In 2017 Oxfam International published a report An Economy for the 99%: It’s time to build a human economy that benefits everyone, not just the privileged few. According to this, since 2015, the richest 1% has owned more wealth than the rest of the planet and eight men in 2017 owned the same amount of wealth as the poorest half of the world. Moreover, the incomes of the poorest 10% of people increased by less than $3 a year between 1988 and 2011, while the incomes of the richest 1% increased 182 times as much. In the US, new research by economist Thomas Piketty shows that over the last 30 years the growth in the incomes of the bottom 50% has been zero, whereas incomes of the top 1% have grown 300%. According to Oxfam, “Left unchecked, growing inequality threatens to pull our societies apart. It increases crime and insecurity and undermines the fight to end poverty. It leaves more people living in fear and fewer in hope”.
The world economy has been growing consistently over last few decades. The mantra of ‘Globalization, Privatization and Liberalization’ (LPG) has been adopted by most of the world. The Indian economy also has been growing steadily over last three decades ever since India adopted the LPG in 1991. However, the benefits of the development have failed to reach all the sections of the society. While India is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, it is also one of the most unequal countries. Inequality has been rising sharply for the last three decades. According to an Oxfam report in 2017, the top 10% of the Indian population holds 77% of the total national wealth. 73% of the wealth generated in 2017 went to the richest 1%, while 67 million Indians who comprise the poorest half of the population saw only a 1% increase in their wealth.
When a growing economy like that of India benefits only the rich, and the rest of society, especially the poor are left to suffer, the development becomes unsustainable and unjust. The Preamble of the Indian Constitution promises to secure to all its citizens social, economic and political justice and equality of status and of opportunity. Can any country provide justice and equality to all its citizens when there is no much of economic equality?
A democratic country grants the same political rights to all its citizens during election. However, the political rights are meaningless without social and economic equality. Dr B R Ambedkar had cautioned, “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 shall do so only by putting our political democracy in peril".
Social justice means ‘justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society’. It means that every citizen deserves equal economic, political and social rights and opportunities. Social justice does not mean absolute equality, but a fair balance between individuals and society in respect of distribution of wealth, personal liberties and opportunities. Only when a society has justice, the citizens can fulfill their societal roles and receive their due from society. Social justice includes fairness in healthcare, employment, education and housing.
India has already become the third largest economy of the world according to GDP based on PPP (Purchase Power Parity) and the fifth largest economy in terms of nominal GDP. However, the abject state of India’s poverty got exposed during the Covid lockdown when millions of labourers had to migrate from the cities to their village, travelling hundreds of kilometers, on foot. The effect of corona pandemic too has hit the poor harder than the rich.
Social justice requires that all sections of the society have access of the basic amenities like healthcare, education, food, housing, electricity etc. However, the governments need revenue to provide all these facilities to the poor. The government can earn revenue only from the rich people who are creating wealth. Hence, in order to help the poor and provide them social justice, development of economy is also very important. A poor country can’t take care of the weakest section of the society however good intentioned a government may be.
According to the Atlas of Sustainable Development Goals 2020 published by the World Bank, the economic development around the world has indeed resulted in the improvement of the conditions of the poor. For example, the proportion of people in developing countries living in extreme economic poverty, which is defined by the World Bank as living on less than $1.90 per day has fallen from 35% in 1990 to 10.68% in 2013. The number of poor in China has come down from 88.3% in 1981 to 14.7% in 2008 and to 1.9% in 2013. Similarly, in the countries of South Asiathe decline has also been rapid from 54 to 15%.
It is thus evident that social justice and economic prosperity are linked with each other. When new businesses and industries are created, new employment opportunities arise at every level. When people spend money, it leads to an increase in the demand and also higher collection of indirect taxes. When government has more taxes in its kitty, it can create infrastructures like roads, power generating plants, internet for the poor, etc. which creates employment opportunities in the villages. When the tax revenue increases, government can also provide numerous benefits directly to the poor like old-age pension, free health care, subsidized education and housing.
However, it is the duty of the government to ensure that economic prosperity should not be confined only in in the hands of few people and the benefit of the economic development must cover the poorest of the poor. When the quality of education and healthcare increases, it leads to better quality of manpower in the country, which ultimately leads to higher productivity in the nation. One the other side, if the economic development is lopsided, it increases frustration and anger in the society, which leads to rapid increase in crime in the society. Hence, only when economic development takes place with social justice, the prosperity of all people can be sustained.