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Home >Opinion >Online-views >Harsh Mander | The moral case for social protection

Noam Chomsky remarked that the idea of social protection is basically the idea, simply, that we should take care of each other.

There can be no better encapsulation of the idea of the good state, one which must be founded on the idea of social solidarity, on the continuous mindfulness of its obligation to care for every person, weak and strong. Chomsky goes on to say that we live in times when this is considered a profoundly subversive idea.

For many today, this idea of social protection, or the duty of social caring, is indeed a dangerous philosophy which must be crushed at all costs. Those opposed to this idea are either people who believe that markets by themselves are both necessary and sufficient to end poverty, hunger and want, or those who restrict their idea of solidarity to narrow notions of identity, whether of race, ethnicity, community or caste, or any other. These two ideas often converge, as in India’s political arena today, which renders the opposition to agendas of social protection even more adamant and powerful, and for some, so much more charismatic.

It is therefore the moral case for social protection which I try to make in my new book Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India. It is not in the nature of markets to care for people who are not useful in a direct utilitarian way as producers or consumers, or to those who do not conform. In the age of the hegemony of markets, the India of the middle class has become what Michael Sandel describes as a market society.

We are easily persuaded when the government tells us that it simply does not have the money to ensure that every child gets nutritious food and good schooling; that old people do not have to sleep hungry; that homeless people do not have to sleep out in the cold; and that children do not have to die only because they cannot afford healthcare. These are people for whom markets can never work. They enter the already crowded zone of our collective amnesia and we are unconcerned that neither markets, nor the government, nor even in most cases non-state public action, are reaching them. We are being convinced that the markets will get to them one day, and until then, they can do nothing better than wait, and suffer patiently, without complaint and without resistance.

As a young person in college, my imagination was captured by a seminal book called Small is Beautiful by British economist Ernst Friedrich Schumacher. I love its subtitle, A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, which should be the talisman for all economic theory. He rejects the assumptions that growth is good, and that bigger is better, and questions the appropriateness of using mass production in developing countries, promoting, instead, labour-intensive, production by the masses. He suggests a philosophy of enoughness, understanding, in the vein of Mohandas Gandhi and Buddhist thinkers, that human needs can and should be limited; that technology and production should be so organized as to ensure that workplaces are dignified and meaningful first, efficient second; and to recognize that nature and its resources are priceless.

In what I learned from him, and from Gandhian economics, I am driven to question the assumption that the pursuit of the highest possible pace of economic growth should, in itself, be the highest goal of society. Although the question of how much of (priced) goods and services we produce is important (because this creates wealth and sometimes, but often not, jobs), there are other, much more important questions that must be asked in a good society while evaluating economic policy. These alternate, and in my opinion far higher-order questions are, firstly, by what means are these goods and services produced? Are they based on the displacement or the oppression of labour, on the large-scale uprooting of people from their lands, habitats and natural resources, on polluting our rivers and poisoning the air, and on depleting natural resources faster than they can be replenished? Secondly, what is being produced: are we spending on weapons and luxury goods when people lack nutritious food, clean water, healthcare and decent homes? And, lastly, for whom are these goods and services being produced or, in other words, what is the distribution of income, wealth and consumption?

As society pursues the goal, or mirage, of galloping economic growth, even with all of these caveats, it must care for everyone left out of this growth story. I believe that in a good society, people of every social class and identity should be involved in a huge public debate about what is the floor of human dignity, socially, below which no human being should be allowed to fall.

We should build a new social contract in new and rapidly growing India that we seek a country and world in which no child will sleep hungry, no child will sleep under the open sky, no child will be sent to work instead of a school which is as good a school as for any other child her age, no person will be subjected to discrimination or violence because of her identity, no person will be denied free, good-quality healthcare, and no old person will have to work or beg to live with dignity.

For this to be possible, we first need to reclaim the idea which Chomsky spoke of, that we owe it to each other as human beings that we all take care of each other. It requires the kindling of the ideas of solidarity and fraternity, of social caring.

Harsh Mander is a former member of the National Advisory Council.

Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com

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