Her sleeveless dress and quiet confidence were a breath of fresh air in the dusty, ramshackle home. Most of the other women in this family, from the Dom caste, were dressed in crumpled saris. Renu’s husband, Jitu, too, in his smart shorts, looked completely out of place in this remote Bihari village. After we struck up a conversation, I realised that the young couple had just crossed the open border, less than a kilometre away, from Nepal to Bihar on a day trip to visit their family.

The contrasts between these relatives who lived on different sides of the international border could not have been starker. In Kathmandu, Renu worked in a private canteen, while Jitu was a mechanic. The young couple were upwardly mobile and in good health and spirits. As a Nepali, Renu’s education in government schools had been free until grade eight. Every time her nine-month-old infant fell ill, she confidently took her to a nearby government health post for free treatment. The brimming self-assurance of this bright, young Dalit couple was not an exception. Since the return of democracy in 2006, as my research even a decade later showed, Nepal has witnessed an unmistakeable improvement in caste and gender equations.

Their Indian relatives, on the other hand, were struggling to eke out a living. Renu’s sister-in-law Malati, who was born in Nepal and had shifted to India two decades ago after marriage, complained about the caste discrimination that her children faced in school. She also confided that she was petrified of her family falling ill. In this Bihari hinterland, there were no health centres nearby, nor were free medicines available. In fact, the larger family had gathered to mourn the death of her brother-in-law, who had died of liver cirrhosis.

Though alcohol was banned in the state, spurious liquor flowed freely. In 2022, journalist MN Parth wrote about families in Uttar Pradesh who routinely cross the border to go to Nepal, as healthcare was cheaper and better there. For these Indian families, the closure of the international border due to COVID-19 proved tragic.

This uneven progress in the quality of healthcare, education and life chances in India compared to its poorer neighbours like Nepal and Bangladesh was precisely the puzzle my five-year doctoral research aimed to probe. If the lowest tier of Dalits living in India’s neighbouring countries were so clearly able to lead a healthier, more educated, better life, how had this historic transformation unfolded? Why had this progress not been replicated across India? Why do Bihari Dalits, especially most Doms and Musahars, at the bottom of the ladder, live in such grinding poverty?

I delved deeper into this question, with extensive fieldwork across India’s borders. In time, it became obvious that the main culprits in India were the multiple layers of severe inequalities that aggravate one another. This book focuses on only three of the most extreme axes of these inequalities – class, caste and gender – to understand why India lags behind.

Wealth inequality in India is now, without a doubt, among the worst in the world.32 The rich and the poor live in completely different Indias, and the twain rarely meet except, perhaps, at the traffic signal. Since 2016, when wealth tax was abolished, India has created more billionaires than France, Switzerland and Sweden combined. Despite the pandemic, Gautam Adani’s – the richest Asian and Indian – fortune skyrocketed more than twelve times from $9 billion in 2020 to $120 billion in 2022. In these two years, his companies wom handsome government contracts for mines, electricity, airports, expressways and ports. In 2022, Forbes and Bloomberg even crowned him the third richest person in the world ahead of Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos.33 But, in early 2023, after serious allegations of financial fraud, the stock prices of Adani’s companies tumbled.

In this time, under one of the strictest lockdowns in the world,35 up to 200 million Indians sank below the poverty line. 84 per cent of Indian families also saw a fall in their income. In this “other” India, a few years ago, 11-year-old Santoshi died of starvation in Jharkhand, begging for “bhat-bhat” (rice, rice) from her helpless mother, who could only offer her warm water with a few tea leaves. Harrowing starvation deaths are reported with regular frequency in the Indian media. In 2018, a village I visited was still in mourning. Most of the neighbours, who also lived in straw huts covered with dried leaves and bits of plastic, were themselves on the brink of survival. Inequality is now so skewed that the bottom half of India’s population has to survive on only 6 per cent of the nation’s wealth.

For generations, the caste system has also magnified these extreme economic inequalities. At least 41 per cent of India’s wealth is now in the hands of the forward castes, double their population share. On the other hand, is it a coincidence that Santoshi’s family is Dalit, with only a few doors to knock on for help?

When a family belonging to a marginalised caste tries to live with dignity and manages to prosper, the backlash is swift and brutal. In Rajasthan, nine-year-old Indra Kumar Meghwal was recently beaten to death by his teacher for drinking water from an earthen pot reserved for upper castes. A few months earlier, upper caste villagers had stabbed to death a Dalit health worker Jitendra Meghwal, only because they envied his stylish handlebar moustache and secure government job.

As Babasaheb Ambedkar, the architect of India’s constitution, made clear, the caste system openly justifies this “suppression of one class by another”. Poverty in India largely remains hereditary along caste and religious fault lines, with limited social mobility. The discrimination is so insidious that Dalits and Adivasis have also lived shorter lives, according to data for the last two decades (although this is perhaps true for centuries).

Finally, and most crucially, there is extreme gender inequality. India is among the most unequal countries in the world for women. Grisly murders and gruesome rapes.

Patriarchy is so acute that gender discrimination begins even before birth. 46 million women are “missing” from India’s population, especially due to the sex-selective abortion of female foetuses in the last four decades and the neglect of girls as infants. Since the turn of the millennium, low child-sex ratios have also spread to the prosperous regions of western and southern India. Even as adults, one of every four women in India cannot read and three do not earn an income. Their dependency on men is so extreme that few rural women get a chance to flourish outside the confines of the four walls of their kitchens or homes.

This book argues that the main reason why India lags behind its neighbours is the vice-like grip of systemic and, at times, barbaric inequalities, which are now on the rise. The differences in the life chances of the rich and the poor, men and women, Brahmins and Doms and, for that matter, Keralites and Biharis, Hindus and Muslims across India are so sharp that, until these inequalities are bridged, it is impossible for the nation as a whole to prosper, let alone be a world leader. Worse, these overlapping layers of multiple inequalities compound one another. For example, Dalit women in northern India face the most atrocities, with the highest incidence of rape.

Of course, a few exceptions do break through the shackles Of India’s 166 billionaires, one is a Dalit. Since the affirmative action of the 1990s, there has also been a ‘silent revolution’ of upward mobility among the educated backward classes. But, structurally, the claws of casteism, patriarchy and feudalism have gripped India with such ferocity over generations that the majority of the population remains subjugated in one form or another.

In contrast, even South Asian neighbours that are poorer than India, such as Bangladesh and Nepal, have lower income inequalities. Nepal has only one billionaire and Bangladesh none. In the last few decades, most of India’s neighbours have also sped ahead in improving the lives of the majority of their citizens, particularly the poor. These relative successes have been achieved largely due to their ability to curb inequalities.

Excerpted with permission from Unequal: Why India Lags Behind Its Neighbours, Swati Narayan, Context/Westland.