The Middle Class Myth in India

By Dipankar Gupta

Why should the best graduates from a strong middle class society cash in their chips to head for the Silicon Valley? But this is what happens in India. As a knowledge society, can we hold our head contents high when even the Philippines has more than six times the number of qualified engineers per thousand than we have here? Is it surprising then that in a land of a billion people the Information Technology sector employs only three million and no more?

If we now go below the brain line then is our consumption standard at least indicative of a strong middle class? In which case, why is it that only 3% of Indian households own cars?  Does our boast not sound ridiculous especially when more than 4.5 million American households below the poverty line own cars with 290,000 of them actually owning three cars? Let us also not forget that there are only 30 million tax payers in this country and tax is deducted at source for only a third of them.

It has often been commented that by readjusting survey methodologies and definitions, bare-knuckled poverty figures are artfully dodged by the administration. What we have now is a reverse tendency of inflating figures by statistical manipulation. Definitions of what constitutes the middle and the upper classes are pegged at such low levels that almost anybody can make the grade.

To be counted as middle class a person must be able to spend US$ 0.87 a day, and to be upper class the figure goes up to a still lowly US$ 2.30 per day. Naturally, we have upwards of 300 million middle class Indians! With such generous qualifiers it is a shame we still have so many poor people left. What gives a rank bad taste to our middle class fabrication is the fact that as many as 24% of rural patients and 21% of urban ones have to forego medical treatment because they lack the necessary funds for it. There are medicines stacked in pharmaceutical stores, yet the poor face medical famine.                     

Clearly, the term “middle class” does not sit well in our country; it barely has any standing space. When we refer to the Indian middle class we are unconsciously thinking of those who can approximate the lifestyles of the common person in the West. What we forget is that while such people are few and far between and indeed occupy elite status in our country, in Europe and America, on the contrary, almost the entire society is middle class. There are a few at the top who lead a kind of underground life. They are so affluent and out of reach that we don’t even know where their landing strips and clubs are hidden. Then there are the poor who often compare with the worst in India or Bangladesh. But everybody else is in the middle to lesser or greater degrees.

Till the 1960s it was not uncommon to find American sociologists distinguishing between lower upper middle class and upper lower middle class, and middle upper middle class, and so on, because they wanted to emphasize rapid social mobility in their societies. But as consumption patterns were very similar between these classes they had to rely heavily on cultural attributes, learning and tastes, to make such distinctions work. In India we are not really bothered about what goes on in the head as long we can display our acquisitions on our sleeve. Even so, we compare very poorly against the truly Western middle class.

But the most important reason why the term middle class looks sickly in India is because there is no project attached to it as it was in Europe. From the latter half of the 19th century the making of the middle class was a project on a national scale in all of Western Europe. This meant providing quality health and education for all, and, in some instances, also workers’ compensation against accidents. Some of those who encouraged this endeavour may have been frightened into it because of rising socialist militancy, but that was clearly not the case in most places.  

The European project was to create a middle class so that the distinctions between the privileged and the rest could be bridged. Citizenship and democratic policies of course played a major role in this, but it is interesting how Bismarck and Louis Bonaparte also contributed handsomely towards this end. This is why in the West the talk is principally about middle class “society” and not middle class “people”.

In the West the idea of the middle class may have later become a statistic but it started out as a project. In India we are besotted by consumption statistics and have forgotten about the project “middle class”. What we need to realize is that without this project that seeks equalization, statistics about the middle class will always look dismal and mean very little. Even a frayed white-collar worker has somebody in the kitchen to kick around till suddenly the gap widens and there is nobody to kick but oneself.

Instead of looking in vain for the middle class, let us ask ourselves what holds up the coming of the middle class in our country? Then, perhaps we will start getting meaningful answers, and who knows, the middle class project too might begin.

Dipankar Gupta is Professor of Sociology, Center for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. This article appeared first in the Times of India on March 4, 2008.

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One Response to “The Middle Class Myth in India”

  1. SouthAsian Says:

    This article about the US (How the Middle Class is Shrinking) is important for a number of reasons. First, it provides a rigorous quantitative measure of the ‘middle class’ that can be used by others for comparative analyses. Second, it argues that the middle class is shrinking in the US. As against this, the middle class is growing rapidly in India and in China. These are phenomena that can trigger some interesting discussions about the likely causes and the implications for the future.

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