Nobody knows the name of the 23-year-old student who died on Saturday after she was brutally raped nearly two weeks ago by six men in a white bus with tinted windows that moved unchecked through South Delhi. But aspects of her biography have been reported. Put together, they build a picture that provides a stark and revealing contrast to what is known about those accused of the crime. In a way, as India enters another year with its growth potential intact but ever further from being turned into reality, the contrast between the young woman and her attackers also shows the two paths that India can take from here on. And, importantly, the choice between those two paths isn’t purely a matter of politics or of social reform — it’s a matter of making the right economic choices.
The young woman who died a few days ago in a Singapore hospital was ambitious and driven. Her father worked as a loader at Delhi’s airport — a job that’s about as far from easy or well-paid as it’s possible to get in the formal sector. Yet he could at least afford, thanks to his hard work, a one-bedroom apartment in southwest Delhi for his family of five. A generation out of the eastern Uttar Pradesh town of Ballia, the girl had worked hard to supplement her family’s income, since she was 13; in order to finance her higher education and professional qualification, her father sold some land — a sadly unusual choice when it’s a girl’s education that needs to be paid for. It has been reported that she was independent enough to go out and watch a movie with a boy; that she left home in order to finish her degree; that she liked to dress well, and was looking forward to buying a new phone for her birthday. This is a story of constant self-improvement, based on a supportive family and the greater options available to younger people.
The men who raped and killed her have biographies that are starkly different. Their families may not have been from backgrounds vastly different from that of the girl’s father; they too were mostly one generation removed from villages in North Indian states. But they fell through the cracks in the Indian system — cracks that are so large that they are the system itself. One of them, reportedly the most violent, is a juvenile who came from a broken home and survived without counselling or employment for many years. They are all unmarried; but more to the point, they had no access to the formal employment that grants security, self-worth and a degree of investment in society. Two drove the private bus on which the crime was committed, work that could vanish overnight; a third was their on-board “helper”. One was a vegetable seller; the other a low-paid instructor at one of the “gyms” that have mushroomed across India that serve as informal meeting places for underemployed young men.
Economic policy, other than ensuring women have access to markets, can do little about the misogyny that shapes such men’s minds. But it can certainly ensure that they have more to lose than these men did. India needs a class of factory workers, not of shifting, rootless, angry young men. The casualisation of India’s labour force has led to its lumpenisation, as well. The self-improvement and drive of the young woman is darkly inverted in the angry alienation of the men who raped her. India’s unwillingness to change its labour laws and its delay in pushing manufacturing growth, thinking that the service sector could somehow compensate, mean the first, hopeful narrative is being undermined by the second, darker one. The task in 2013, and forward, is to reverse that.