The story of modern India, especially post-liberalisation India, is one of widening inequalities and the creation of a fractured economy. One of the most common sights in urban India is that of squalor amidst plenty. Slums – for obvious economic reasons - abut multi-story complexes that are served by the slum dwellers. Several explanations have been proffered for the increase in inequality.

One school of thought says that it is the very nature of globalising capitalism to exacerbate existing inequalities in a given society. In this view, Indian society with its hierarchies of caste and class is particularly prone to being devastated by global capital. Another school of thought points to the failure of the state, to its inability to provide the basic necessities of life such as food, health and education to the majority of Indians. These two explanations are often tied to each other. It is in the interest of global capital to weaken the Indian state so that it has access to cheap labour, while creating a globalised middle class with the same interests as their counterparts in New York.

Many scholars have commented on the creation of a disembedded economy in India, with the creation of a few high value jobs that do not translate into benefits for the local population as a whole. According to this view, alongside the growing affluence of a few, we have witnessed a genuine depreciation of the common good, especially in the cities, where our roads and greenery are collapsing under the onslaught of private wealth and power.

There is surely something right about the above analysis. However, by focusing on purely 'material' forces, I think it misses an important component of neo-liberalisation. The apathy of the emerging middle classes cannot be explained on the basis of economic and sociological forces alone. I believe that the failure of liberalisation is fundamentally moral in nature.

The failure of the moral commons

It is the responsibility of the state to meet the basic needs of its citizens. The moral authority of the state flows from its ability to meet these needs. India's laws are universal and applicable equally to all Indians, but in practice these laws are not implemented equally. Furthermore, the moral failure is not that of governance alone, it is a larger failure of middle class society to provide for the poor - the people who work in our houses, who man our gates as security guards and drive our cars and most importantly, those who grow our food.

It is one thing to declare that all human beings are equal. But this norm doesn't mean much unless it is grounded in a concrete emotion that we practice in our daily lives.

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Middle class people the world over have shown enormous kindness in response to events that they recognise as tragedies. In India, there was a tremendous outpouring of solidarity and support on at least two occasions - the Kargil crisis and the 2004 Tsunami. But unlike disaster relief, an improvement in the lives of the poor requires that middle class society treat them with dignity and justice on a daily basis. The problem is not just economic but moral. We have the resources to provide for everyone but we are choosing not to do so. Why is that? Because the 'moral commons' has failed.

What is this moral commons? It is a public space in which we are all granted entry as moral agents. Respect for the moral commons is the fundamental unit of moral feeling and the minimal moral commitment for another creature involves registering their presence in a moral space. The actual level of commitment might vary, but at the very least their presence has to be registered.

For example, a household pet may not be seen as worthy of education or freedom but it still inhabits a moral space in which its right to life is respected. Factory farmed animals are not afforded that level of protection because they are not registered in any moral space. Unlike the law, which is an abstract system founded on rational terms, the moral commons is part of an organic system of public morality - it is a space in which we act out our feelings of sympathy and compassion for others as much as we award rights and responsibilities through the use of deliberative reason.

I believe the failure of public morals in India has to do with a dichotomy between the normative, rational principles enshrined in the constitution and the law and the actual practice of public morality. Our moral failure comes from the destruction of the moral commons while paying lip service to universal principles of justice. It is one thing to declare that all human beings are equal. But in practice, such a norm does not have a purchase on our lives unless it is grounded in a concrete emotion - such as sympathy - that we practice in our daily lives.

Finding the moral commons

Sympathy is an imaginative response to another being's condition - typically misfortune and suffering - that allows us to see the world from their perspective. In particular, it admits the other person into the moral commons by recognising their presence in the space of the moral imagination.

Sympathy is not quite as strong as justice, for it is not predicated on recognition of equality. On the other hand, sympathy has to involve a charter of responsibilities for a fellow creature. When that creature happens to be a human being, the minimal responsibility is treatment with dignity, fairness and respect. Even these three put together are not enough to ensure equality - for example, it is possible to treat household help with respect while dismissing the possibility of that person marrying into the family. Consequently, sympathy is not a replacement for equal treatment in front of the law. However, it does curtail the worst excesses of the global economic system.

For example, the tsunami response shows that sympathy can play a role in mitigating the effects of natural and human disasters. In a surplus economy, there are no material reasons to curtail our sympathy for other human beings. As a result, our sympathies are mobilized in disaster situations. However, this sympathy seems to vanish when it comes to chronic conditions such as the agricultural crisis, forced migration or land appropriation. Why is that so? There must be some psychological factors that block the emergence of natural human sympathy. Can we overcome these? I believe so. But we must first understand why we do not already have such natural human sympathies evident in our daily lives.

Unlike disaster situations, where media images can compel our sympathy, daily life does not evoke strong reactions so our sympathy has to be constructed out of other inputs. Whatever these inputs might be, they should make it possible for us to see the world in terms of the 'other'. We need a natural catalyst for grouping human beings of different backgrounds into one moral space. And one of the best resources for this is 'proximity'. We need a natural catalyst for grouping human beings of different backgrounds into one moral space. For it to be natural, the 'moral grouping principle' should be one that has a foundation in human psychology. And one of the best resources for this is 'proximity'. From the Gestalt psychologists onwards, we know that human beings group objects and events that are close to each other in space and time. Our ethical capacities are partly based on perceptual capacities.

My claim is simple: common physical spaces and common actions in our daily lives will lead to common moral spaces and the construction of a moral commons. In other words, we need common activities of work and play and common spaces for recreation and worship.

However, middle class Indians rarely work at the same things that the poor do; manual labour is shunned by the rich while white collar work is out of bounds for the poor who are also likely to be illiterate. When I was a child, playgrounds in Delhi were still accessible to all. Now, with urban space becoming scarce, there is no place where our children can all play together. Middle class children now play in school or in clubs, both of which are beyond the means of the poor. In our new mall culture, the rich and the middle classes are physically (as in where they live and work) as well as mentally (as in how they live and work) separated from the poor, which inhibits the development of sympathy.

The destruction of the moral commons is not just an economic problem, it is also an aesthetic problem requiring the appropriate design of common spaces. It will not be enough to craft policies that call for equal distribution of resources. We will also have to co-locate ourselves both physically and mentally with our fellow citizens.