Posts Tagged ‘Inequality’

Inequality and Its Critique

January 22, 2019

By Anjum Altaf

Oxfam presented its new report at Davos whose main takeaway for India is that:

“Indian billionaires saw their fortunes swell by Rs 2,200 crore a day last year, with the top 1 per cent of the country’s richest getting richer by 39 per cent as against just 3 per cent increase in wealth for the bottom-half of the population.”

Shekhar Gupta at The Print has castigated this report in very strong terms as methodologically flawed and politically motivated.

Please read the news item and watch Gupta’s critique then write a comment with your own analysis. Where do you come out on this issue? [I wish he would stay still while speaking — it is tortuous to watch]

Here is a set of expert opinions solicited by The Print:

Consider the three in conjunction with the following argument which inserts some much needed theory into the debate.

Read this as well. The authors are collaborators of Thomas Piketty who brought inequality on the agenda with his Capital in the Twenty First Century.

Nobody has really thrown out Piketty’s data or methodology. For the most serious critique see the following by Debraj Ray:

Those wishing to push further can read the following response by Branko Milanovic:

I look forward to your contributions.

Back to Main Page



A Guide to Inequality

June 14, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

It is good that inequality is attracting attention in Pakistan because there are significant gaps in our understanding of the phenomenon.

What is under scrutiny in the West is economic inequality which is only one aspect and that too a rather peculiar one. Inequality has at least two other important dimensions – political and social. Political inequality refers to unequal say in choosing how one wishes to be governed and within the representative form of governance such equality is now ensured by giving every citizen a vote. Although the struggle for political equality goes back at least four centuries, its full achievement is quite recent. Very few are aware that only around 15 percent of the adult population was eligible to vote in the 1946 elections in India. Women obtained political equality as late as the 1940s in some European countries and Blacks became eligible to vote much later than Whites in the U.S.

Social inequality can be appreciated by thinking of who can share your dining table. Your uncle surely can but your cook would most likely eat in the kitchen in separate utensils. Societies stratified by status are socially unequal, caste-based systems being the most obvious examples in South Asia. Some aspects of gender and race discrimination like prohibiting women to drive in Saudi Arabia or restricting Blacks from certain schools in the U.S. are or were forms of social inequality.

Political and social inequalities have engendered protracted struggles over a number of centuries with very clear goals – the achievement of full equality. These goals have been largely achieved in the West which is why one doesn’t hear much about them anymore. The situation is quite different in South Asia where social inequality is the norm. Political equality does exist in principle but in a peculiar form because of the nature of its origin – a fallout of decolonization and not the outcome of a prolonged popular struggle. Consider how one-person-one-vote is moderated through biraderi and caste identities and how many women cast their votes as instructed by men.

Economic inequality is quite different because complete parity has never been a serious popular demand. It is relevant in restricted domains like gender and ethnicity where the call for equal-pay-for equal-work remains cogent but across-the-board equality has been espoused only by some utopian movements. Even Marxism didn’t subscribe to it – its maxim was ‘from each according to his ability; to each according to his needs.’

The reason economic equality has not been a political demand is that it contradicts the demand for freedom. Individuals wish to choose between work and leisure for themselves and since it is highly unlikely that everyone will have the same preference, income inequalities are accepted as inevitable. Political and social equality are considered birthrights but economic achievement is a function of choice as well.  

The recent attention to economic inequality in the West is not the outcome of a sudden popular yearning for parity. It has more to do with the realization by the elites that inequality might have crossed the point where it threatens both capitalism and democracy, the pillars of the current world order.

Economic inequality was not considered a threat to capitalism as long as it was believed that everyone was becoming better off albeit some more than others. This trickle-down theory has been exposed as mistaken. Since around 1980, the output of the capitalist economy has been sucked up – the richest have gained, the middle has stagnated, and the bottom has lost in real terms. This explains the emergence of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the resulting blasphemous references to socialism in the recent elections in the U.S.   

The concentration of wealth has also distorted democracy because the rich have used  money to protects their assets. It is common for tycoons to pay a lower income tax rate than their secretaries and legal mechanisms have been created to shelter wealth offshore – Trump is reported to have paid no tax for 18 years. Democracy has morphed into plutocracy with one-person-one-vote replaced by one-dollar-one-vote and a growing reaction is paving the way to right-wing populism.

Economic inequality is extreme in South Asia –  the richest 57 individuals in India are reported to own as much wealth as the bottom 70 percent of the population. However, there is no significant political mobilization because people continue to accept economic inequality as the norm. They have always known that it exists – how could they not when it is always in their face – but its wider implications for capitalism and democracy are not issues that agitate the minds of the rulers or the ruled.

Much more relevant for the individual in the economic sphere is equality of opportunity. It is a meaningful political demand that irrespective of the economic status of individuals their children should be entitled to the same opportunities as anyone else’s. This would begin to erode the cumulative accumulation of privilege and wealth that characterizes South Asia.

The real issue remains social inequality. Without gains on this front economic justice would remain unattainable. Not all South Asians have been unaware of this truth. Reflect on the words of Dr. Ambedkar, the author of the Indian Constitution: “On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality… How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life?…  If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously built up.”

This opinion was published in Dawn on June 13, 2017 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission. For a related article, see Poverty and Human Rights.

Back to Main Page

Education in Pakistan: Ten Big Questions

March 31, 2009

By Anjum Altaf

This is an edited version of the submission made on behalf of the International Coalition for Education Reform in Pakistan (ICERP) to the Pakistan Conference organized by students at Harvard and MIT. The questions are intended to stimulate discussion; supporting arguments can be found in the listed resources. A number of the resources pertain to India reflecting the generic issues common to the two countries.

The Big Questions

1. Why is Pakistan still half illiterate?

The lack of political will or of money are not convincing answers. There is not enough political pressure to make education a high priority issue for governments. Ruling elites tolerate only as much mass education as is necessary because it is subversive of the status quo especially in societies based on oppression.

2. Can NGOs fill the gap?

The arithmetic does not support this contention. The issue of scale is important. The problem is too large and growing at a rate faster than the capacity (physical and financial) of the NGOs to eliminate it. The only effective solution is reform of the public education system.

3. Is illiteracy the main problem in Pakistan?

All management and decision-making has been in the hands of the educated and it has been abysmal. Blaming the illiterates reflects either the ignorance or the callousness of the literate.

4. Why are the educated increasingly bigoted and intolerant?

The content of education and the style of pedagogy are both problematic and need attention. A literate individual taught to accept falsehoods and prejudice unquestioningly would be more dangerous than an illiterate person. There is a difference between education and indoctrination.

5. What is the problem with the content?

In the worst case, the content has been subverted to promote ideological objectives. In the best case, it is oriented to the job market and is overly information and skill oriented. The humanities that inculcate critical thinking are considered a waste of time and poorly taught. The product is either an unthinking ideologue or technician. The technician could be very competent but not likely to be innovative or flexible.

6. What is the problem with pedagogy?

The pedagogical style rewards memorization and suppresses critical thinking. This can be by intent, by self-censorship motivated by fear of persecution, or by capacity constraints imposed by very large class sizes.

7. What is wrong with philanthropy in Pakistan?

NGOs set internal goals like doubling the number of students enrolled in five years and celebrate their achievement even though such goals have no relevance to the scale of the problems they wish to address. In unequal societies, philanthropy is primarily a vehicle for feeling good not for effectively solving problems. Charity is laudable if the objective is to be charitable. It should not be conflated with problem solving.

8. What is the ideal role of NGOs?

NGOs have a vital and critical role to play but it is not one of filling the resource gap. NGOs should be experimenting with new content, pedagogy, incentives, and financing mechanisms to be mainstreamed into the public education system. They should be acting on behalf of citizens as a lobby to raise the political priority of education and presenting effective models for reform of the public education system.

9. Can the existing problem be solved in the traditional way?

The resource gaps, especially in teaching capacity, are now too large and the vested interests too entrenched to allow traditional approaches to succeed. Recourse to modern technology (Internet and mobile phones) is needed to leapfrog barriers of state resistance, mass illiteracy, and low incomes. Note that mobile phone is a technology that will scale to the magnitude of the problem and become more functional at the same time. By 2020 almost every individual is expected to have access to a mobile phone and the ability to afford it. Experiments have confirmed that illiteracy is not a bar to the acquisition of knowledge and information.

10. What is the bottom line?

Access to education and control of content are as much political issues as social or financial ones. They need a political strategy spearheaded by NGOs and backed by technological innovations overcoming state resistance, capacity constraints and income limitations.


  1. International Coalition for Educational Reform in Pakistan.
  2. Elite Dominance and Under-investment in Mass Education (Indian States).
  3. Annual Status of Education Report 2008 (Rural India).
  4. Are NGOs Relevant?
  5. On Philanthropy.
  6. The Subtle Subversion: the State of Curricula and Textbooks in Pakistan.
  7. Producing Thinking Minds.
  8. The Problem with the Educated Middle Class.
  9. Technology and Education: Internet; Mobile Phone.
  10. The South Asian Idea.

Dr. Anjum Altaf is a member of the advisory council of the International Coalition for Education Reform in Pakistan and a contributor to The South Asian Idea, an experimental e-learning resource for college students in South Asia. Contact:

Back to Main Page