupees to crores, and even hundreds of crores.

Are the poor troubled by the deep rooted corruption in India? Most poor people cannot afford to pay bribes, and even if they somehow manage to do, it is usually for their small entitlements such as ration card or caste certificate. I suppose low level bureaucrats involved in corrupt practices are kinder not to demand more than a few hundred rupees. It appears that poor people are indifferent to corruption in India and are often fatalistic about it.

I recall reading a quote in a newspaper several years ago from a poor man on the street when he was asked to give his reaction to the arrest of a senior official for allegedly taking tens of lakhs of rupees in bribe and subsequently being caught. The poor man said, “He must have done something good in his last life to make so much money.” After all, everyone usually expected the government official to go free after a superficial investigation and filing of low level charges.

In India, what usually counts is the opinion and influence of the rich and the powerful. But now, it appears that the middle class is slowly waking up. The poor continues to sleep long.

The rich and the powerful also may not care much about corruption. They have the money to make money, even if that involves dishing out large sums in bribes. They are in an exclusive club, and there is no need for them to complain. Greed, arrogance and denial are matched only by self-interest and hypocrisy.

How many people in India are in the rich and middle classes? According to an April 2010 McKinsey Global Institute report, 30 million households, or around 150 million people in India belong to the middle class. By 2030, this number is expected to increase to 600 million, if economic growth continues at the present 6-9% rate.

The rich – those who can afford considerable luxuries such as good cars, modern apartments and vacations -- are presently estimated to be around 10-20 million people. This number could reach 50 million by 2030. The super rich are in the thousands.

India’s population of 1.2 billion is expected to cross 1.6 billion by 2030. That would then leave over 1 billion people in the poor to lower middle class category. If the past is any indication of future behavior, these masses can be expected to remain silent about corruption in India. As some of those presently in the middle-class move up, they too are likely to become part of the “silent class.”

So much for the anti-corruption movement in India! When we measure economic success in terms of GDP growth and the increasing size of the middle class, who cares about corruption and equitable progress?

Abraham M. George
http://www.shantibhavanonline.org/

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