Inequality townhall in India: Ideas on creating equal opportunities

Recently, government representatives and civil society participants from across the globe came together in New York for the exciting ‘Social Good Summit #2030NOW’ to discuss how technology can improve lives for all of us and find new ways and solutions to end poverty. Reducing poverty is as much a challenge as bridging the growing divide between the rich and the poor. It is now obvious that increasingly our focus is on diminishing inequalities between the privileged and those who can hardly afford two square meals a day.

Let us look at few startling facts and issues first: Between 1981 and 2000, the richest 0.01% of the population have seen their income rise by more than 10%, while household expenses for everyone have increased by 1.5% in the same period. Regarding access to education, the inequalities between boys and girls are marked. In the rural areas, the statistics on girls who have never attended schools are dismal across all groups. It is one-third among Other Backward Class Muslims, almost the same figure among Adivasis and one-fourth in Dalits.

Close the Gap

The organization I work in – Oxfam India – has embarked upon a three year campaign to mobilize opinion to close this widening divide. The Close the Gap campaign aims to strike up a conversation and engage people who are not only tech-savvy and social media geeks, but also those who live in some of the poorest states of India such as Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Assam and Chattisgarh. In fact, these states are also the focus states for Oxfam India where we have long term sustainable programs running with grassroot partners.

Oxfam India launched this innovative and exciting campaign against inequality on International Women’s Day, on 8 March 2013. “The first stage of our campaign has focused on inequality between men and women,” explained Nisha Agrawal, Oxfam India’s CEO. “More than 40,000 people contacted us through community radio stations and in addition to that, more than 10,000 people have called up our campaign phone line to say how they think the gap between men and women can be closed. Now we want to broad base the dialog around inequality that is tearing into the social fabric of our country.”

A public discussion on inequality

Oxfam did this precisely by hosting a groundbreaking public event on 24 October – a live Inequality Townhall in New Delhi. Avinash Kumar, Oxfam India’s Director of Policy, Research and Campaigns explains: “This was a unique, one-of-its kind public event wherein we invited opinions and suggestions from across the country through various platforms such as social media; the country’s largest government radio service All India Radio FM, as well as regional community radio stations to seek voices of people living in the rural parts of the country.”

Inequality Townhall was steered around the launch of Oxfam’s Policy Brief on Inequality and a live interactive panel discussion on various dimensions on inequality in India.

The Townhall had eminent panelists who represented the social, corporate, education and media sectors respectively. Here are a few highlights:

  • Kiran Karnik, Chairman of the Oxfam India Board and former head of the National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM) said: “Inequality is also important; just as we talk of ecological sustainability, we need to worry about this social model of development. We need to have innovative solutions.”
  • Professor Amitabh Kundu of Jawaharlal Nehru University said: “In India, inequality concerns are not getting the due concern. Inequalities exist in all spheres across gender, health, education and religion.”
  • Actor and activist Gul Panag remarked: “Why are gender inequalities so high? We can learn from South Korea where the government followed a policy of gender mainstreaming. The state and feminist organizations worked in tandem to bridge the gap of inequality. The way forward is through women’s networks and the youth of this country.”
  • Priya Paul, Chairperson of Apeejay Surrendra Park Hotels said: “Corporates need to fund public-government schools. In fact, they are funding good quality education.” On inequality she said, “Evaluating and measuring impact is important, and it is not easy. People in the corporate world are very concerned about inequality.”
  • Dalits rights activist Paul Divakar said: “Positive inclusion is possible.”

The panel talk was followed by an exciting conversation with the online and live sitting audience, all of which was streamed on social media with the hashtag #ctgindia.

The next phase of the campaign will aim to address other critical issues such as women’s land and property rights, pressing for the Women’s Reservation Bill in the Parliament; and pushing for public recognition of these crucial aspects which hamper women in their everyday lives.

Tell us!

Have you seen any innovative ways people or communities are addressing inequality in India? Or your country?

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