A panel discussion at the Golden Jubilee Conference of CESP, JNU

While inequality has been on the rise globally since the 80s, the financial crisis of the late 2000s, the Wall Street movement, and the rage in the streets of Chile gave it a popular expression and also renewed academic attention. The pandemic further gave impetus to reckon with the depth of the issue. One of the major concerns of the day, however, is reliable measures of the extent and scope of inequality and its trend over time, particularly in India. All this and more was explored in the closing panel discussion, titled ‘On the Need to evolve Methods to close the Gaps in Measuring Inequality in India’ co-organised by Centre for Financial Accountability as part of the CESP50 years Golden Jubilee Conference of Centre for Economic Studies and Planning (CESP), at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi  held from December 10th to 13th this year.

The flaws in the official metric of inequality are manifold. For instance, the absence of income distribution data has forced experts to rely only on consumption expenditure data, which we are told can be misleading. When it comes to wealth, household wealth in India is typically estimated using the official sample surveys and the All-India Debt and Investment Surveys (AIDIS) that provide detailed information on household assets and liabilities. While these surveys are the only official source of wealth, they too have some limitations, due to which levels of wealth inequality are underestimated. Anjana Thampi, Professor of economics at the O. P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat and a Fulbright visiting scholar, gave the audience a sense of how grossly inadequate the data is in terms of calculating the wealth of the top 1% who are massively under-represented in the survey samples. An accurate analysis of wealth, she emphasized, is paramount for implementing corrective measures like a wealth tax on the ultra rich. She also gave us a sense of the disparity in terms of wealth when one looks closely into the gender gap.

Speaking at the session on inequality, Dipa Sinha’s presentation further nuanced the understanding by showing the gaps and inadequacy of our measurements when it comes to inequality. One of the most glaring facts is that our measurements cannot cross the threshold of households, while most of the gender disparity happens inside the family that largely remains unmeasured. Dipa Sinha is an Assistant Professor at the school of liberal studies in Ambedkar University, New Delhi. She has worked extensively on issues related to food rights, nutrition and public health. She explained the limits of measuring literacy or say infant mortality when comparing two states and how it can give an illusion of the gap closing unless we measure the relativity of quality. A child studying in an international school and the other in a dilapidated municipal school will both get enumerated as school educated, but with no equivalence in reality.

Arindam Banerjee, who is teaching at the BML Munjal University, Haryana and is an expert on agrarian crisis under neoliberal policies, extended the discussion to the importance of intergenerational deprivations like stunting and structural transformations, such as privatization and its effect on prices. Capitalism, he said, has a way of accommodating inequality by saying that it is good as concentration of the top drives investments and job creation. He emphasized the need to deal with the subject of inequality as a moral question, without which it is difficult to confront it.

The discussant for the session was Anirban Bhattacharya from CFA. There have been innovative estimation techniques which point towards glaring inequality in recent years. These, he said, have further re-emphasized the need to do thorough and extensive official measures of inequality that captures the process of wealth concentration, the regional variations and variations across different communities. A correct measure of Inequality, he said, will not only help in analysing the factors that are contributing to it, but also in deliberating corrective measures which could also include a just tax regime. And for this it is crucial to find the language and articulation for conveying the concerns around inequality.

When different estimates indicate towards a K-shaped recovery wherein inflation is outpacing wages for the poor, it is alarming to note that India was the only country among the world’s top 10 ultra high net worth nations that recorded an increase in its ultra wealthy population in 2022 as per the World Ultra Wealth Report 2023. This calls for renewed attention on the subject.

The conference saw presentations from a number of young researchers and also saw participation of stalwarts like Utsa Patnaik, Jayati Ghosh, Prabhat Patnaik, Arun Kumar, CP Chandrasekhar and so on.

To understand and address the concerns of inequality and engage with the substantive idea of meaningfully enhancing public spending on welfare by ensuring basic rights for the people, read the series of articles curated by CFA along with Deccan Herald, now published as a booklet here.

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