Wheat on a Cycle

The authorities are now announcing that they will provide foodgrain and rations to 81 crore needy Indians for the rest of the year. That’s nice, but it throws up a startling statistic – out of 135 crore Indians, 81 crore need to be fed, since they can’t sustain themselves? How did we manage to turn so many into have-nots?

Wheat on a Cycle

I refuse to float on a wanton pontoon or agree with nonsense. And nonsense it is, scary too, to hear the authorities tom-tom about how they now plan to spend Rs 100,000 crore over the next few months to feed 81 crore Indians, providing them with foodgrain and rations. Part of that spend is your and my money; but that is not the angst here, not by any yardstick. The reason for stupefaction is that out of 135 crore Indians, we now have a situation where 81 crore don't have the means to fend for themselves. How did we manage to push so many into this state of penury? This, indeed, is cause for consternation and worry, and for very serious & sober thought.

The Government last week approved allocation of additional foodgrain under Phase IV of the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY) for a period of five months, from July to November 2021. "Free-of-cost foodgrain (5 kg per person per month) will be given to a maximum of 81.35 crore beneficiaries, who are covered under the National Food Security Act, including those covered under the Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) scheme," a statement hailed. And that is indeed food for thought – 81 crore-plus Indians need to be fed now because they cannot do so themselves? Mind you, that's 60.25 per cent of the entire population of the country; a really worrisome statistic which is happening because 23 crore additional Indians have slipped below the poverty line in the last few months alone. For the uninitiated, the poverty line strikes anyone who earns Rs 375 a day, or less.

Bajaj, Amby and Gurgaon

I come from a generation that grew up with (Hamara) Bajaj Chetak, Hindustan Motors' Ambassador car and the Premier Padmini. Anyone wanting to embrace any one of this terrific troika of personal transport had to wait for months, years even, as waiting lists were long and demand far outstripped supply. Any family owning even a second-hand vehicle was considered privileged and part of an elite crowd. Then came the early 1980s and the Maruti 800, a little tin-can of a whippersnapper that dramatically transformed the way India travelled. A few years later came India's economic reforms and the boom began.

Around this time, computers too began to happen and the average Indian suddenly experienced upward mobility, both in terms of transportation as well as access to telecommunications, as the mobile phone arrived in India. It cost Rs 32 for an outgoing call and Rs 16 for incoming calls, but India nonetheless was slowly but surely moving up the economic ladder and the people were reaping the rewards. I did too, as did my friends, as we bought our first cars, second-hand albeit, but we were suddenly 'happening'.

Real estate boomed too and labyrinths like Gurgaon were born, and let's forget what it is called now. The liberalization, privatization and globalization (LPG) policies of the Government and the opening up of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the real estate sector brought about a boom in the development of large-scale private townships; we then called them 'Integrated, NRI or High-Tech' townships. These came up on the peripheral are-as of large cities like Mumbai, Pune, Delhi, Chennai, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad and Bengaluru, occupying areas up to 1,000 acres and beyond. India was truly happening.

The next two decades

The swan-song continued for two more decades and mega-cities came up in India, as did every major global car company, Smartphone brands, slick and creamy super-highways, international eateries and delivery chains, Amazon and our very own Flipkarts, Ola and Uber taxi services, global-best banks and hospitality chains and Indian call centers (BPOs) that had our 'desi' brothers and sisters mimicking Cockney, Yankee and Aussie ac-cents to dwell their trade. We even had our own F1 track on the outskirts of New Delhi, where Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel plied their wares and made us swoon to the sound of echoing supercharged engines. India was literally emerging as the center of the planet.

And people prospered. Sure, we had intermittent allegations of rip-offs, scams and paybacks, and these were randomly spoken about and fraternized amongst the intelligentsia, but that did not stop the average Indian from moving up the socio-economic ladder and prospering. Salaries, increments and yields on investments were at never-before highs and Indians even began investing in new options. Passports became a passing trend and international travel the toast of the day. Banks prospered and came up with incredible schemes, offers and interest rates. Our farmers suddenly had tractors and harvesters. And even the global recession of 2008 was easily subverted by a resurgent India.

Yatra and Makemytrip became daily buzzwords and India's airports huffed and puffed to cope with the increasing number of new private airlines taking to the skies. Living in luxury became a way of life for urban India, almost as much as 'living-in' did. With international exposure, brands, Netflix shows and other OTT platforms came in new social norms, as India embraced modernization with a zest and gusto unparalleled. Washing ma-chine, microwaves, air-conditioners – sure, everyone suddenly had them.

Then cometh the fall

For some unknown reason, someone, somewhere decided that this kind of well-being and all-round happiness was too good to be allowed to continue. Quietly but tacitly, we were yanked out of our comfort bubble and thrust into today's new reality. And what a brutal reality it is. Our financial institutions and banks are collapsing, our people are losing jobs. Increments and bonuses, you ask? Today's average blue- and white-collar workers are happy if they retain their jobs, even at significantly-reduced salaries. Interest rates are at historical lows and the typical salaried Indian is wading into his savings and Provident Fund accumulations to make ends meet. Real estate has tanked to embarrassing levels and rentals are the way to be, for a long time to come.

What has changed? I don't claim to know, except the fact that our very approach to our people, our economy and our businesses seems to have morphed rather dramatically. Some of our blinkered brethren point to the 'only' weak link in the chain as they see it – the novel Coronavirus – to hastily explain away the problem. But India's economic woes began well before that. Before we faced the wrath of this virus, we were already into a full-blown recession, which is negative growth for two consecutive quarters, and I wrote about it in these very pages before you or I ever heard of COVID-19. Truth be told, we were facing seven to eight consecutive quarters of minus numbers before the pandemic. And finally, the GDP dipped by 24.3 per cent. And now we are done. Home and dry.

Feeding the hungry

Back to the moot point; if we have managed to reach a point today where 60.25 per cent of our people have to be provided with food to quell their hunger and that of their families, there is something seriously wrong with our policies and approach to tackling what confronts us today. Our tractor-ed and harvester-ed farmers are sitting at our borders now – for almost exactly seven months. I don't know who's right or who's wrong and whether politics is involved, or not, but this should have been sorted out by now. Almost 135 crore people are worried about their future. Visa and immigration applications to foreign lands are at historical highs. A nation should not confront its own people, else history shall speak.

In this imbroglio in today's India, we have no requiem and certainly no right to call ourselves an emerging global superpower, and forget the French super-fighters that adorn our military runways. They are of no use, for when our people don't have enough to eat, when a system is made to collapse, the only value that passes muster is introspection. The only war is already brewing within.

The question we are left with then is whether this is overt or covert. If it is the former, we can but look inwards and contemplate. If it is the latter though, then someone needs to be made to answer on why this has happened and who shall pay. Someone has to… Turning the dreams of 135 crore people into ashes has to be explained. It may not be easily condoned and pardoned, but a beginning has to be made. Else, history shall bequeath. It did, for Alexander, Mussolini, Stalin, Bonaparte and Hitler. And Saddam, though no one ever found any WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) there.

But mind you, they alone were enough to bring down countries and empires.

The writer is a communications consultant and a clinical analyst. Views expressed are personal

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