India’s new middle classes – friends of progress or apolitical mall-rats?

One of the topics that kept coming up during my recent trip with Oxfam India was the role of the rising middle classes. We had a great debate with Aseem Prakash from Jindal University, who is in the middle of a paper on this (I’ll link when it’s published). According to Aseem, different definitions yield numbers for India’s middle classes ranging from 5 million ($10-$20 per day) to 214 million ($2-$4 a day). What’s not disputed, however, is that the numbers are rising rapidly as India’s economy continues to boom.

Behind the numbers are some increasingly complex dynamics, as a new commercial middle class, including rising numbers of so-called india consumers‘lower caste’ entrepreneurs, joins the post-independence middle class of mainly dominant-caste government technocrats who placed their faith in the power of the state to lead India’s rise.

But there is very little agreement over what this means for progressive movements. While Oxfam is beginning to explore working with middle class youth on sustainable consumption and other areas of cooperation, the default position among many civil society organizations seems to be that the middle classes are pretty much a lost cause – consumerist mall rats with no capacity to identify with the plight and struggles of poor people. And it may be true that the middle classes have largely given up on politics – as one slum activist put it ‘Only poor people vote – no middle class people bother’.

According to Paul Divakar, of the National Dalit Campaign for Human Rights. ‘We have not made attempts to ally with the middle classes.’ Paul claims their numbers are insignificant (5%). ‘There may be potential allies within the elites, but either they’re hiding or we just haven’t found them’.

This despite the obvious signs of rising middle class activism in the shape of a burgeoning anti-corruption movement, led by activist Anna Hazare (below left). According to Aseem and his colleagues, Hazare’s movement is build on a lower middle class that feels excluded by the state and angry at its withdrawal as part of India’s gradual liberalization process. Economic mobility has not ended vulnerability  – the Lower Middle Class are in a state of constant stress, and are more politically active than the richer strata: their voter turnout is higher than for the rich.

For Oxfam India and its partners, this frustrated lower middle class seems the most promising ally (as well as donor – more on that to follow), so what’s the best way to overcome the current level of polarization and start constructing alliances with progressive fractions of India’s rising middle class?

First, I think we need to get a better picture of both the many fractions of the middle class, and the world views of each. A decade ago, Elisa Reis and Mick Moore did a really obvious, but innovative piece of work – they went to ask elites in a number of developing countries what they thought about poverty and inequality. They found, for example, that elites care much more about the educational standards among their poor compatriots than they do about their health. Could we do something similar among the emerging middle classes?

Anna hazare protestWhen I asked people about this, the view was that the middle class (a lot of people still talk in the singular) is happy to take a stance on universal issues – ‘violence is bad’, or (as with Anna Hazare) ‘the political class is corrupt’. But when it comes to specific issues that affect their lives, (paying taxes, accepting dalit kids in their children’s classrooms) they are much less likely to be sympathetic.

In practice, this means building alliances by finding a way to ‘secularize’ poverty away from its Indian reality of being interwoven with class, ethnicity, caste and religion. Finding such a secular, cross class narrative means understanding where the lower middle classes are hurting the most. For example health care, via out of pocket expenditure, and unregulated private schools, which are often no better than their state equivalent.

Other strong candidates for cross class alliance-building are dealing with pollution and congestion (rich people and poor still have to breathe the same air). Ditto access to justice and judicial reform. The best way to engage with the anti-corruption movement could be to focus on corruption on pro-poor issues, eg health, nutrition – areas that ‘lift poor people up without directly threatening the Middle Class’, as one activist suggested.

But developing this approach seems like uphill work. The default model of change for most popular organizations and NGOs in India seems to be one of mass mobilization to put pressure on the state, backed up by judicial activism, with little room for building ‘vertical alliances’ with progressive fractions of the emerging middle class.

But what do I know? These reflections are based on a handful of visits and conversations. I’d really welcome the insights of Indian readers on this, as well as comparisons with other emerging powers like Brazil, South Africa or China.

Tomorrow: an Oxfam India blogger’s view of the middle class, and why they often don’t trust NGOs

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5 Responses to “India’s new middle classes – friends of progress or apolitical mall-rats?”
  1. Ankur Mahanta

    I think your analysis of the apathy and fatigue (at the same time) of the middle classes in India is spot on.

    However, enter any upper-middle class house for dinner or lunch, and you will immediately notice political passion flowing but with a sense of inevitability. It is this sense of inevitability that needs to be chanelled.

    I understand the reasoning behind calling the Indian middle class mall rats, but this is no more so than in other countries. As you yourself have pointed out in an earlier post, Indian social work and activism is channelled through religious establishment, CSOs like students unions, literary groups that have played an immense role in activating the middle classes.

    I would refer the author to the Assam movement in the early 1980s and an analysis of it. For modern day India activism, please meet anyone from the Tata Instt of Social Sciences, Mumbai and you will get a fair idea of where social activism in India is heading.

  2. Kieran

    As someone currently based in LAC, I can see many issues in this blog that chime with development debates in the LAC region. As countries start to develop and a middle class emerges it seems to me that I/NGO’s have to think about how they build links between the poor and the middle class who numerically make a majority of the electorate. This of course starts to bring you into the arena of politics and the whole tax and spend, role of Govt etc debates.

    It seems to me that I/NGO’s do need to be creative and to start thinking outside our tradtional “zones of operation”.I think work Oxfam is developing around convening and brokering is a step in the right direction, as are attempts to build emptahy and understanding amongst the emerging middle class about the plight of the poor and excluded.

    Finally whilst the super rich are often insulated from poor, you often find the middle class can see the benefits for themselves of having better education and health for all and effective Government structures that lsiten and respond to the need of citizens.

    Do not have a blueprint but do think this is an area that is worth exploring and would be very interested to hear more from other readers about building broad based coalitions for change.

  3. Snehal

    I am one of those who shares the opinion that people are ok to march against corruption but not as willing and forthcoming to participate on specific issues. Concrete examples can be found in the political campaigns that are conducted in a local elections especially in urban areas. They are rarely focussed on improving services e.g. improving the bus service, cleanliness in general hospitals, etc. This is seen by the electorate and the leaders as a problem only of the bureaucrats.

    On the other hand I find frustrating the fact that there is no option for the middle class to give up some of the subsidies that they dont need. There is no concept of differential pricing. E.g. I am happy to pay the market rate for the cooking gas that I currently buy or pay the market rate for the petrol I buy for my car but the system doesnt allow me to.

    Maybe my assumption about there being a large number of people willing to let go off the subsidy is misplace. Allow me to share with you an anecdote here. There is an excellent ENT surgeon in my hometown of Ahmedabad who charges consultancy according to your ability to pay. No questions asked. I found out that there are less than 1% of the people who pay the ‘market rate’ for the consultation. The funny thing is that an overwhelming number of patients who come to see this doctor come in cars yet while making the payment they try to pass of as being poor and dont pay the equivalent of US$10 consultation fee for their own health!!

    I cant help but feel that that the we are reconciled to this race to the bottom and are just postponing our engagement in larger issues for later – not just in our current lives but next!!

  4. Joern Geisselmann

    Interesting read. I spent many years in China and there it is mostly the middle class that is demanding and, in some cases, working for change (in various areas but especially with regards to environmental protection).

  5. To paraphrase Naipaul, India has layers upon layers of cruelty. When I’m waiting at a traffic signal in Mumbai, I sometimes see beggars with such deformities – induced malevolently, as Slumdog Millionare reveals – that it boggles the mind that they are also human beings. Maybe there are layers underneath them as well: people with similar deformities but in smaller cities. Then there are the many, many layers above.

    Sometimes it takes generations to cross the layers to reach what can be called the modern middle classes in India. (Hindu philosophy may have a different explanation.)

    And when people are there, they often do not have the time or ability to engage with anything beyond their own lives. They are busy commuting to work, trying to gain promotions and increments, trying to get a home loan or pay off that home loan, balancing demands of family and work, sometimes dealing with multiple cultures (with parents on one side and spouse on the other), and spending the rest of the time finding some kind of solace or entertainment, which is often of the indoor variety (social media, movies, restaurants, plays, and so on). And of course, malls.

    The world outside is a horror that one becomes numb to, a horror to be crossed to get from one enclosed space to another.

    One might say this happens everywhere, but the survival game is pronounced in India, at least in Mumbai, where I live.

    I recently visited one of the biggest and newest malls in the city. There’s a roller-coaster on the third floor, with a 360-degree loop. Next to this mall is an apartment complex: six buildings with 20 floors each. Living there would be an aspiration for many middle-class people in Mumbai. But they may not be able to get adequate domestic help, because there’s no slum nearby where domestic workers might live in great numbers.

    The middle classes and the rich need poor people: to clean their homes, to cook their food, to take care of their children (at a fraction of the cost of professional nannies), to guard their buildings, and to drive their cars or at least be ready at the corner with autorickshaws.

    I think poverty by itself is not a compelling narrative in India to engage with the middle classes. It needs to be part of a bigger narrative: how the alleviation of poverty will improve life for everyone. If some people feel that this will result in expensive domestic help, there’s a problem.

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