Home >Opinion >Views >Aspiration gaps tend to vary with trust in governments

Amartya Sen wrote in the preface to his classic study On Economic Inequality (1972) that the idea of inequality is both very simple and very complex. At its simplest, the idea has enormous public appeal. At another level, however, it is an extremely complex notion which makes statements on inequality highly problematic. A rich literature has emerged, with contributions by economists, sociologists and philosophers illuminating multiple dimensions of inequality. There are objective measures (such as the Gini coefficient) and normative measures (Atkinson’s measure which incorporates inequality aversion). We use a new measure that reflects the gap between aspirational income/expenditure and actual income/expenditure. More specifically, the ratio of actual per capita expenditure to the maximum in the primary sampling unit (or PSU, a cluster of villages/wards). This has two merits: (i) simplicity, and (ii) intuitive appeal in so far as it captures a relativity that figures prominently in individual decisions. We examine the association between this measure of inequality and trust in the state government and other covariates.

We draw upon two rounds of the nationally representative India Human Development Study (IHDS) in 2005 and 2012. The first round (IHDS-I in 2004-05) was a survey of 41,554 households, while IHDS-II in 2011-12 involved repeat interviews with 83% of the original households, split households residing within the same locality, and an additional sample of 2,134 as replacement households (so its sample was 42,152). Interviewing the same households at two points in time facilitates a richer understanding of which households were able to partake in the fruits of growth, what allowed them to move forward, and the process through which they were incorporated in or excluded from a growing economy. Trust in state government is measured in ordinal levels of confidence: a great deal of confidence, only some confidence and hardly any confidence.

The mean of the ratio of actual expenditure and maximum in the PSU (hereafter ‘the ratio’) remained unchanged at about 0.45, and so did standard deviation at 0.26. Thus the gap between achievement and aspiration and its dispersion remained unchanged. Our quantitative analysis offers useful insights. The higher the trust in state government, the higher was the ratio, implying that trust narrows the gap between achievement and aspiration. This is not surprising, as social safety nets are mostly implemented by state governments. Trust in these is itself driven by the ruling party: whether it’s the same in the state as at the Centre, and the victory margin in state polls. In case it’s the same party, its implementation failures are arguably more likely to be overlooked. If the margin of victory is high, trust is likely to be low, presumably because it breeds complacency in the state government, and concerns of transparency and accountability take a back seat. Competitive state politics could thus enhance trust in state governments.

Age and the ratio in question are positively related. As people become older, their incomes rise. However, the rise in income also diminishes in older groups, as physical stamina, dexterity and adaptation of skills to a rapidly-changing economic environment tend to decline with age.

Relative to rural areas, urban areas show a significantly lower ratio of achievement to aspiration, while urban slums display a higher ratio. That there is greater disparity in this ratio in urban areas is not surprising. The contrast between rural areas and slums is interesting, as it suggests greater adaptation of aspirations to abysmal living conditions and grim prospects of economic advancement.

Schooling and the ratio also displays an interesting pattern. Relative to illiterates, those with mid-level schooling (5-8 years) are more likely to have a higher ratio, as also those with matriculation (9-10 years) and above matriculation (> 10 years). In fact, matriculates and above show the strongest association.

The caste data reveal a socio-economic hierarchy, with Brahmins on top and Dalits and Adivasis at the bottom. Relative to the largest group, Other Backward Classes (OBCs), Brahmins and other high-castes are likely to be closer to their aspirational income, while Dalits are likely to be farthest. By contrast, Adivasis are closer to their aspiration, but the relationship is not so robust.

Finally, the more affluent states offer better prospects of achieving aspirational income, primarily because remunerative employment opportunities are greater. This is more likely if growth is inclusive.

Trust in state governments under the United Progressive Alliance grew between 2005 and 2012. The share of households that displayed a great deal of confidence in state government rose and that of those with hardly any fell. But trust remained low because of pervasive corruption. However, dramatic changes under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led regime on centralization and the pursuit of Hindutva led to sharp erosion of trust. The number of states in which the BJP rules or shares power rose from eight in 2014 to 20 in four years. This facilitated the imposition of the Centre’s political will and agenda. Hindutva has been promoted aggressively not just by state government agencies, but by Hindutva-oriented groups as well. The rights of minorities, especially Muslims, and lower castes have been trampled upon blatantly, even violently, while the authorities have mostly maintained a studied silence.

To conclude, the emergence of a strong opposition seems a chimera. 

Vani S. Kulkarni & Raghav Gaiha are, respectively, affiliated to the department of sociology, University of Pennsylvania; and research affiliate, Population Aging Research Centre, University of Pennsylvania

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