Urban Middle Class – Key to Transform India

Winner Of CSC December 2021 Essay Competition : Ashutosh Pujari 13 Lord Sinha Road, Kolkata

2500 years ago, in his theory of the Golden Mean, Aristotle extolled the virtue of avoiding the extremes. The middle class represents that golden mean in today’s socio-economic landscape with unique strengths, insights and challenges. Today, it is the urban middle class that is leading the transformation of India. However, scholars have found it difficult to define what it means to be part of the urban middle class.

The middle class makes up 28% of the total population of India and 79% of the total tax base. Economic criteria alone is found wanting in defining the middle class as it ranges from the lower middle class – a class just above the subsistence level – to the upper middle class – just below the super-rich. However, the middle class has certain characteristics that sets them apart – their choices, lifestyles and values. First, the middle class puts a premium on good education and a good job as it is a ladder to higher social status and stability. This has been true since the time of independence. It was the middle class that adopted the Gandhian ethos of simple living and high thinking. However, this changed with the economic reforms initiated in the 1990s. Preference for stable government jobs has been replaced by preference for high-paying jobs in MNCs, and simple, frugal living has been replaced by consumerism. Today, the middle class is the largest consumer of goods and services in the country. This shows that the urban middle class is socially, economically and culturally dynamic.

India’s urban population contributes 63% to the total GDP of the country. Of this the share of the middle class is the largest. This leaves no doubt that the urban middle class drives the economy. However, this was not always the case.

Much of India’s history is conspicuous by the absence of a proper middle class. In ancient and medieval India, the community was the unit of living that usually resided in the autarchic villages as noted by A. R. Desai in ‘Social Background of Indian Nationalism’. The cities were hubs of manufacturing of commodities, usually handicrafts. The community living of villages evolved its own systems of economic exchange as property was communally owned. Thus, systems like Jajmani prevailed. While in urban areas, the artisans were largely poor and their products were consumed by either the rich or exported.

Indian economy was transformed with the coming of European powers and subsequent rise of capitalism. Modern education and means of transport and communication enabled the growth of a class whose only wealth was their skills and education. Hence, it were the doctors, teachers and lawyers who constituted India’s first middle class. Since, these opportunities were available in the urban areas, the Indian middle class was largely urban. It was the middle class that led innovation in the social and political landscape of India – the national movement was led by the giants of the urban middle class like W.C. Bonnerjee, Tayabji, Gokhale, Naoroji, and Nehru, etc. Major social changes were affected by the likes of Jyotiba Phule, Rammohan Roy and Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar. In the 20th century again, the burden of progress was borne by the urban middle class as is reflected in the composition of the first parliament of independent India which comprised mostly lawyers.

Now, in the 21st century, future beacons with opportunities. It is again the urban middle class that has taken the mantle to lead India. The example of the smartphone market is most telling. In recent years, we have witnessed high quality, inexpensive, feature loaded smartphones flooding the market. There is intense competition in the Indian market for this segment of smartphones. It is the urban middle class that is the chief consumer of these devices. This phenomenon has been observed in several other industries like automobiles where innovative technologies have made their way to the budget markets. The urban middle class are the early adopters of these products, making India an ideal market for the foreign investment.

India has a population of 1.35 billion of which 65% is less than the age of 35 giving India a huge demographic dividend. An educated and skilled middle class is required to reap the benefit of this demographic dividend.

Though much has been achieved, much is still left to be accomplished. Rural development, infrastructure, corruption, justice, public service delivery and climate change are some of the areas that need immediate attention. Urban middle class can lead by example in these areas. The chief strength of the middle class is its sizeable percentage (28% of the population) and talent (education, skill, affluence) that makes it ideal for leading any transformation in India. To this extent, it was the urban middle class that was foremost in generating awareness about the above issues. The 2011 anti-corruption movement is a case in point. Similarly, the enthusiasm with which the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan was welcomed and implemented showed the capacity and determination of the urban middle class. Since, the urban middle class is the largest consumer, it can play an equally decisive role in climate change by adopting right practices, thus, incentivizing major industries to switch to green manufacturing. The digital revolution was made a success by the participation of the urban middle class.

The next step in transforming India is to integrate the leadership potential of the urban middle class with the rural population so that the benefits of development can be reaped by all. There has been a steady growth of rural affluence in the past few decades. The Government of India’s plan to double farmers’ income by 2022 will have a huge impact on the rural agrarian society.

Several thinkers have raised concerns about dilution of Indian values in the middle class and rise of consumerism. These concerns are not misplaced as ‘Americanisation’ has not left India untouched. To follow the golden mean would require us to guard against the extremes of consumerism. In fact, some of the recent problems like climate change, pollution of rivers and land have resulted directly from this consumerism.

Bill Copeland said, “The trouble with not having a goal is that you can spend your entire life running up and down the field and never score”. This role of providing the society with a goal, something to aspire for, is played by the middle class, and it is its biggest strength.

Indian middle class is a relatively new phenomenon that began with the coming of the European colonisers and the capitalist mode of production. Since the beginning, the urban middle class has led the country through social, political, cultural and economic transformations. The urban middle class itself has undergone changes during this time. Despite the changes, India’s middle class has the potential that is needed to bring about a transformation in the society.