Conduct & Ethics

Who Will Act on Income Inequality?

Because of its far-reaching consequences, governments must be involved

Friday, June 28, 2019

By Sai Nitya Bodavala and Nupur Pavan Bang


In his victory speech on May 23, 2019, India's newly re-elected prime minister, Narendra Modi, said that “from now on, India will only have two castes: the poor and those that want to remove poverty.”

Historically, the Indian government focused policymaking on alleviating the social inequality cemented by caste differences. The primary focus was bridging the gap between the upper and lower castes through financial and educational parity, like reservations in educational institutions and government jobs. Of late, however, there has been a shift to targeting policies to inequalities presented by income.

India began to face issues of heightened inequality post-1991, when economic reforms and liberalization were initiated, ending the license-quota regime, following a balance of payments crisis. Pre-reform, the public sector ensured that resources were diverted to those geographic areas that required them, and thereby leveled the playing field. After the private sector entered the playing field, however, things changed. The private sector focused on cutting costs and profit-making. Businesses moved to more developed areas where access to resources was easier and cheaper. This led to regional income inequality.

During its last tenure, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, led by Modi, targeted income inequality with a bill that aims to introduce a 10% reservation in jobs and educational institutions for those belonging to the “economically backward” sections of the general category. Economically backward is defined as families receiving less than Rs. 800,000 of income per annum and possessing fewer than five acres of land, in addition to other measures based on residence.

In the recently held elections, the Congress party's manifesto also incorporated an element that aimed to do the same. It proposed the Nyuntam Aay Yojana (NYAY) scheme, according to which 50 million of the poorest families in India would receive Rs. 72,000 a year. It was assumed that each family has at least five members, meaning that 250 million people would benefit - if the Congress party had come to power and implemented scheme.

UBI and Wealth Taxes

India is not alone in moving toward policies that aim to reduce income inequality. Andrew Yang, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in the United States, has based his campaign on the idea of Universal Basic Income, which guarantees to each adult a certain amount of money per month. Yang proposes to pay for UBI through a value added tax (VAT) and the revenue from the envisaged increase in productivity from receiving an unconditional cash transfer.

Billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, writing in the New York Times, said, “Our country must do something bigger and more radical [than steps such as raising the minimum wage and building affordable housing], starting with the most unfair area of federal policy: our tax code. It's time to start talking seriously about a wealth tax . . .

“Don't get me wrong: I am not advocating an end to the capitalist system that's yielded some of the greatest gains in prosperity and innovation in human history. I simply believe it's time for those of us with great wealth to commit to reducing income inequality, starting with the demand to be taxed at a higher rate than everyone else.”

If governments are attempting to curb income inequality, it is only right to explore why.

The Bigger Picture

The Gini coefficient is used to measure income inequality. On the scale of 0 to 100, 0 is perfect income equality, with everyone receiving an equal amount. At 100, there is perfect inequality, with one person receiveng all income.

Studies have found that low levels of income inequality may actually be beneficial for the economy.

Income inequality denies educational and culturally stimulating opportunities for children from low-income households. This deprivation keeps them from obtaining relevant skills that the job market requires, making them less employable. They end up being paid low wages.

The wealthy, meanwhile, produce with the intention of earning profits. If the masses cannot afford to buy what is produced, the wealthy suffer losses, leading to their inability to reinvest, and making the economy worse off. Income inequality at a level below 27 on the scale allows for entrepreneurs to invest more into their businesses, thereby allowing for greater economic growth. On the other hand, a high level of inequality has a snowball effect, with negative repercussions for all.

A 2015 study by the Organisation for Economic and Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that between 1990 and 2010, the rising income and wealth inequality in the U.S. “knocked about five percentage points off cumulative GDP per capita over that period.” It is thereby a misconception that income inequality is an issue only of those in the low-income bracket. It affects the economy as a whole.


A paper by Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker, “Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach,” posited that wherever there exists a large gap between the poor and the rich, there is bound to be higher crime. OECD's 2013 How's Life report also noted that “socio-economic inequality seems to play a central role in the occurrence of criminal victimization as disadvantaged people are more likely to perpetrate and to be victims of crimes.”

Those in the lower-income bracket become vulnerable in that they are unable to access the resources that are abundantly available to those with money. This vulnerability manifests in two ways: they may either take to crime in order to meet their needs, or become victims of criminal activity because they do not have the means to protect themselves.

According to Martin Daly, professor emeritus of psychology and neuroscience at McMaster University, inequality predicts homicide rates “better than any other variable.”


In countries where the burden of paying for health care rests with individuals, an unforeseen expense can spell disaster for a low-income household. This could lead to compromises being made on the safety assured by an established medical practice that is expensive, in favor of one that is cheaper.

Aside from the issue of affordability, a 2017 World Health Organization and OECD report shows that in countries where the income gap between the 10th and the 90th percentile of the populace is very wide have higher rates of infant mortality.

Mental health also suffers as a consequence of inequality. It was found that with an increase of 0.2 of a country's Gini coefficient, there were eight more incidences of schizophrenia per 100,000 people.


According to the 2018 World Inequality Report by the World Inequality Lab at the Paris School of Economics, the top 10% in India control 55% of India's total wealth. In light of this undeniable problem, we may not, however, conclude that caste can no longer be a basis for identifying inequality. Caste has been and continues to be a basis for discrimination and ill-treatment in India. The ill-effects of negative discrimination based on caste and those of income inequality are similar. The effects include being denied social mobility, occupational mobility and access to basic resources.

The intrinsic link between income inequality and the caste hierarchy can be seen in the table.

Caste System and Income Inequality
Source: The Economic Times

It is evident that those who belong to the backward classes spend (consumption as a proxy for income here) far less than those belonging to the forward caste categories, as well as the average. It is also interesting to note that religious minorities such as Muslims also earn less than the average.

There exists a simplistic notion that taxing the rich and handing money to the poor is an effective solution for income inequality. It is erroneous. Income inequality is a result of problems and prejudices that are far more deeply rooted, such as the torment inflicted by the caste system. Both must be tackled simultaneously, since continued discrimination based on caste will only impede progress made on the income equality front.

Lack of Reliable Data

Most studies in India, such as those of the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), focus on consumption or wealth rather than on income. Official estimates of inequality present a picture that doesn't seem alarming, while other surveys, like those of the India Human Development Survey (IHDS), present a high number.

To add to the confusion, People's Research on India's Economy (PRICE) found that the number may be lower than what the IHDS suggested. The different methods by which studies gather data on income are bound to suggest varying figures for inequality. Some studies rely on tax filings, some on survey data and others on national statistics. The paucity of accurate data implies that the policies implemented may not yield optimal results.


Income inequality is today's reality. Considering how important parity is for the development of the country, the issue must be continuously addressed in order to be mitigated.

In the past, the Indian government has dealt with income inequality by providing employment opportunities and direct benefits, while private players have managed to contribute to the shrinking of this chasm through corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities. The evidence suggests however, that the government schemes could be better implemented and thought out.

The NDA government showed intent to overcome this issue in their previous tenure, and Modi's speech has inspired confidence that they intend to carry out their promises in the next five years. All that is left now is for them to act decisively and show lasting results, because although the private sector has a role to play, the ultimate responsibility of dealing with income inequality must lie with the government.

Nupur Pavan Bang ( is associate director, Thomas Schmidheiny Centre for Family Enterprise, Indian School of Business. Sai Nitya Bodavala is an intern at the Thomas Schmidheiny Centre for Family Enterprise, Indian School of Business, and a student of economics at the University of Hyderabad.


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