Walking the long road to equality

Sana Siddiqui

Equality has many dimensions and it plays a role in almost every sphere of our lives. Most people will agree that growing inequality has become a pressing issue; leaders around the world have identified it as one of the biggest threats to development. Inequality is not a matter of statistics alone; its existence is a reflection on the kind of society we live in.

Equality is an age-old concept and there are many theories1 that talk about the origin of the idea. During many socio-economic revolutions around the world, at different times and places, equality gained a lot of attention. Equality has inspired and guided human society for many centuries and presently is central to our political and social structure. It has always been a powerful moral and political ideal, as it regards that all human beings are of the same value and therefore deserve equal treatment and consideration.

Understanding the concept of equality starts with accepting the notion that in some respect all human beings are equal though they may be different in one way or another. Taking it further, equality is the end we want to achieve and not a means to achieving an end. It is not about treating all in the same manner, irrespective of their physical or intellectual attainments. Nor is it a mechanical policy of treating everyone in the same manner. It is not a demand for absolute uniformity of living conditions or even for arithmetically equal compensation for socially useful work.

It is a policy of equality of concern or consideration for human beings whose different needs may require different treatment. It is equality of opportunity for all individuals to develop whatever personal and socially desirable talents they possess and to make whatever unique contributions their capacities permit. It is the policy of encouraging freedom to all to achieve the best for themselves. Equality in its dynamic sense means reduction of inequality. This is enshrined in the Constitution of India.

Article 14 of the Constitution says, “The state shall not deny any person equality before law or the equal protection of laws within the territory of India.” Article 14 is about the state’s responsibility of ensuring equality.

Let us look at a short and simple explanation of Article 14 of the Constitution

Equality is the lifeline of the democratic society; it aims to prevent discrimination and provide equal opportunity to all. It can be racial inequality, inequality between the rich and the poor, men and women, etc. The central idea of equality is that all individuals get equal treatment in the society and are not discriminated against on the basis of race, sex, caste, creed, nationality, disability, age, religion and so forth.

Equality cannot be achieved without equity. Equity is a means to achieving equality. The term equity refers to the SYSTEM of justice and fairness, where there is even-handed treatment of all people. This means treatment according to individual needs and requirements.

In the figure below it is equity (the blocks on the ground) that is helping each person reach the fruit (equality). Equality is to be achieved through the means of equity.

Equity demands fairness in every situation, i.e., whether it is the distribution of benefits or burden. Therefore, people are treated fairly but differently as their circumstances are different. In this way, equity ensures that all individuals are provided with the resources they need to have access to the same opportunities as the general population. Equity is a process while equality is the outcome.

Equity and equality are two strategies we can use in our effort to produce fairness. Equity may appear unfair, but it actively moves everyone closer to success by “levelling the playing field.” Thus, the concept of equality is closely attached with the concept of justice. This is what the Supreme Court and the High Courts of India emphasize through their various judgments. In the real world, this means that some people will receive special treatment and others will not. On the face of it, everything may appear fair; after all, how can we argue against equal treatment, but when we uncover the equality blanket, we see that not everyone’s needs are met. Let’s take examples of existing inequalities in our society:

Gender inequality: There are differences in genders but they are still equal. Equality between genders doesn’t mean that everyone should become the same. The case of Nargesh Meerza2 is a good example where women were being discriminated against only on the ground of their being women.

The end goal is not for men and women to reach a complete genderless state. It actually means that men and women should be given the same opportunities to succeed despite their differences. Gender inequality leads to many other inequalities like inequality in education, pay, promotion, etc.

Social inequality: One is not aware of one’s privileges on a daily basis. No one is! There are basic things we never think of and take for granted. Our ability to earn, surety of having food on our plates, planning for a vacation or maybe eating out. These are our privileges; there are many who are struggling for these privileges. Often times, ignoring the right of equality amongst all humans, decisions are made to benefit the majority of the people without paying attention to individual needs and nuances. For example, it is not always that public spaces are designed in a manner that they are accessible to the disabled as well. Privilege is a tricky thing. We can no longer rely on the practice of considering the rights of the majority and treat all in the same manner just because it appears fair. In a classroom there may be some students who are not good at a particular subject and may require special attention. We cannot refuse them special classes saying this will lead to discrimination and inequality. Our actions have to elicit justice. “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”3 So look around and observe. What differences do you notice? And how can you incorporate these differences into the everyday decisions you make?

Political inequality: Apparently, India has achieved political equality by allowing one person one vote, but this is not the only criteria for attaining political equality. Caste and ethnicity play a big role in the Indian political system. Who your voters and supporters are depend on this and they also influence the policies and decisions made by the political party in power. Political inequality, therefore, refers to unequal influence over decisions made by political bodies and the unequal outcomes of those decisions.4 Because political processes govern resource distribution, political inequality has profound consequences for the welfare of all people within society.

Economic inequality: Economic inequality sometimes refers to income inequality, wealth inequality, or the wealth gap. Economists generally focus on economic disparity under three metrics – wealth, income, and consumption.5 The effect of economic inequality may be seen in the overall economic growth, crime rate, social cohesions, consumption and debt, poverty, social development, war, terrorism and political instability.

These are the broad heads of inequality; they are all interlinked and one affects the other. Equal protection of the laws guaranteed by Article 14 does not mean that all laws must be universal in application and that the State is no longer to have the power of distinguishing and classifying persons or things for the purpose of legislation. At the same time classification to be valid must not be arbitrary. It should always rest upon some real and substantial distinction bearing reasonable and just relation to the needs in respect of which the classification is made. The provision of Article 14 has come up for discussion before the Supreme Court in a number of cases. Court rulings have established and clarified the concept in a much wider way. “Equality is a dynamic concept with many aspects and dimensions and it cannot be curbed, cabined and confined within traditional doctrinaire limits.”6

Mere proclamation of equality is of no use to those who are living in extreme poverty and deadening weight of backwardness. They need protective discrimination or ‘advantious aids’ to participate in mainstream national life, the way the Constitution promises and ordains for them. It is the legitimate aspiration of citizens in a welfare state that good education and security of job be provided to all. If no protective discrimination is given to the weaker sections in the matters of education and employment, they will remain where they are, forever.

End notes
1. For instance, Jean-Jacques Rousseau Theory, Social Contract Theory, Theory of Justice.
2. Air India Etc. Etc vs Nergesh Meerza & Ors. Etc. 1981 AIR 1829.
3. Audre Lorde, American writer, feminist and civil rights activist.
4. Dubrow 2014.
5. A three-headed hydra. The Economist. July 16, 2014.
6. E.P. Royappa’s Case, (1974) 4 S.C.C. 3.

Air India vs. Nargesh Meerza

In this case two entities were involved (Air India and Indian Airlines Corporation). Regulations 46 and 47 of the AI Employees Service Regulations were challenged as they had created a significant amount of disparity between the pay and promotional avenues of male and female in-flight cabin crew. For instance, under Regulation 46, while the retirement age for flight pursers (males) was 58, air hostesses (females) were required to retire
• at the age of 35, or
• on marriage (if they married within four years of joining the service),
• or on their first pregnancy,
whichever occurred earlier. This period could be extended, subject to the absolute discretion of the Managing Director. When the matter came before the Supreme Court, it struck down the Air India and Airlines Regulations on the retirement and pregnancy bar on the services of air hostesses as unconstitutional on the grounds that the conditions laid down therein were entirely unreasonable and arbitrary and were a violation of Article 14 of the Constitution.

The author is a practicing advocate based in Delhi and also works as a legal consultant on issues related to human rights. She can be reached at [email protected].

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