What is Inequality?

What is Inequality?

  • Others
  • by Vineet John Samuel
  • 07 Feb, 2019

Every year, before the Annual World Economic Forum at Davos, Oxfam International releases its annual inequality report. Each report looks to capture a different dimension of inequality (like the 2019 report titled “Public good or Private Wealth?”) but fundamentally revolves around the various forms of inequality that have now become ubiquitous. It is in light of this that we first look at what inequality means and what its impacts are on our day to day life.

What is inequality? 
The Cambridge dictionary describes inequality as “the unfair situation in society when some people have more opportunities, etc. than other people”. The United Nations describes it even more simply as “the state of not being equal, especially in status, rights and opportunities”. 
While the term itself is quite vast and has various interpretations, for the purpose of simplicity, the two large umbrellas under which we can classify inequality would be economic inequality and social inequality. Both these categories are deeply intertwined and inequality in one often affects the inequality in another. Over the years, through its course of study, Oxfam has studied inequality as a grave social injustice and has documented the incidents and scale of this inequality at a global level. 

Economic Inequality 
Perhaps the most quantified and calculated form of inequality is the economic variant. Even here, the most predominant forms of inequality measured are those of income inequality and wealth inequality. Income inequality is the inequality in and disparity in the incomes commanded by the top percentile of the population in comparison to the bottom percentiles, while wealth inequality measures look to do the same but by calculating disparities in wealth instead of income.

“Income is not just the money received through pay, but all the money received from employment (wages, salaries, bonuses etc.), investments, such as interest on savings accounts and dividends from shares of stock, savings, state benefits, pensions (state, personal, company) and rent.”
-The Equality Trust 


“Wealth refers to the total amount of assets of an individual or household. This may include financial assets, such as bonds and stocks, property and private pension rights. Wealth inequality, therefore, refers to the unequal distribution of assets in a group of people”
-The Equality Trust

wealth inequality in india

Social Inequality 
Social inequality occurs when resources in a given society are distributed unevenly, typically through norms of allocation, that engender specific patterns along lines of socially defined categories of persons. It is the differentiation preference of access to social goods in society brought about by power, religion, kinship, prestige, race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, and class. 

In India, one of the most distinctive forms of social inequity come within the spheres of gender and caste, where, people coming from the marginalized sections of these social categories, are directly impacted in terms of their opportunities, access to essential utilities, and their potential as a whole. 

In India, this is what that looks like:

Gender Inequality in India


Governments must act to fight inequality 
Governments must listen to ordinary citizens and take meaningful action to reduce inequality. All governments must: set concrete, time-bound targets and action plans to reduce inequality as part of their commitments under Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 10 on inequality. These plans should include action in the following three areas: 

  1. Deliver universal free health care, education and other public services that also work for women and girls. Stop supporting privatization of public services. Provide pensions, child benefits and other social protection for all. Design all services to ensure they also deliver for women and girls. 
  2. Free up women's time by easing the millions of unpaid hours they spend every day caring for their families and homes. Let those who do this essential work have a say in budget decisions and make freeing up women’s time a key objective of government spending. Invest in public services including water, electricity and childcare that reduce the time needed to do this unpaid work. Design all public services in a way that works for those with little time to spare. 
  3. End the under-taxation of rich individuals and corporations. Tax wealth and capital at fairer levels. Stop the race to the bottom on personal income and corporate taxes. Eliminate tax avoidance and evasion by corporates and the super-rich. Agree to a new set of global rules and institutions to fundamentally redesign the tax system to make it fair, with developing countries having an equal seat at the table. 



FAQs About Inequality - 

How does inequality affect society?

Inequality affects every member of the society. Economic inequality impacts the GDP per capita. It gives rise to poorer public health and illiteracy, thus increasing crime rates, fuelling political instability, and eventually destabilising the society. Society members also become pessimistic and lose faith in the government and each other.

How is inequality measured?

The most widely used metric to measure inequality in the Gini index (Gini coefficient). It measures disparities in economic distribution.[1] Inequality in India is on the rise. All-India consumption Gini coefficient has increased from 0.30 in 1983 to 0.36 in 2011-12.

What are the social inequalities in India?

In India, social inequalities are outcomes of inequalities in income, education, gender, caste, and class.  For instance, preference of sons over daughters is an outcome of discrimination against girls, this has an impact on girl child education, her right to take decisions regarding her body and life, and eventually has an impact on the health and education of her family. For the marginalised communities like Dalits and Adivasis, they are not able to get better jobs because of lack of access to proper education. This affects the social mobility and deepens the gap between the rich and the poor, the privileged and the marginalised.

What causes social inequality?

Social inequality is the distribution of resources in a society based on power, religion, kinship, prestige, race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, and class.[1] Social norms such as preference of a son over a daughter, a certain community considered as being “polluted” , or a certain sexual orientation considered a “disease”, cause social inequality.

How do you end Inequality?

The government must take steps to end inequality. Oxfam recommends the following ways we can solve inequality:

Deliver universal public services
The government must provide free healthcare and education to every Indian.  Privatisation of essential services like Health and Education must stop. This will ensure that the most marginalised communities—Muslim, Dalit, Adivasis— and women and girls can access these essential services.
Recognising unpaid care work
Women in India spend 9.8 times more time on unpaid care work (looking after children, sick family members, household chores) than men.[1] This work is worth 3.1% of India’s GDP.[2] By investing in water, electricity, and childcare facilities, the government can help free up women’s time so they can join the workforce.


Increase the taxes of the rich
Government must take steps to avoid tax evasions and increase the taxes of the super-rich and corporations, so they can invest the taxes in providing public services to people.



Find out how Oxfam India is enabling communities by working to provide a life of dignity and equal opportunity for all.Get to know more about Oxfam India`s latest projects.

Read More

Related Blogs


Stories that inspire us


30 May, 2023

New Delhi

The Oxfam India Legacy Will Live On

Though we are staring at, perhaps, the untimely and unfortunate demise of a stellar organisation, we will continue to fight both the court case and the perception battle where we are blin...


01 Mar, 2023

New Delhi

Why Women in India Earn Less And Get Fewer Jobs—Discrimination

The latest National and Family Health Survey (NFHS 5) reports that the female labour force participation rate (LFPR) in India is 25 per cent whereas for male LFPR it is 57.5 per cent. The...


30 Mar, 2021

New Delhi

Oxfam India journey to end discrimination – glimpses from 2020

2020 was a tough year. However, despite the hardships faced due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Oxfam India, with committed support from its partners and donors continued working on the ground....


30 Jan, 2020

New Delhi

How Oxfam India Transformed Lives in 2019

In 2019, Oxfam India through its various interventions reached directly to 6.32 lakh marginalised persons from Dalit, Muslim, Tribal and other communities in 1,724 villages of our focus s...