Sunday, August 05, 2012

Omni Displacement Effect

It is often said that “the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer”. As a general characterization of recent trends in India, this statement would be hard to substantiate, but there is a common denominator which is deteriorating faster for both the sections – ethics. There are circumstances when it is a good description of what is happening – former due to irresponsible freedom and unwarranted access to money and latter due to their natural instinct to ape the former set.  The growing affluence of the middle classes creates enormous pressure to afford responsible training of ethics on a large scale, even when their social and familial relations costs are enormous. The scale of displacement rises further (often, much further) when urbanization quotient is on the greater side.

The inequitable and often brutal trait of nature – forced artificiality is now fairly well understood, and the victims’ growing reluctance to be pushed around has even prompted some serious rethinking on this matter. But the “Omni Displacement Effect”, as I wish to call it (the fact that the growing prosperity of the rich often encroaches on the attitude of the poor, resulting in a collective collapse of ethical well being of society) also has other manifestations.

For instance in the past, as well-off families got richer, they shifted their children from government schools to private schools, and this “exit” of influential people from the public schooling system reduced the accountability of government schools. Over time, a vicious circle set in, whereby the decay of government schools and the desertion of well-off families fed on each other. This phenomenon, illuminatingly discussed many years ago by Albert Hirschmann, is still an important aspect of the education scenario in India today. One could, of course, debate to what extent the root of the problem lies in growing economic inequality, or in the absence of accountability in the schooling system. The fact remains that in this particular context, some people’s growing affluence can make this Omni Displacement Effect more prominent.

The Omni Displacement Effect is not a systematic pattern. There are also many cases where the poor benefit in one way or another from the affluence of the privileged – for instance, by getting more jobs, purchasing power or better public services made possible by higher tax revenue. But the Omni Displacement Effect is quite common, and it helps to explain why life is deteriorating evenly for many people leading to unhappiness existence, in spite of rapid economic growth.

The rich and the poor, of course, have a common stake in a well-functioning social setup. But they also compete for space – very limited space, bearing in mind the levels of overcrowding on any platform. Ecological plunder destroys common property resources that have critical livelihood value for the society. The lifestyles of the rich, glamorized by a huge advertisement industry, set burdensome standards and models for the poor. Last but not least, the lives and priorities of the well-off absorb an enormous amount of time and attention from the media, the parliament, the courts, and other institutions that are meant to be geared to the public interest.

The Omni Displacement Effect is an unattended to component by public policy, and especially, in an era where things are planned for the rich or the poor – but never for their influences on the general well being of the social eco-system. Creating “world-class facilities” in every domain has become an absorbing concern of Indian policy-makers, but this endeavour, geared as it inevitably is to the convenience, often ends up undermining the attitude change that is necessary for appropriate use and proper functioning of such facilities. It is time to address this Omni Displacement Effect for a bright tomorrow.

- Abhijith Jayanthi