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Indian teachers also work on bird flu and Covid-19 response — Quartz India

Last Tuesday, Delhi deployed teachers from government schools to bird duty—to stand as sentries at border points and check for any illegal transportation of poultry into the city state, in the midst of a spreading outbreak of avian flu. From 8 pm to 6 am, the teachers were instructed to check the birds’ veterinary certificates and to prohibit chicken products from being shipped into Delhi.

The order raised the hackles of the Government School Teachers Association, which said that teachers couldn’t be expected to pull night shifts after spending their days in online classes. “Sir, the teaching community selflessly served when the government and the citizens needed them for Covid-19 prevention,” the teachers’ letter to the government remarked. Now the government was “taking advantage of the situation and just harassing teachers into unjustified duties.”

In India, teachers do everything. They help conduct elections. They assist with the census. They open bank accounts for children in their schools. They’ve administered the government’s rural employment guarantee scheme. They’re summoned for flood relief work. They’ve enrolled Indians into Aadhaar, the national biometric identification scheme.

Last year, they surveyed neighborhoods during the coronavirus pandemic and stood guard outside containment zones. They’ve cooked school meals and doubled up as Hindu priests. They’ve been called upon to herd their students into participation in International Yoga Day, one of prime minister Narendra Modi’s pet initiatives. On occasion, they’ve even been asked to form claques—to be part of an appreciative crowd, as they did for the Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, waving at his convoy as he passed through the city of Ahmedabad in 2017.

Often, they perform these additional duties without compensation. Their enforced participation in these missions continues despite court rulings that, outside of the three functions outlined by India’s Right to Education Act—election work, census surveys, and disaster response—teachers must be tasked with no duties outside of teaching.

The repeated reliance upon teachers underscores a ground truth about India’s stark lack of state capacity. Indian government departments often feel bloated because of their dysfunction, but they are in fact understaffed. In 2018, there were roughly 700,000 vacancies in the federal government, according to details provided by the Ministry of Personnel to India’s parliament.

If anything, the size of the government is shrinking. Between 2014 and 2018, the total number of available posts rose from 3.6 million to more than 3.8 million, but the number of filled positions declined from 3.22 million to 3.18 million. India has roughly 138 police personnel, 68 doctors and 148 nurses per 100,000 people—all far lower than the kinds of ratios prescribed by bodies like the World Health Organization. According to a Quartz calculation in 2015, the Indian government had 139 public servants for every 100,000 people, excluding railways and postal workers. The US, in comparison, had 668.

To shorthanded governments, their teachers must seem like a blessing: a vast, deep pool of professionals who are well-educated enough to be reassigned temporarily to a range of duties. As of 2016, the last year for which such figures were available, India has nearly 8.7 million teachers in government schools across the country. But the use of teachers is only a temporary patch on the gaps in the state’s superstructure. The government needs to be hiring hundreds of thousands of staff, but it isn’t—partly because it can’t afford to, partly because recruitment for public jobs is a slow, complicated process.

Two days after teachers protested about being put on chicken duty, the Delhi government relieved them of this responsibility. This was a welcome move, Ajay Veer Singh, the general secretary of the Government School Teachers Association, told the Hindustan Times. “It’s an extra burden on schools since the majority of the teachers are already deployed in Covid-19 related duties,” he said. “Besides, it’s really humiliating for the teachers.”

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US Fed policy and stimulus is causing concerns about inflation — Quartz

As the US economy gets an infusion of ultra-easy credit and multiple rounds of big-time government spending, questions are growing about whether it’s a cocktail that will cause a big jump in inflation.

While vaccines are being deployed around the world, it will be many months before they stem the Covid-19 pandemic. That’s why the Federal Reserve says it’s not going anywhere and will keeping juicing the US economy. President-elect Joe Biden wants Congress to open up its wallet for a third package of aid amounting to $1.9 trillion. The US needs a robust response—its economy is in a deep hole, with the unemployment rate stuck stubbornly at nearly 7%. The concern is whether the government’s response to the crisis will have unintended consequences.

On the positive side, investors are increasingly optimistic that the US will rebound from a deep economic contraction. You can see that in the yield curve, which is the gap between short-term and long-term Treasury bond yields. The 10-year US Treasury bond is seen as the safest, most easily traded asset in the world. When investors are fearful, they tend to buy up these securities, pushing down Treasury bond yields and causing the yield curve to invert. When they are hopeful, the opposite happens and the curve steepens as expectations for inflation increase. The gap between the yield on 10- and 2-year securities is at its steepest level in more than three years.

“The yield curve is upward sloping and that is good news,” said Campbell Harvey, a finance professor at Duke University who pioneered the yield curve’s use as a forecasting tool for recessions. “The issue is the level of growth,” he said in an email on Jan. 9. Ten-year government bonds yield about 1.1%, which is less than the 1.4% rate of inflation in the 12 months through December. That investors are willing to lose money through inflation suggests they aren’t that optimistic.

Harvey points out there are three ways to pay off heavy loads of government debt—higher taxes, increased inflation, or rapid economic growth that leads to a boon in tax surpluses. He thinks higher inflation is the most likely way out.

Inflation in small doses helps keep the economy ticking over, but an overdose can be destabilizing. A sharp increase in prices can drive investors to sell a government’s debt, causing interest rates to climb, making refinancing more expensive and dragging down the economy. High inflation also erodes the savings of retirees and other investors.

Bond investors, who are especially wary of price increases because they eat into their fixed returns, think the rate of inflation will exceed what it was before the pandemic. The breakeven rate gives a sense of what professional traders are expecting: the rate is the difference between Treasury bonds and Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS), which are linked to the Consumer Price Index (CPI). The 10-year breakeven rate signals investors are betting inflation will rise to about 2.1% in the next decade. It’s not exactly Argentina-style hyper inflation, but that would signal the highest expectations for price increases in the US in more than two years.

In the past, investors have worried about inflation because the Fed and other central banks have been buying just about every bond in sight—a maneuver known as quantitative easing (QE). The idea is to keep interest rates low, making it easier for consumers and business to get cheaper financing, and to spur investors to put their cash into riskier, higher-yielding assets like corporate debt and the stock market.

US policy makers added trillions of dollars to their balance sheet after the 2008 financial crisis. If you thought that chart looked scary, it’s been downright frightening since the Covid crisis.

The thing is, QE didn’t didn’t spark much inflation after the financial crisis. Every big country that pursued this policy—the EU, US, Japan—had the opposite problem, and their central bankers have spent the past few years worrying about deflation. As Jens Nordvig, economist and founder of Exante Data, writes, the events that followed turned “old monetary theories on their head!”

A short answer as to why this happened is that the money ended up as bank reserves and was never deployed into the broader economy. The Fed is able to maintain control over those reserves by paying interest, dialing the rate up or down to influence bank lending. You can read a long answer in this seminal staff report (pdf) from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Could this time be different? Unlike in 2008, the banking system isn’t shattered, which means lenders could have a bit more confidence to do business. Congress will soon consider its third aid package for the economy, which would put the total support at multiple times the $787 billion dished out during Obama administration. And the Fed has given many indications that it’s willing to tolerate higher inflation than normal. Last month, David Andolfatto, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, wrote that “Americans should prepare themselves for a temporary burst of inflation.”

There’s still a lot cutting against a rapid increase in prices. Lots of people have lost jobs, and legions of businesses have gone under, which could make it difficult to get people back to work. But this time the Fed and Congress have been moving forward in lockstep with aggressive policy. Institutional investors aren’t betting on runaway inflation, but many seem to be persuaded that prices are going to climb at least modestly higher.

If persistent, Nordvig thinks these twin policies can, finally, generate inflation. “This is why we are about to enter a new regime,” he says.

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The pros and cons of putting your small business on Amazon — Quartz

Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and CEO, realized early on his site would never be the “everything store” he imagined if it had to purchase and store every product it sold like a traditional retailer. It would need an infinite supply of warehouse space and capital.

Instead, in 2000 the company launched its own marketplace, allowing independent sellers to use Amazon as a platform to offer their goods for sale. It let Amazon become the e-commerce giant it is today and has fueled the company’s staggering success.

While the small- and medium-sized businesses that largely make up that marketplace have been great for Amazon, it’s less clear whether Amazon has been equally great for them. The company has undoubtedly siphoned sales from retailers of all sorts around the US. On the other hand, it has given many entrepreneurs the chance to reach a larger audience than they ever could have otherwise.

But then that access can carry its own costs, too. For individual companies considering selling through the site, there can be some major pros and cons involved.

Here are some of the most notable items on the pro side of the ledger:

The reach is hard to beat

The most compelling reason for any small company to sell on Amazon is because of the sheer volume of customers it draws. Its Prime membership program alone has more than 150 million global subscribers, and more keep signing up. Access to that audience is valuable. From June 2019 to May 2020, US small and medium businesses on Amazon averaged $160,000 in annual sales, according to a report from the company (pdf). In that period, the number with more than $1 million in sales grew 20%. Owners of some small businesses attribute their prosperity to Amazon and there are the occasional stories of sellers who make millions on the platform.

The pandemic has only pushed more shoppers to the e-commerce giant, and the company says sellers on its marketplace are reaping the benefits. During the recent holiday season, sales by third-party merchants, most of them small and medium-sized businesses, grew more than 50% compared to the same period in 2019, it said.

Amazon will handle the grunt work

The tasks of managing a website, processing payments, storing inventory, and picking and shipping items to fulfill orders can be a lot for a small business to handle. Amazon allows sellers to easily sign up, list items, and start selling. For those interested, it will also warehouse and ship items for a fee through the Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA) program it has offered since 2006. These items can also be eligible for Prime, making them more likely to be purchased by Prime subscribers who want the fast, free shipping than alternatives not included in Prime. For a company simply looking to start selling quickly and outsource a lot of the logistics involved in retail, Amazon can be attractive.

It has incentive to support its sellers

Since 2017, sellers on Amazon’s marketplace have been responsible for most of the company’s product sales. Amazon is happy to see them sell as much as possible. The more sales they rack up, the more money Amazon generates. In a recent report (pdf), Amazon said over the course of 2019 and 2020 it invested more than $30 billion in logistics, tools, services, and employees to help small and medium-sized businesses. It also provides assistance such as technical support, loans, and credits for its cloud-computing platform, Amazon Web Services.

As for the cons of working with Amazon…

Sales can come at a high price

In addition to levying a monthly charge on professional merchants and collecting its slice of each sale via a ”referral fee” that can exceed 15% of the price depending on the item, Amazon can also charge a number of other fees, depending on which services a seller uses. Features such as FBA, advisory services to help sellers, and advertising all come at additional cost.

Amazon says these add-ons are voluntary. It doesn’t force anyone to pay for them, and many sellers on its marketplace don’t. But sellers have reported feeling obliged to take part. If they don’t advertise to boost the visibility of their listings, those listings can easily be buried in the deluge of products on the site. If they aren’t part of FBA, their items might not be eligible for Prime shipping. (Amazon has a program it calls Seller Fulfilled Prime that lets merchants fulfill orders from their own warehouses, but so far it seems relatively few sellers have been able to join and meet Amazon’s shipping standards.)

The costs involved in being successful on Amazon can quickly mount. One marketplace seller detailed in 2019 how Amazon kept about half the revenue from the sale of a $15 toy.

There’s tons of competition, including from Amazon

Got a great product you know would sell a ton if you could just get it in front of Amazon’s customers? Get in line. Marketplace Pulse, an e-commerce intelligence firm, estimates there are some 2.4 million active sellers on the platform. They aren’t just small US businesses. Chinese merchants have flocked to the site, some selling goods straight from Chinese factories at prices that are tough to match. If a product is successful enough, knock offs can proliferate on the marketplace too.

And then there’s competition from Amazon itself. The company has launched dozens of its own private label brands that vie with its third-party merchants for customers. They haven’t all been successes, but Amazon has been accused of giving priority to its own labels in search results. Maybe more concerning to many small businesses is the evidence gathered by the Wall Street Journal that Amazon used data it collected on sellers to launch competing products, despite Amazon’s repeated statements that it strictly prohibits the practice.

Amazon has all the leverage

The e-commerce giant may depend on its merchants in the aggregate, but individually they don’t have much power. Sellers say Amazon effectively punishes them if they’re found offering their items for lower prices on rival sites such as Walmart, dropping them lower in search rankings for instance. Many feel Amazon also pushes them to pay for FBA and advertising. Even larger companies such as Tumi, a luxury bag maker, and PopSockets, which produces cellphone grips, have described Amazon as trying to control what they sell as well as how and where they sell it.

The feeling among such sellers is that Amazon squeezes them for as much money as it can with little concern for their interests. Small businesses in particular may feel they have no alternative but to bow any demands if most of their sales happen on Amazon.

There’s no simple answer on whether a small business should sell on the marketplace. Some suggest if you’re a business with unique products and good margins, allowing you to make money even as Amazon takes its cut, you have a better chance of thriving on its marketplace. But then some do well buying random stuff like mouthwash and lipstick wholesale and reselling it on the platform. Results vary greatly, and companies have to decide for themselves whether the rewards are worth the costs. A large number of small and medium businesses feel they are. For everyone else, there’s always Shopify.

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Why it’s important for Joe Biden to have a public inauguration — Quartz

Only a few days after the US Capitol was the theater for a violent insurgency, the stage is being prepared for a very different event.

On Jan. 20, at noon, Joe Biden will take the oath of office and become the 46th president of the US. Kamala Harris, too, will take the oath as vice-president, and make history as the first woman—and the first Black and Asian American one—to do so.

Presidential inaugurations are big productions, and this one will be, too, although of a very different kind than usual. Where there are typically preparations for the hundreds of thousands of spectators that pour into Washington, DC, to attend the event, this time the focus is on the opposite. The city is discouraging travel because of Covid-19 concerns, and plans are in place to deploy over 20,000 National Guard troops to prevent further unrest. Important landmarks in the city will be locked, and there won’t be crowds on the National Mall, but an installation of 191,500 American flags and 56 light pillars (one for each state and territory) in their stead.

Large parts of the event will be held virtually, including an evening TV program hosted by Tom Hanks. Only 2,000 officials and guests will be at the live ceremony, which is titled after its ambitious goal: “America United.” Yet signs of how disunited the country is will be out for everyone to see, beginning with the fact that the outgoing president, for the first time in 152 years, won’t attend the ceremony, nor will he welcome his successor to the White House.

Still, can a ceremony—and a socially distanced one, at that—truly help foster some long-lost sense of unity, and trust in democratic institutions?

It can, according to Kendra Stewart, who specializes in American political history at the College of Charleston, in  South Carolina. Presidents have tried before—and some have even succeeded.

A brief history

At the core of Inauguration Day is a legal procedure: the oath of office, which is required of the president in order to serve. But though the oath could be a small, procedural affair, it never quite has been. Even at the very first inauguration, George Washington, after taking the oath—and becoming the first democratically elected head of state in modern history—addressed the crowds that had gathered under the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City.

In the 282 years and 44 presidents between Washington and Biden, the tradition has evolved. Much like the party conventions and other important political events, it now involves big theatrical elements, which have developed through the years to cater to audiences following the event first through the radio, then on TV, and finally on social media.

But while the specific program of the events might have changed—there is a significant distance between a speech delivered from a balcony to a show starring Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez—the essence hasn’t. Inauguration Day is a celebration of America’s democracy and institutions, and an opportunity for newly elected presidents to take advantage of their platform, holding the country’s attention as they speak about their plans.

It is, even in times as divided as the current one, an opportunity to address the nation as one. “It’s a PR attempt to try and bring people together, especially those who didn’t originally vote for the president,” says Stewart.

“In any governmental system, symbols, and ceremonies can be a really important way that governments establish, enhance, or hold onto power,” says Claire Wofford, a professor of political science also at the College of Charleston. “Particularly in a democracy, where power moves via procedural, peaceful means, marking that transfer with a ceremony is way to both shroud it with importance and reinforce that the power is in the process as well.”

“United America”

Presidents tend to get a boost of popularity and goodwill immediately after the inauguration, says Stewart, which through history they have tried to leverage to unite the country or help it overcome institutional crises, much like Biden hopes to do this time.

While it’s hard to think of a moment—except for the Civil War—when partisan divisions have been so deep, there have been other times when the country felt divided for other reasons, says Stewart.

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in 1933, for instance, there may not have been a strong partisan division, but there was much anger and loss of faith in America, a profound disconnect between the country’s institutions and the confidence of citizens. With his historic inaugural speech, FDR outlined his “New Deal,” and began the work of gaining back the trust of his nation, and bring it together in the effort of resolve the economic crisis.

Similarly, after the nation had been consumed by the Watergate scandal and lost trust in politics, Gerald Ford gave an inaugural address in 1974 in which he famously declared that “our long national nightmare is over.” He described the speech as “not an inaugural address, not a fireside chat, not a campaign speech—just a little straight talk among friends. And I intend it to be the first of many,” and used it as the first act of a presidency intent on healing the country.

“FDR was very effective, Ford perhaps not as effective,” says Stewart. The question is, how will Biden do?

The show must go on

History will tell, but putting on a big production despite Covid-19 and threats of violence is likely the right move. “I think a formal inauguration ceremony is as important this year as it has ever been—at least in recent memory,” says  Wofford. The vast majority of Americans, she says, will have an opportunity to be reminded that Americans still hold some common values, that their democracy is stable and functioning, and it might be entering a new, less politically virulent era.

Symbolic gestures will try to drive home the will to overcome some bipartisan divisions and move forward for the good of the country. Former presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama will join Biden and Harris in honoring the Unknown Soldier, while a virtual parade will be held across the country.

In fact, the limitations imposed on this ceremony might end up enhancing its value. Visuals and symbolism are extremely powerful in enhancing the stature of a president—even when they point to current trouble, as was the case of George W Bush’s 2001 address from Ground Zero. Through the ceremony, including through the ways in which it is unprecedented, Biden can establish both the enormous challenges he is called to face, and his resolution to unite the country to rise above them.

“I completely understand why Biden wants it to happen on the steps of the Capitol, too,” says Wofford. “The symbolic power of that backdrop and his swearing-in, in full view of the public (even if via television), sends a message about both the gravity of power transfer, but also that we are more than just observers of that transfer—we are key participants.”

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China’s 2020 GDP growth masks an unequal recovery — Quartz

China today reported 2.3% growth in GDP last year, making it the first and probably only major country whose economy expanded in 2020.

But a marked decrease in consumer spending, contrasted against a resilient and robust luxury goods market, offers a glimpse into how uneven the country’s recovery has been.

Despite seeing its first GDP contraction in nearly 30 years in the first quarter of last year, China appeared to bounce back relatively quickly from the coronavirus pandemic. Thanks to Beijing’s draconian measures to contain the virus, its focus on reviving sectors like infrastructure, and strong overseas demand for Chinese goods, the country has had a V-shaped recovery since the middle of last year, and reported 6.5% GDP growth in the fourth quarter. Although China’s GDP growth in 2020 is the slowest the country has had in over 40 years, it still beat analyst expectations of 2.1%.

But the pandemic has set back China’s efforts to shift from an export-focused economy to a more consumption-driven one.  Growth in retail sales in particular has been slow, falling 3.9% last year, the first contraction (link in Chinese) of this category since 1969.

Spending has picked up since August, and expanded by 4.6% in December year-on-year, a seemingly promising sign. But a recent resurgence of coronavirus cases and newly imposed lockdowns in northern Chinese cities could lead to another muted Chinese New Year next month, potentially resulting in another dip. During the Chinese festival last year in January, hundreds of millions of Chinese residents were put under strict lockdowns and had to cancel their family gatherings, resulting in a 20% plunge in retail sales for the first two months of the year. Restaurant sales will be a particularly important indicator to watch out for over this period.

“The impact from the pandemic has been reduced, but it hasn’t gone completely this year,”  says Terry Hong, a senior vice president at Chinese brokerage firm Guotai Junan International. “Consumption this year could recover some of its lost ground, but I don’t expect to see a deep rebound.”

On the other side of the spectrum are China’s rich, who appear to be engaging in ”revenge spending,” a trending phrase on the Chinese internet earlier last year which captured the government’s hope that post-pandemic consumption would help reboot the economy. Exports of Swiss watches to mainland China, for example, increased 17% between January and November last year, while the other top 20 markets for watchmakers saw a decline during the period, according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry.

China’s luxury goods market appears to be “unstoppable,” and is estimated to have grown by nearly 50% last year, helping the country to double its share in the global market to 20%, according to a report from consultancy Bain & Company.  “The coronavirus hasn’t impacted the high-income group that much,” said Hong. “And because of the travel restrictions globally, lots of the group’s demand for luxury goods has shifted to the domestic market, and has led to a quick rebound in the sector.”

The robust demand from China’s affluent population, paired with sluggish spending by mass consumers, offers a window into the country’s worsening wealth gap. China had a record number of billionaires last year, thanks to new company listings and stock market booms. At the same time, the government chose to crop up companies with cash incentives rather than providing relief checks for families. The result was greater financial instability, particularly for poorer families, according to a survey by fintech giant Ant Group and China’s Southwestern University of Economics and Finance.

Traces of discontent about widening inequality have started to appear. On Weibo, a post by the state-owned People’s Daily celebrating economic growth today sparked complaints about the rising price of goods and stagnating salary levels. “The rich are becoming richer, while the poor getting poorer,” said one user in a now-deleted post. “The ‘V-shaped’ line doesn’t carry much meaning for us.”

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Mukesh Ambani, stock market and poverty — Quartz India

One of the world’s top 10 richest men is Indian, but nearly a fourth of the world’s poorest people live in India. And Covid-19 only made this paradox worse.

“The pandemic has reinforced some of the most latent inequalities in India, both socially and economically,” says Jayati Ghosh, professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. And to map this inequality, she says, one need only look at who has gained.

In 2020, the cumulative wealth of 828 Indians on the Hurun India Rich List stood at $821 billion (Rs60.15 lakh crore), up by $140 billion from a year ago. A large part of this increase was thanks to one man and one company—Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries (RIL).

Ambani’s RIL raised $26.4 billion in deals with Facebook, Google, and several other investors, during the peak of the pandemic-related lockdowns. These deals happened in a climate of economic turbulence in India, which reported a 23.9% degrowth in the quarter ending June 2020, the first GDP decline in four decades.

Mass layoffs were announced at several companies in India, and where the staff was retained, companies reduced their remuneration. Even RIL had announced pay cuts of up to 50% for its staff in April 2020, which it later rolled back. While unemployment rates recovered a little on the back of the Indian government unlocking the economy in June, it hit 10% again in December 2020, the highest in the past six months, according to Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE). The Mumbai-based think tank’s data on unemployment are collected from surveying 174,405 households over blocks of four months. Official Indian government data have not yet been released.

The layoffs and pay cuts clipped the dreams of India’s booming middle-class, though even the middle-classes suffered unequally. “We use the term middle-class broadly, but every sector was impacted differently. Most industries reduced the number of workers, but, for instance, those in the financial services sector continued to do well,” Ghosh says. Even in the finance industry, it was the highly skilled, consultant-level executive who thrived, and not employees of financial institutions or bottom-of-the-pyramid workers.

And once the middle-classes suffer, so does India’s consumer sentiment. According to the Reserve Bank of India, consumer sentiment was at an all-time low in September 2020, just before India’s festive season.

This, despite a booming stock market, which has been breaking all records and reaching new highs.

But the stock market seems to be operating in another unequal silo, given the number of Indians on the verge of extreme poverty.

The poor become poorer

When the Indian government announced a nationwide lockdown on March 24, 2020, millions of migrant workers began an arduous journey back home—on foot. What was essentially a disease brought into the country by those who could afford to travel abroad left daily wage earners scrambling for basic survival.

“The sudden lockdowns were almost criminal. The government created a humanitarian crisis in trying to deal with the healthcare crisis,” says Reetika Khera, associate professor of economics at Indian Institute of Technology Delhi. “A huge population works in the unorganised sector,” she says, and without any social security, they are bound to slip through the cracks.

The last official data for India’s poor were released in 2011-12 and estimated that 21.9% of the population (pdf) lived under the poverty line. While India has made considerable progress in bringing a sizable population out of poverty, the Covid-19 pandemic threatens to undo all of that success.

A United Nations Development Programme study, published on Dec. 2, 2020 (pdf), predicts that 40 million people across the world will be pushed into extreme poverty by 2030. In the “high impact” or worst-case scenario, UNDP expects this number to be as high as 250 million.

This scenario is likely going to impact India the worst, given that nearly half of the Indian population, including those recently brought out of poverty, are quite vulnerable. “As the share of households below the poverty line has fallen (sharply) to 22%, the majority of India is no longer poor,” the World Bank noted in its July 2020 India Development Update (pdf). “Instead, half of India is vulnerable—these are households that have recently escaped poverty with consumption levels that are precariously close to the poverty line and remain vulnerable to the risk of slipping back,” it observed.

Ghosh, the economist, says a large part of this increase in inequality is not an act of god but policy-driven. She also warns that this vulnerability is made particularly worse because of India’s social ecosystem. “Economic inequality in India is even more damaging because of its combination with social inequality. There’s a triple-whammy of religion-, caste-, and gender-based disenfranchisement, which is why we have some of the highest number of people on the verge of destitution,” she says. “Even a slight economic change can be devastating in such populations, and push them to starve to death.”

In 2020, for instance, India ranked 94th in the 107-country Global Hunger Index, a peer-reviewed annual report brought out by German private aid organisation Welthungerhilfe. Countries like Ethiopia, Pakistan, and Nepal, smaller economies with systemic inequalities, ranked higher than India.

In this scenario, the smallest loss of income could prove devastating for several Indian households.

The other problem lies with mapping levels of income, and thus poverty, itself. Because India lacks consistent and high-quality household survey data from official sources, calculating the Gini coefficient, an index to measure income inequality, is tricky. The last available calculation of India’s Gini coefficient is based on the government’s investment and debt data from 2012.

But one way to map this inequality besides looking at the lower end of the pyramid is to look at the wealth accumulated by corporate India.

“When we talk about inequality, we tend to look at those left behind, which is important. But inequality is equally related to the fact that some people are accumulating humongous wealth,” says Khera.

…and the rich become richer

Ghosh argues that not only are some people becoming worse off, there are several others who are raking it in irrespective of the pandemic. “People look at the stock market booming and say it has no relation to the real economy. But that’s not completely true, some of these are companies (like telecom and e-commerce) that have benefited from a part of the organised economy,” she says.

In September 2020, Khera and her research partner Meghna Yadav had analysed top executive salaries at 40 of India’s largest listed companies. They then compared it to the median wages in those companies and drew out a grim picture of wealth saturation at the top.

In the worst scenario, Pawan Munjal, chairman, managing director, and CEO of Hero MotoCorp, earned 752 times more than the median salary at his company during the financial year 2019-2020. The best pay-ratio stood at 1:39 for carmaker Maruti Suzuki.

This research did not include Ambani, nor his company, because the RIL’s annual report did not include these data, Quartz had reported.

Both Khera and Ghosh agree that a wealth tax, which the Indian government scrapped in 2016-17, should be reintroduced, even if as a one-off, solidarity measure. “Companies lobbied the government for tax sops and relief through the years. These same companies have been increasing remuneration at the top levels,” Khera argues. “A wealth tax will help the government generate resources that can help deal with, say, the stagnation that currently exists in the budgets for social welfare programmes,” she says.

For instance, during the budget announcement of 2020, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman had announced a reduction of 13% in India’s rural employment guarantee programme, largely to curb the government’s spending to control the fiscal deficit.

“A solidarity tax is not meant to make everyone less rich, but to get the extremely rich so contribute to that the government can offer social security to vulnerable citizens,” Ghosh says.

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A Martin Luther King Day reading list about race in the workplace — Quartz at Work

At Quartz at Work, we often think about the workplace as just another arena in which life happens. It’s a setting for relationship building, creative quests, minding mental health, finding purpose—but also the constant, often unconscious reinforcement of life’s inequalities, including those built into the world’s racial and socioeconomic power structures.

We also think work can provide an opportunity to make a conscious effort to lean into diversity and the innovation it brings, and to create a more equitable economy by rethinking the way companies and the people who run them go about their business. In other words, the workplace can be a source of the kinds of changes needed to make Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of racial and economic equity a reality.

Over the past year, the need to connect the lines between injustices outside the office, in white supremacist movements and police violence, for example, with corporate workplace norms—which have been shaped by white culture—has felt especially pressing. That urgency inspired Quartz at Work senior reporter Sarah Todd to spearhead a fantastic, jam-packed series of stories in 2020 about how to build antiracist companies, and inspired several thoughtful essays by contributors and staffers investigating the experiences of Black Americans in the workplace, past and present.

Here we’ve collected several of our top stories on race in the workplace as an MLK Day reading list. Email us at work@qz.com to tell us what resonates with you, and other topics in this area that you would like to see us cover.

Antiracism, unpacked

What does it mean to be an antiracist company? How can employers, business schools, and other shapers of workplace culture combat injustices and inequalities within their ranks and in the wider world?

Read:

Have better conversations about race

It’s hard to reckon with other people’s reality without open and honest dialogue.

Read:

Company culture and allyship

Diversity and inclusion are not the same thing, and there’s not much point in trying to be successful in one but not the other.

Read:

Hiring fairly

The first step in diversifying the workforce and leadership ranks is making sure the opportunity is open to any candidate who is qualified for the job.

Read:

Ideas and essays worth sharing

Personal experience is a powerful motivator. So, too, is information that reveals the injustices and hidden costs of things we blindly accept as norms.

Bonus: Two workshops

Quartz members can access the replays and recaps of our Quartz at Work (from home) workshops, including two we did in 2020 on how to build antiracist companies.

Watch:

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New York’s street vendors will no longer be supervised by police — Quartz

The era of New York Police Department (NYPD) officers supervising, arresting, and fining street vendors in New York City is officially over.

On Friday, Jan. 15, the city’s Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP) officially took over the responsibility of responding to food vending permits, health code violations, and vendor operations from the NYPD.

At-risk demographics

Street vendors are among some of America’s most vulnerable businesspeople, due to their impermanent locations, changing weather conditions, often low annual wages, and multitude of safety risks. Many of the operators in New York are immigrant Hispanic residents who commute from outer boroughs with incomes that have to support multiple people, according to a 2019 survey by the Street Vendor Project. There has also been a cap on the number of vending permits since the 1980s, according to New York Magazine’s Grub Street, resulting in inflated prices on the black market and multi-year waiting lists.

A long path to changes

In June of last year, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio said moving oversight to the consumer agency would allow police officers to focus on major areas of crime, according to local news station ABC 7.

“Having Department of Consumer and Worker Protection coordinating the City’s vending policy and enforcement efforts strikes the right balance as we rethink how law enforcement resources are used in our city,” he said. “DCWP has a strong record of protecting New Yorkers, and I’m confident they’re up to the task.”

The approval came through last December, more than a year after a video went viral of NYPD officers arresting a churro vendor inside a Brooklyn subway station.

Garnering more than 2.5 million views in two days, the incident sparked outrage, including among lawmakers, on behalf of the city’s estimated 20,000 street vendors and prompted a protest. Six months later, de Blasio announced cops would stop ticketing vendors. But there were concerns about steeper fines and arrests, as well as reports of NYPD officers still issuing tickets months later.

A wider shift towards tolerance

In addition to police harassment and discrimination; street vendors have reported excessive fines and expensive permit fees in cities like Chicago, Miami, and Los Angeles.

The question of whether street vending should be enforced by police officers and Friday’s official supervision shift to a city agency follow increased awareness and discussion about the disproportionate funding police departments in many major US cities receive compared to education, public health, or social work programs.

Black communities, civil rights groups, lawmakers, and medical researchers have been pointing out this discrepancy for years. However, protests across the US in response to the death of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis in May 2020 also raised awareness and helped further highlight the disproportionate arrests of Black and Hispanic Americans in many major cities.

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How Headspace and Calm led the boom in meditation apps — Quartz

The plane had hit turbulence—the rollicking kind that makes some people cry out, while others grip their armrests tightly, and mutter a prayer to the power of their choice.

But the woman seated in front of Gregory Grieve on that rocky flight from New York to North Carolina appeared perfectly calm. “She had her headphones on, and she was sitting there blissful, as happy as can be,” Grieve recalls. The secret to her serenity? She was listening to Buddhify, a mindfulness meditation app.

This was a telling moment, says Grieve, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. To him, it encapsulated both the potential and the limitations of our current generation of mindfulness apps, from Buddhify to industry leaders like Headspace and Calm. “It kept her from getting stressed out,” he says. “But it didn’t necessarily change the situation or help other people.”

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How car companies are leaning into the mindfulness movement — Quartz

Sit down, buckle your seatbelt, take the key out of the ignition, close your eyes—and breathe.

Now, imagine your car as a sanctuary. Can you shed the noise and stresses associated with driving? Can you imagine feeling better, more rejuvenated, calmer, even at peace with the world—while sitting in your vehicle?

What may sound like a far-fetched fantasy instead encapsulates the pursuit of many car companies today. Beyond comfort and safety, manufacturers are racing to find ways to improve the overall physical and mental health of drivers and passengers.