Who are the Middle Class in South Asia?
The measurement and identification of the middle class in South Asia, including India in particular, remains subject to significant debate, academics point out.
With high GDP growth but also high levels of inequality, South Asia identifies an elusive middle class by either exaggerating or diminishing its size, nature or effectiveness. As anthropologist and researcher of middle class consumerism in India, William Mazzarella observed, “Since the mid-1980s, one of the more noticeable symptoms of the process of social and economic liberalisation in India has been an obsessive public cultural concern with the category ‘middle class.’
Revisiting the debate
Today the measurement and identification of the middle class of South Asia, including India in particular, remains subject to significant debate. The continued speculations of international marketing firms and economists regarding this was recently raised by an ‘Economist’ report titled ‘The elephant in the room: India’s missing middle class’. Painting a bleak picture for potential investors looking to profit from India’s relatively recent growth story, the article concluded ‘companies that tried to tap the Indian opportunity have found that returns fell short of the hype’. The report, which cited the findings of economists Thomas Piketty and Lucas Chancel, inevitably proven contentious; drawing responses from a number of critics including economist Surjit Bhalla and the NITI Aayog (National Institution for Transforming India).
The self-identifying middle classes
A new national survey by Devish Kapoor and Milan Vaishnav indicates that 49 per cent of almost 70,000 respondents from a wide-ranging spectrum of incomes viewed themselves as middle class, despite the fact that many would not have financially fallen under the category. However, the findings did reveal that region and geography seemed to pay a part in this self-identification. Nevertheless, what is important here is that to be middle class “is an aspirational identity regardless of how consumers are typecast”.
Engaging with these renewed debates, the South Asia Centre’s summit session on the middle class focused on a number of themes and puzzles emerging from this discourse. These included an examination of how contra Western-centric indicators of identifying the seemingly “elusive” middle class in South Asia, differing forms of household expenditure; religious practices; and aspirational projects of self-making and mobility; may all constitute varying forms of participation in middle class life.
Comparison social markers in South Asia
Is there a South Asian middle class that can be said to display similar characteristics or are national differences such that it is impossible to define such a unitary category? was one of the questions posed. For a number of the panellists drawing on research from Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and Nepal, their data reflected the diversity of the middle class in the region, but it also revealed a number of similarities too.
In reporting his and research partner Dr Krishna Adhikari’s findings from their recent large-scale survey research in Nepal, Professor David Gellner states that “religious reform is an important part of self-making as a modern person”. New forms of Buddhism and Hinduism he concluded, are “terrifically important in being middle class”. This was also the case for Dr Ammara Maqsood, author of ‘The New Pakistani Middle Class’, who noted that “in both Pakistan and India there’s a certain self-making that’s expressed through consumption in very similar ways, but what you also notice is that there is this rise in religion”.
For Maqsood, whilst Wahhabi Islam was taking a more visible role in the “progressive modernity” of the emerging middle class in Pakistan, importantly, there was no single dominant denomination amongst the middle classes. However, a stronger religious presence in the public sphere sat in contrast to the social habits of the older established middle class, who had previously gained affluence via connections with state projects of (secular) colonial modernity but had since retreated into the private sector following former dictator General Zia-ul-Haq’s program of Islamisation.
Moderator Dr Lotte Hoek also highlighted the consumptive role of religion (including not necessarily even one’s own) via the visible appearance of Hindu tropes in Bangladeshi weddings. Such practices, Hoek argued problematise interpretations of rising religious fundamentalism; “if you look at the migration of religious Hindu tropes into Bangladeshi weddings it becomes much more problematic discussing the rise of Wahhabi Islam,” she concluded.
In her discussion of the findings of her book ‘Dreamers’ on young aspirants of middle class lives and livelihoods, Indian journalist Snigdha Poonam revealed that a pronounced religious-national identity amongst younger men in India was partly the result of the frustration in finding none of the traditional routes to upward socioeconomic mobility open to them. However, Maqsood urged caution against this equation with Hindutva, claiming “there is a strong link between class and religion in terms of frustrations over upward mobility but we cannot make straight forward linkages in that either”.
Both Gellner and Maqsood drew on the significance of land and real estate in their findings in reference to the established and emerging middle classes. For Maqsood, her data revealed that whilst government and state jobs provide social status for the post-eighties emergent middle class, families were economically augmenting this via various business ventures and investments including land speculation. “Even with this established middle class this linkage with land has not disappeared but perhaps has translated into a shift from rural property into urban property,” Mahmood concluded.
Moreover, whilst Gellner asserted that “caste still matters” concerning the middle class of Nepal and inevitably played a part in land holding ownership patterns, new forms of wealth accessible to lower caste families including international labour migration, are bringing a visible change in his and Krishna’s field sites.
Gellner also noted that amongst the growing ‘international class’, the majority of households were non-Brahmin, since lower caste families had historically less opportunities for mobility within Nepal, and now looked to increase their socioeconomic status outside of the country. Edward McBride of ‘The Economist’ newspaper also contributed to this debate by highlighting the spending power of migrant workers, whereby those working ‘dangerous’ jobs in construction in the Gulf were returning with renewed status as the wealthiest in their villages. However, this came with the problematic caveat that ‘it doesn’t make sense to think of them as part of a global middle class in terms of spending power’ according to McBride, which thus begs the question, is there is a distinct South Asian form of middle class experts are failing to recognise?
Despite division in the panel concerning the identification of the middle class, McBride conceded that “the cultural analysis and the financial analysis have something in common” which was education. Gellner also highlighted the primacy of this in his analysis of Nepal, pointing to the growing trend of parents sending their children to private schools, despite their often similarly low standards of education in comparison to state schools.
McBride also acknowledged Dr Hoek’s opening remarks regarding the role of education in projects of selfhood in Bangladesh and West Bengal, where the pursuit of education may remain informed by historically-rooted culturally situated understandings of class and substance.
Whilst both Maqsood and Poonam also discussed the primacy of education as both the site of middle class reproduction and a route to it, their findings suggest that its perceived efficacy and value may not be reflected in its growing consumption. For instance, whilst Maqsood noted that educated allowed families to “invest in modernity”, she also made the point that whilst in joint family structures amongst the new Pakistani middle class, women are “very literate, they primarily stayed at home”.
As a further counter-narrative to the transformative power and consumptive enthusiasm for education in South Asia, Poonam noted that younger generations were becoming increasingly disenfranchised regarding the efficacy of education in securing well-paying careers. Some were shunning degrees in engineering and pursuing alternative forms of entrepreneurial enterprise. Whilst the ‘The Economist’ stated that a third of under 25s in India were not in education, employment, or receiving training, statistical data potentially fails to capture stories such as these.
Further indicators of middle class status
There were two very distinct ways the panellists of the session and scholars in general in a wider context are thinking about the middle class: one is based on consumer demographics and the other on a value system of being middle class.
Concerning consumer identity and disposable income expenditure, it’s implied in the missing middle class question the surprise is that people who we thought were the middle class simply don’t have the spending power that it was hoped would be there when India liberalised its economy to expanding markets which explains those projections in the [‘The Economist’] article.
However, what has been omitted from calculations is the substantial expenditure of middle classes on supplementing insufficient state infrastructure ranging from water purifiers, monthly water tanker deliveries, healthcare, transport (especially for women at night), and education. Since the middle classes are compelled to spend their disposable income on these necessities rather than other more conspicuous markers of financial mobility – perhaps an examination into these forms of expenditure is a way of identifying them. The state has failed in many ways where the middle class exist, so what they are going to spend their disposable income on is very much defined by that. Furthermore, wealthier families tend to employ domestic staff, which is also not reflected in Piketty and Chancel’s findings.
What has emerged from the summit may not lead to any firm definition or identification of middle class identity in South Asia (and arguably nor should there be one), but it certainly challenges and calls for a re-evaluation of conventional economic metric indicators of the middle class and the ways in which this demographic is quantified. It further iterates the contested nature of this topic, whilst encouraging scholars to attend to the shifting and often complex understandings of middle class identities within South Asia. In doing so, it has also illustrated the potential compatibility of both qualitative and quantitative evidence with which to consider the question: ‘Is there a South Asian-ness to this aspiration distinct from global identifiers of capturing what this demographic is?’
Rebecca Bowers is Blog Editor and Professor Mukulika Banerjee is the Director of the South Asia Centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science. This report is based on the findings of the recent South Asia Summit held at LSE.