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Congress manifesto: Delving deep into core concepts related to equity, social justice?

By Prof RR Prasad* 

The deafening current clamor on one of the agenda items of the 2024 Congress Party Election Manifesto has made common people to ponder whether ideologies like social justice and equity could become conundrum and contentious manifestations of some organization's vision and mission.
As a social anthropologist, I have tried to delve deeper into the theoretical underpinnings to unravel and clarify the core concepts related to equity and social justice, and pinpoint the desirable political and moral compass in the realm of a democratic country.
What is social justice?
Social justice refers to the concept of a society in which justice is achieved in every aspect of society, rather than merely the administration of law. It is generally thought of as a world which affords individuals and groups fair treatment and an impartial share of the benefits of society.
Social justice can be broadly conceived in its four dimensions. Distributive or economic justice, which is concerned with giving all members of society a "fair share" of the benefits and resources available. Procedural justice is concerned with making and implementing decisions according to fair processes that ensure "fair treatment."
Rules must be impartially followed and consistently applied in order to generate an unbiased decision. Those carrying out the procedures should be neutral, and those directly affected by the decisions should have some voice or representation in the decision-making process.
Retributive justice appeals to the notion that people deserve to be treated in the same way they treat others. It is a retroactive approach that justifies punishment as a response to past injustice or wrongdoing. The central idea is that the offender has gained unfair advantages through his or her behavior, and that punishment will set this imbalance straight.
Restorative justice because there is a tendency to slip from retributive justice to an emphasis on revenge, some suggest that restorative justice processes are more effective. While a retributive justice approach conceives of transgressions as crimes against the state or nation, restorative justice focuses on violations as crimes against individuals. It is concerned with healing victim's wounds, restoring offenders to law-abiding lives, and repairing harm done to interpersonal relationships and the community.

Unpacking equity

Equity is a concept that cannot be formulated precisely. To put it as precisely as possible, equity can be defined as equality. However, the term "equality" itself lacks precision, and there isn't a single society in the world that is genuinely aiming for complete equality. The common understanding of "equity" is that it is synonymous with social justice.
“Equity” means not permitting greater inequalities of income, wealth, power, privilege, and social status than a good society should. Equity, as a concept, subsumes human development as the ends and means of the development process.
Economists use two different concepts of equity or fairness: horizontal equity and vertical equity. Vertical equity refers to treating different people differently in order to lessen the effects of these inherent differences, whereas horizontal equity refers to treating identical people in the same way.
At the operational level, the term equity has two broader perspectives.
1. Process equity: This can be taken as equal opportunities. In the education context, this means that a child’s chances for success in acquiring cognitive and social skills are independent of the school attended, although they may depend on the student’s own abilities, the encouragement she/he receives at home and her/his own efforts at school.
2. Outcome equity: This implies that differential needs should be taken into account so that, for example, special measures are undertaken for disadvantaged students. At the extreme, this might require equality of education outcomes, although differential outcomes of decentralization (with respect to primary school completion, for example) could be disaggregated by socio-economic group, ethnicity and so on, without adjusting for ‘special needs’.
These alternatives concepts of equity correspond to the distinction between opportunity sets and outcomes and are not necessarily consistent. A particular system education may be equitable by some pre-determined standards, but the outcomes may not be, or least may not be to a similar extent. Based on the idea of need, distributive equity holds that resources should be distributed differently, taking into account the unique needs of each group or individual, rather than being distributed uniformly based on quotas.
Principle of equity takes into account achievement as well as considers a distribution which is just if rewards are proportionate to achievements. Equity, in its wider sense, means more than equitable distribution of income, it means the wider distribution of opportunities for participation in social and economic life, which is in turn influenced by the distribution of power at various levels; between rich and poor people, men and women, different regions, and ethnic groups.
Social factors that affect/influence equitable distribution of goods and services include demographic factors: family size, family patterns, life cycles, sex, the healthy and the handicapped. Similarly, occupational factors: place in the division of labour, full or part time jobs, government, private sector or self-employment etc. also play crucial role in designing policies promoting equitable development.
Likewise, geographical factors: rural -- urban, centre, fringe, coast-inland, distance from adequate transport and ethnic factors: tribe, race, language, religion, and political factors: elite and non-elite, power groups, political minorities need mainstreaming in equitable development policy framework.

Constitution and social justice

The Constitution of India has solemnly promised to all its citizens justices -- social, economic and political; liberty of thought expression, belief, faith and worship; equality of status and of opportunity; and to promote among the all fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity of the nation. Aiming to balance the seemingly opposing demands of individual liberty and fundamental rights with socioeconomic justice, the Constitution has included certain pertinent provisions.
When both men and women, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, rural and urban irrespective of caste, creed, religion or gender, are treated on a par by the law of the land, protected equally without discrimination, offered equal opportunity in education, employment, access to health facilities, good environment and above all justice, such a society is regarded as an egalitarian society with social justice.
And the humanness of a society is determined by the degree of protection it provides to its weaker and disadvantaged members to lead a life commensurate with dignity and honour.
In simple operational terms, the right to social justice in a democratic set-up means the right of the weak and the underprivileged e.g. the communities belonging to the scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes, the destitute, disabled persons and the aged to the protection of the State and the opportunities to compete successfully along with the more advanced sections of society in various walks of life.
The concept of social justice thus takes within its sweep the objectives of removing all inequalities and affording equal opportunities to all citizens in social affairs as well as economic activities.
Further debate, counter arguments and views on this universally agreed and appreciated approaches for human development and peace should be subsided and broad consensus be adopted for not distorting but sticking to the basic and fundamental principles of social justice and equity.
---
*Formerly associated with the National Institute of Rural Development & Panchayati Raj (NIRDPR), Hyderabad

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