The great equaliser

Written by ishan bakshi | Updated: Sep 23 2013, 08:45am hrs
Has there been a shift in the public discourse over the past decade The discourse, which previously centred on the struggle for survival, conditional on state benevolence, now seems to have coalesced around the role of the state in bridging the gap between rising aspirations and the realisation of these aspirations. By creating pathways to participate in the growth process, high growth had ushered in an unbridled sense of optimism about the future, unleashing the aspirations of millions. Couched in the language of rising aspirations is the idea of social mobility. This development marks a shift in public discourse, centring on the concept of equality of opportunity.

As opposed to the concept of equality of outcomes that focuses on the distribution of income or wealth in a society, equality of opportunity implies that every individual has roughly equal opportunity to participate in societys institutions such as the labour marketa concept closely linked to the idea of (intergenerational) social mobility. Intergenerational mobility, examined through the lens of education, occupation, income and wealth, serves as a unique indicator of equality of opportunity. By estimating intergenerational mobility, what we are examining is the relationship between the socio-economic status of parents and the socio-economic outcomes of the adult child. If parental outcomes have a significant impact on the education, occupation and income of their children, then children from poor households have a low probability of escaping from poverty and rising up the income distribution. In such societies who your parents are is indeed an important determinant of your fate. On the other hand, in highly mobile societies, the link between parental outcomes and the opportunities available to children is weak. In such societies, an individuals education, occupation or income depends more on factors within his control than factors beyond his control.

While rags to riches stories are popular, the idea that ones life chances are determined largely at birth is still widely held in India. The organisation of society on the basis of caste, which an individual inherits at birth, has often been viewed as the biggest impediment to social mobility. That the son of an illiterate, low caste, poor labourer is destined to live in poverty, leads many to characterise India as a highly immobile society with high levels of inequality of opportunity. Furthermore, the rise in inequality of outcome as measured by the Gini coefficient in the post liberalisation era, has led many to argue that a privileged few have garnered a disproportionate share of the benefits and opportunities flowing from high growth.

The fundamental question which needs to be explored is whether social mobility has accelerated in the post liberalisation period marked by rapid growth. Has high growth created a more inclusive opportunity structure and reduced inequality of opportunity measured across its various axes Is the rise in aggregate education levels a result of the rise in education levels of children belonging to the least educated parents Do children from poor households have equal probability of attaining higher education as compared to those born to more affluent sections of society Does caste still influence an individuals occupation and thus his life chances Do children from poor households have a higher probability of rising up the income distribution than before

While studies exploring the various dimensions of equality of opportunity in India are limited, they do indicate greater social mobility in the post-reform era. Paucity of space limits my analysis to a brief examination of intergenerational education mobility. The accompanying transition matrix details the percentage of children who have attained a particular education level, corresponding to the education level of their parent. Each row of the table represents the education level of the parent, while columns indicate the education level of the child. Thus the row labelled Edu 1 in the first table can be read in the following mannerin 1983, 52% of the adult children of illiterate parents remained illiterate, 10% acquired some education, 16% finished primary school, 20% had middle school education, and 1% had an education level of secondary school and above.

The transition matrices do indicate that the sharp decline observed in intergenerational persistence of illiteracy is to a large extent on account of children of the least educated parents moving up the education ladder. Accompanying this fall in intergenerational persistence of illiteracy is a concomitant rise in the probability of children born to the least educated parents attaining higher levels of education. These estimates clearly show that education mobility has accelerated in the post reform era. Data also suggests that caste no longer plays a dominant role in determining an individuals occupation and thus his life chances. Furthermore, a child born in a low-caste poor household now has a higher probability of escaping from poverty than his parents had.

Is high growth an effective equaliser Kuznets argued that there exists a direct relationship between growth and mobility. High growth is perhaps the most effective way of increasing social mobility as it weakens the barriers to upward mobility. It reduces the disadvantages associated with a persons family background and provides greater opportunities for the poor to escape from poverty. Criticism of the high-growth period while focusing almost exclusively on the rise in inequality of outcomes has overlooked its impact on attenuating structures that limit social mobility. A highly mobile society will have lower inequality in the long run than one with lower mobility, as greater mobility leads to a more equal distribution of lifetime incomes. Ironically, while economic and social mobility matter more in unequal societies, it has received very little attention in India. With one of the worlds largest population of young people and the much anticipated demographic dividend that India expects, it is high time to free ourselves from the shackles of fatalism. Put simply, policies that create opportunity will create the India of tomorrow.

The author works at NCAER. Views are personal