Millennium Post

A year best forgotten

A year back, I quit my job — to live a life less stressful. The year has been anything but. A few months of leisure have been followed by endless fear, worry and despair

Today, June 15 2020, is a special day for me. For today, I complete a year without a job. By choice. A year back, I decided that 36 years of working full-time was enough for one lifetime, and it was time to hang up the working boots, don my travel gear and rev up my fancy cars. Because 15 years ago, when I quit the media world and became a corporate cockroach, I promised myself that I would retire before I turned 50. My corporate bosses were kind, God was kinder still, and I managed to pull off this unlikely goal.

Suddenly, the skies were a bright blue, the air was sweet and crisp, and my powerful car engine was more responsive than normal as I smashed my foot on the throttle and vroomed away to the hills. Keeping me company was my missus and our two little cats. All three turned out to be wonderful travelers, especially the cats (a bit on that later). Together, this awesome foursome threaded its way through the length and breadth of the higher Himalayas, visiting hamlets and villages most have not even heard of. It was blissful. Relaxing. Nirvana. What a change!

Where is the bloody AC?

A highpoint was when my wife burst out laughing one day while we were munching parathas at a rustic hillside 'dhaba'. "Do you realise you have been sitting here for 45 minutes without your mobile? You left it in the car and don't even realise it?!" I smiled back, a mite shamefaced, for she did have a point. For 15 years, I would get worried and pull out my phone every 5 minutes if it didn't ping the arrival of yet another e-mail in my always bulging inbox. Another was when I opened the window of a quaint hotel room in Jibhi, a rustic little town in Himachal Pradesh, and poured myself a Talisker. As I enjoyed the serene mountains, calmed and soothed by the gurgling river and the warmth of the single malt, my little desi cat suddenly went "meow" and looked at me, all confused, as if asking, "Where the hell is the bloody AC?"

A third was the revelation of just how hardy these two cats were during our travels. As my SUV blasted its way through the winding roads of bucolic Himachal, evergreen Punjab or raucous Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, these two felines would sit on our laps, gaze out the window and purr themselves to sleep for tens of hours at a stretch. People of all hue, shapes and sizes would wave and cheer when they saw the cats, while many would even force us to stop to take a selfie with the cats — most had never seen a Persian before. I also learnt more about my wife — she wasn't so bad after all.

Too good to last

Alas, like all good things in this here Earth, it was too good to last. For the first six months, newspapers and the Internet repeatedly reminded us of the darkness that was quietly pervading the country. And toward the end of the calendar year, as the Indian economy continued its downhill slide at an alarming pace, many of those friends who had jokingly asked me for months if I had been sacked started losing their own jobs or faced steep salary cuts. Sector after industry sector began to tank, with both topline and bottom-line numbers slithering and slipping.

Across the country, the double-whammy of 2016 and 2017— demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax — continued to unsympathetically batter and impale corporates, MSMEs and the smallest businesses. A highly voluble slowdown was fast turning into an unspoken recession. Unemployment held centre stage, with numbers across the country spiraling to record highs not seen in the last 45 years. The automobiles sector shed 200,000 jobs, while the information technology sector laid off over 1,000,000 employees. The aviation sector shed 100,000 people, while the reeling telecom sector laid off nearly 80,000, taking its total tally of layoffs to an unenviable 500,000 employees in the last two years alone.

Industry woes worsened

The country also witnessed the collapse of Yes Bank, with operations being temporarily taken over by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and State Bank of India (SBI), sending ripples of panic across investors, account-holders and the general public. Snaking queues of nervous depositors formed outside Yes Bank branches, as it treaded the shady footsteps of the Punjab & Maharashtra Cooperative Bank. Thankfully, the Government and RBI acted quickly and pulled off a quick rescue act.

Shortly after, the mutual funds industry announced that it was all but wiped out — and fund after fund either segregated portfolios, wiping off large chunks from retail investment portfolios, or writing them off altogether. Selfish and self-preserving action was taken by many fund managers when payments from Adilinks, Vodafone Idea and Yes Bank became doubtful. Yet, somehow, their avarice and unfair decisions were overlooked by the licensor and the industry watchdogs. Investors lost millions, many their entire life-savings.

If we talk telecom, once tall telcos like Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea faced the wrath of both the Government and the Supreme Court. The former was unrelenting in its demand for around Rs 100,000 crore in Adjusted Gross Revenues (AGR), Spectrum Usage Charge (SUC) and other past dues from these two telcos alone, and the latter passed an order quashing their plea for relief and insisted on immediate timelines for payments. As the two scratched their heads to come up with some way to stay afloat, the latest entrant Reliance Jio Infocomm continued to squeeze away at those body parts that hurt the most. Profitability at Bharti Airtel and Vodadone Idea continued to slip – scores more lost their jobs.

The final nail — COVID-19

As Corporates flailed and staggered around, people rushed to banks to re-engineer their shrinking portfolios and the Government struggled to come up with a means to revive a sinking economy, a new kid sauntered into town. For reasons best known to those that govern us, this brat was initially ignored. While we greeted global superpowers with open arms and toppled state governments, this kid quietly grew up and soon displayed his true demonic countenance – the authorities realised that we were well and truly scrunched. COVID-19 had arrived.

Lockdowns had arrived too. Four of them, actually, by the end of the day. The pandemic changed the way we lead our lives and earn our livelihoods, the latter for those who did manage to retain their jobs. Its grin was mirthless and its countenance ominous, forcing us to repeatedly wash and sanitise ourselves and everything around us. It brought our factories, offices, shops and markets, malls and educational institutions, airlines, railways, bus services; all that moves, in fact, to a painful halt. And all of us have witnessed the brutality and unforgiving malice with which it ravaged the lives of India's migrant worker population, nearly 40 crore of them.

Govt stepped in too

The Government came up with various relief measures and bailout packages to reinvigorate the economy and rebuild industry sectors, most of which had seen decades of work and achievements wiped away in the matter of a couple of months. But Rs 1.7 lakh crore and Rs 20 lakh crore have failed to have any impact so far on industry, or on those millions who continue to trudge on roads and alongside railway tracks after leaving our cities to reach their villages hundreds of miles away, weeping their eyes out and vowing never to return. We have all seen those numbing images and heart-breaking video clips.

The last 12 months began with carefree drives on winding hill roads and picnics alongside rushing river waters and burbling mountain streams. It moved on to friends losing jobs and the economy and corporate institutions collapsing. And morbidly, it also changed the modus operandi at crematoriums and cemeteries too — as the numbers pile up and the bodies keep coming in.

For that last reason alone, this is a year best forgotten. If we survive it.

The author is a business analyst and communications specialist. He can be reached at Views expressed are strictly personal

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