Economic growth: Present tense

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India’s poor score in the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Social Mobility Index is not surprising as the country has also fared badly in many other indices that measure social and economic status and conditions of people. India is ranked 76th out of 82 nations in the index, which is a measure of a person’s ability and chances to lead a better life than his or her parents’ life. The main determinants of the index are health, education, technology access, work opportunities, working conditions, fair wages and social protection and inclusive institutions. While Nordic countries lead the table, India’s poor consolation may be that Pakistan is placed three positions lower than it. Social mobility depends on the opportunities that the social set-up of a country gives individuals to fulfil their potential. Ideally, every individual should have the same and equal opportunities in life, irrespective of socio-economic background. But in practice, they vary widely within countries and across the world. Social and economic inequalities are the main factors that constrain mobility. When one’s progress in life is limited by one’s position at birth, historical inequalities get further entrenched. Society becomes static and loses its dynamism. In India, there is the additional constraint of rigid caste hierarchies which make mobility difficult.

It is the rise of individualism during the Renaissance times and the opportunities individuals got to realise their potential that helped today’s developed societies to move socially and economically forward. The index shows that India is among the countries that give the least chances to individuals to develop. This is not just a problem for the individual. Societies and economies do not develop when individuals are tied down. A society does not move forward when most individuals cannot go beyond their birth stations and the social status of their parents. The index helps policymakers to identify areas that need more attention and action to improve social mobility and to promote shared opportunities. Globalisation and technology are often blamed for increasing inequalities, but most governments have failed to frame social and economic policies to counter the inequality gap. It is not enough to promise equal opportunities to all citizens. Social mobility can be understood as the movement in personal circumstances either “upwards” or “downwards” of an individual in relation to those of their parents. In absolute terms, it is the ability of a child to experience a better life than their parents. On the other hand, relative social mobility is an assessment of the impact of socio-economic background on an individual’s outcomes in life.

Wage and income inequalities should be reduced, education and health facilities should be improved, and social protection should effectively cover all people to improve social mobility. Economic growth is hampered in the medium and long term if social mobility is slow. There is also the danger of the individual, whose power and independence are the most basic requirements of democracy, being smothered by state and society when social mobility is slow. The adverse political repercussions of that situation are already being felt in the country.

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