09 September 2005

Unequal societies

In the 1 August 2004 article ‘Amid China’s Boom, No Helping Hand for Young Qingming’ in The New York Times, Joseph Kahn and Jim Yardley narrate the plight of millions of young Chinese who, although once a part of urban China, now “…are being left behind in the money-centered, cutthroat society that has replaced socialist China.”

The article states, “China has the world’s fastest-growing economy but is one of its most unequal societies. The benefits of growth have been bestowed mainly on urban residents and government and party officials. In the past five years, the income divide between the urban rich and the rural poor has widened so sharply that some studies now compare China’s social cleavage unfavorably with Africa’s poorest nations.”

Yet, every year, millions of Chinese migrate to the nearest cities in search of a living… braving poor living conditions, uncertain incomes, and exploitation.

A year later, in India, the story is no different. One of the biggest demographic changes to be recorded over this century has been the shift away from rural towards urban living. Everyday, fighting poverty in rural India, millions migrate to the cities for work, income and hopes of a better life. However, going by Rahul Srivastava’s story in
www.infochange.org (the link I provided in my post yesterday), a great majority of this population faces a fate very similar to the one they left behind in their villages.

This raises an important question: Is the lure of urban India so great that it offsets the hardships and the costs of living for the rural immigrant?

Here things become a little ambiguous. Shelter costs in rural India are certainly lower compared to urban areas. Logically then, people in rural areas would not need as much income and would not have to spend as much on shelter to achieve the same enjoyment out of housing. If shelter costs less in rural areas, then clearly, a lower income in those areas is not necessarily an indication of a lower standard of living.

There are also food costs, which are lower in rural areas because of the greater likelihood of home-cooked food, as opposed to the greater appeal and consumption of restaurant or hotel food in urban areas.

In terms of overall consumption, the rural consumer, having smaller disposable income, spends less. If material goods are counted, ownership of household items such as cooking gas, refrigerators, TVs and washing machines – not to mention consumption of electricity – the rural consumer is way behind his urban counterpart. If you go even higher on income spends, ownership of cellular phones, two-wheelers, cars, home computers or air conditioners, the rural market is no match for the rising demands of the urban consumer.

Then there’s better health and better education. [Don’t forget safe drinking water.]

Perhaps, that’s where the urban lure lies… in the ownership of material possessions… in the ability to afford better healthcare and better education. These are the true indicators of a better quality of life. And perhaps that’s why the rural Indian, like his Chinese equal, is willing to test his fortune against poor living conditions, uncertain incomes, and exploitation.

But then, the rural Indian, much like his Chinese equal, has a long way to go.

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