Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Kerala’s burgeoning middle class

IN the last century, most Keralites were dependent upon agriculture. Most of them were small farmers and poor farm workers. According to the Census of 2001, out of the population of more than 30 million, fewer than 2.4 million – about 740,000 farmers and 1,654,000 farm workers -- are now dependent upon agriculture. Economic Report 2006 puts the number of people working in the factories in the public and private sectors at 2.1 million. If these figures are correct, those engaged in agriculture and industry do not add up to even five million. In other words, less than a quarter of the work force of 20 million people is engaged in the productive spheres of agriculture and industry.

The proletariat that is constantly mentioned in our political discourse has been steadily shrinking for quite some time. As its strength declines, that of the middle class grows. In fact, Kerala is now a middle class society. Many people discuss contemporary political and economic developments without understanding this.

Marx saw the middle class a section without a future. He expected it to disappear gradually. He thought that a section of it would improve its condition and join the bourgeois and the rest, unable to do so, would end up as working class. Marxists who have accepted this line of thinking claim that the middle class is on the decline. However, statistical data shows that in many countries, including India and China, the middle class is expanding fast.

It was about three decades ago that China abandoned Mao’s path and started building a market-centred economy. According to a report of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, by 2003 the country already had a 250-million strong middle class. This was 19% of the population. The Academy estimated that if the economy continued to grow at the same rate, by 2020 the middle class would constitute 40% of the population. India embarked upon economic liberalization 16 years ago. According to the National Sample Survey, by 2004-05 the country’s middle class exceeded 240 million. It is estimated that if the economy maintains the present growth rate, by 2025 the middle class will constitute half the population.

It is the fast growing middle class that prompts global capitalism to take immense interest in China and India. The world has not seen such a large consumer society as theirs until now.

The National Sample Survey had found that in 1999-2000 Indians spent as much as Rs. 7209.32 billion on personal consumption. Middle class consumers accounted for 42% of the expenditure. The survey threw up data that helps us to understand the size of the middle class in Kerala. Of the 240 million Indians belonging to the middle class, 16.7 million are in the State. The State accounts for only 3.1% of the country’s population but 6.9% of the middle class consumers live here.

The economic significance of the growth of Kerala’s middle class is easy to understand. Its political and social dimensions are not as easy to comprehend. Arjun Sengupta, well-known economist, who heads the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector, has tried to look at this problem in the national context. His observations point to the need to undertake similar studies at the State level.

Sengupta points out that while the number of people who are ‘extremely poor’ and ‘poor’ (those who are below the poverty line) declined from 30.7% to 21.8% between 1993-94 and 2004-05, when the economy grew rapidly, the number of people who are ‘marginal’ and ‘vulnerable’ (those who are just above the poverty line) rose from 51.2% to 55.0%. As much as 88% of the Dalits and Adivasis, 85% of the Muslims and 80% of the other backward classes excluding Muslims belong to these groups. According to him, India stands divided: on one side are 210 million middle class and 44 million high income group, which offer a large expanding market for all kinds of consumer goods; on the other side are 836 million poor and vulnerable people, who, he says, are our aam aadmi.
Adapted from the column “Nerkkaazhcha”, appearing in
Kerala Kaumudi dated August 30, 2007

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