UN’s HDI 2019: Inequalities Manifest In Multiple Ways, But Do We Know How?

Inequalities manifest in many ways, but they are not beyond solutions. Our ever-changing world brings with it new kinds of inequalities that we will have to battle, by making sure that all stakeholders have a seat at the table. This was my takeaway from the Roundtable On Intersections of Inequalities organised by the United Nations during the launch of the Human Development Index, 2019.

The roundtable saw prolific personalities working in different fields, including gender and sexuality, caste, economics, media, and more. The report titled ‘Beyond Income, Beyond Averages, Beyond Today: Inequalities In Human Development In The 21st Century’ shows us the uncomfortable truth about our country’s progress, beyond ‘economy’.

India is ranked 129 out of 189 countries according to data collected in 2018, one step up from the 130th position in 2017. But what does this mean for the most marginalised, those whose marginalisation is invisibilised, or yet to happen, due to climate change? The report attempts to build a roadmap for policy-makers to address these questions, or at least, give them a starting point.

The premise of the roundtable was to talk about inequalities that go beyond traditional notions of inequality based on income and averages. UNDP-India Resident Representative Shoko Noda spoke about how “air pollution and the way we are responding (to it) has been a stark reflection of inequality.” She spoke about how the majority of people could not afford air-purifiers or even face masks, a reflection of how inequalities exist in our daily lives.

Averages can often disguise (inequalities), so we have to go beyond averages and unpack the problems,” Noda pointed out. The report also highlights gender inequality, she said.

Noda went on to dissect the meaning behind ‘Today’ in the title of the report and how it stands for technology, and for climate change, and to magnify how these disproportionately affect the marginalised the hardest. Access to the internet, and how many services are made available online, also reflect growing gaps in terms of access. We have only 10 years to go for the SDGs, so we have no time to relax when it comes to addressing inequalities, she said.

In our quest to document inequalities and the ways it disempowers communities, especially in a world that is changing at a fast pace, nuances of the same cannot be missed out. Political cartoonist and activist, Rachita Tyagi spoke about how in our discourse on climate change, technology and inclusion, we cannot ignore intersections of gender, caste, class and more.

Women are at the forefront of bearing the brunt of disasters like climate change, she said. Talking about technology, she said that we also need to look at how it is used to curtail liberties, and how it ends up disempowering women.

It is also important for us to constantly question what we mean by ‘inequalities’ and how new forms of oppression are constantly broadening. The HDI report, as crucial as it is, the panelists opined that this oppression should have found place in the report.

The concept of caste, SC and ST, are missing in the HDR conversation. Measuring the inequalities faced by the Dalit community, especially the educational inequality is of utmost importance,” said Dalit Activist Paul Divakar. “What kinds of inequalities are we looking at?” he asked.

Adding to the general takeaway that forms of inequalities and the ways they manifest were overlooked by the report, Joyita Mondal, the first trans woman to be appointed to a Lok Adalat, pointed out how the report and our discourse on development are still stuck in gender binaries. She spoke about how, in the 2011 Census or any other report, there is no data on access to education by trans people.

The report forgets disability completely,” Nipun Malhotra, a disability rights activist pointed out. Disability in India has been a major issue and has intersections with health, education, and more. Zainab Patel, the Director Inclusion and Diversity, KPMG, also spoke about the need for a more inclusive HDR, with more metrics that are able to account for people from LGBTQ+ communities.

In this vein, Rafiul Alom Rahman, who runs the Queer Muslim Project (TQMP) said that the marginalised cannot just be “an addition” to these conversations. “Our conversation on the LGBTQ community cannot be tokenistic,” he said, and that it is important for “intent to be articulated, and we need to see the utterance of ‘Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, Bisexuals’’,” so that it leads to destigmatisation.

I am glad that the conversation on inequality along the lines of intersection is happening,” Rafiul said, as did Vinatoli Yeptho, a spoken-word poet and activist. “The language of the report is empathetic,” she said. “Human development is not just a matter of mathematics. It’s about people. We’ve come a long way in understanding inequalities. Redressing them is of utmost importance – where do we go from here?” said Suraj Kumar, Senior Visiting Fellow at Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies (RGICS).

Inequality in the 21st century is constantly taking up new dimensions, covering accessibility to healthcare, access to new kinds of technology, adapting to climate change.  Communities have been speaking out for a long time, but it’s been falling on deaf ears. The onus should not fall back on them to address inequalities,” said Anshul Tewari, founder of Youth Ki Awaaz, on whether communities speaking up alone can bridge the gap. “There’s a need for a large scale citizens’ movement to hold this dialogue and hold the government accountable,” he said.

Though there are many communication platforms in India, there aren’t enough diverse voices. Representation matters and different voices must be encouraged,” said Arun Sahdeo, Country Coordinator, UNV India. “Poverty is multidimensional and intersectional,” said Jayati Ghosh, a reality we need to reconcile with to bolster our efforts to tackle it. “I think the report recognises how inequality affects in different ways, but there is no way to separate that,” Ghosh opined.

What I like about the report is the survey which talks about the social norms index. At least an attempt has been made to recognise it,” said Alka Narang, a development professional with the UNDP.

The conversation here is mostly about poverty and not inequality. How are we planning to focus on all those factors which contribute to inequality?” said Anjela Taneja, urging us to take the conversation further.

This report recognises the importance of climate change. Our business sectors, livelihood, education will all be affected by climate change and inequality will thus broaden, this is a clear message from the report. In the coming years, we need to see how to tackle the unequal society,” said Arun Sahdeo.

The roundtable discussing the Human Development Report 2019 was a thought-provoking exercise in making us conscious of the need to keep broadening our definitions of ‘inequalities’ and the ways it exists even further. From the climate crisis, the intrusion of technology in our lives, and the political upheavals we are witnesses to, and the new metrics they will require are aspects that need our attention. 

Our rights, our identities, and other intersections, along with income inequality, as encapsulated in the Human Development report, and the aspects we tend to miss out, are crucial for our overall development.

Inequality will go beyond being based only on income for us to be able to gauge the ‘haves‘ and ‘have-nots,‘ and we need to work to actively recognise these factors. Just like our response to the climate crisis needs to factor in intersections of caste, class, gender, disability, for us to imagine an inclusive future, other issues plaguing the world need to include intersections.

Editor’s note: Do you want to know where India stands in the Human Development Index (2019)? You can access the report, released on December 9 (2019), here.

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