(Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint)
(Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint)

The anatomy of India’s middle class

Contrary to the assumption that the middle class is an urban phenomenon, a considerable segment of the Indian middle class resides in rural areas, finds a new study

The size of the Indian middle class has always been at the heart of the narrative around India’s economic development. And yet the term middle class remains arbitrarily defined with estimates of its size and characteristics varying significantly based on subjective notions of researchers.

In an attempt to provide a more holistic and multidimensional understanding of the middle class, Maryam Aslany of King’s College, London, uses a composite indicator based on multiple economic and social characteristics—including income, skills and credentials, social networks, housing and lifestyles—to define the middle class. In doing so, Aslany borrows from the ideologies of three major theorists of class: Karl Marx, Max Weber and Pierre Bourdieu.

Using this framework and data from the India Human Development Survey (2011–12) at the all-India level, Aslany profiles India’s population into different class groups. For instance, Aslyn captures the ‘lifestyle’ aspect of middle-class using data on a household’s consumption patterns and purchasing power. Similarly, the ‘housing’ aspect of class is defined using data on house ownership and sanitation facilities.

Based on all this, she finds that 28% of India’s population is middle class -- of which 14% is lower middle class and about 3% is upper middle class. She finds that while there is significant diversity in the type of jobs among the middle class, a large proportion of the middle class are salaried employees. And most importantly, contrary to the common assumption that the middle class is an urban phenomenon, a considerable segment of the Indian middle class resides in rural areas. More than 32% of the comfortable middle class and more than 23% of the upper middle class are located in rural India.

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