It was a very busy and hectic day for me. Hopping from one TV studio to another, talking to the print media in between, essentially called upon to analyse the interim Budget 2009-10, presented by Pranab Mukherjee today in Parliament.
Extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary solutions. This is what Mr N K Singh, a former bureaucrat and now advisor to Bihar government, had written sometimes back in an article on economic meltdown. I am sure he may not have then realised that this particular sentence would be used aggressively by the corporate world and of course the electronic and print media to seek more and more sops from the government. No wonder, this sentence reverbrated throughout the day today in media analysis. The corporate honchos made ample use of it, and so did some of the media.
The reason was simple. The corporate world had expected a series of sops and concessions in the interim budget. The real estate, the automobile sector, the exporters and you name it; they were all in a sombre mood, you could see their sullen faces and you knew what pained them. Mr Pranab Mukherjee had certainly failed them. He surely had upset all their calculations. How could Manmohan Singh’s government not realise that extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary solutions? Agreed, that this was an interim budget but how would the national economy run in the next four months? How come Manmohan the economist didn’t think about it?
I was feeling amused. I silently looked at their faces, trying to read their expressions. I realised how indignant the rich and elite feel when denied alms from the state treasury. I recall the time when the former Finance Minister P Chidambaram had opened up the state chest for the business class, it was promptly termed as a Dream Budget. They gave him 10 out of 10. Today, they were reluctant to give Pranab Mukherjee even 2 or 3 out of 10.
We talk of the booming economy, of the unprecedented economic growth trajectory. I wonder how many of us know that the net economic wealth of 36 individuals in India is equivalent to one-third of country’s 9 per cent GDP. If ever these 36 families were to migrate to say Switzerland, Indian economy will crash to 6 per cent.
So much for country’s growth. With exports down, manufacturing down, industrial production down, agriculture down, you begin to question what is driving this economic growth.
And that makes me wonder what is this Budget all about. And what are these extraordinary times? Aren’t we already living in extraordinary times? After all, over 200,000 farmers have committed suicide in the past 15 years or so. More than 837 million people, about 77 per cent of the population is living on the edge, somehow surviving on less than Rs 20 a day. Have we ever given a thought as to how do these millions survive if they are spending less than Rs 20 a day? Do they even manage to get two square meals a day?
The per capita intake of food is going down ever since Manmohan Singh had unleashed economic reforms in his previous avtaar as Finance Minister in 1991. We were told as people earned more their food habits change, they begin to eat less of grains and shift to more nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables, milk and eggs. For several years, mainline economists and agricultural scientists used this argument to defend the fall in food intake, a sure indication of growing hunger and malnutrition. The latest projections of the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) have proved them wrong. The NSSO tells us that not only the food intake is going down, the intake of fruits, eggs and milk is also on the decline.
Aren’t these extraordinary times?
And yet, the former Governor of Reserve Bank of India, Mr Bimal Jalan, told a TV channel that this government and successive governments should make heavy capital investments meaning more money to be made available for infrastructure. What for? To stimulate the economy faced with a slowdown. What a shame, I thought. Why don’t these economists realise (and I know they were never taught this in their colleges) that feeding the poor and hungry too is an investment. The poor and hungry too can stimulate the economy. Give more money in the hands of the poor and you will surely generate more demand, and that is what is required to trigger off the economy.
I wonder why do we feel elated, as if we have done a great service to the poor, by assuring them 100 days employment. Do we ever think that how difficult it must be for them to earn for 100 days only and from that earning survive for 365 days. If the poor can do it why can’t we do it in the cities? Why do we need to provide the employees with a pay hike under the 6th Pay Commission? Why can’t we give them instead salary for 100 days? Well, if we can’t survive in 100 days salary how do we expect the poor to live with that meagre amount?
Wouldn’t removing the upper cap of 100 days employment under the NREGS be the real stimulus?
But who cares? The poor and hungry are nothing more than statistics. When I talk of the poor, the farmers, the unorganised farm workers in the media, fellow panelists look at me with disdain. I can see their faces, and I know how uncomfortable it is for them to even listen to me. It happens to me quite frequently. But it doesn’t upset me. I give a damm to what they think. To me it is an opportunity to voice the voice of the voiceless. And I will continue to do that, for slowly and slowly I find the message is getting across. More and more people call me, talk to me, write to me and back my analysis. I realise that this world is full of people with good intent, and they are willing to stand up and walk along with you. They are willing to believe in you provided you first believe in yourself, believe in what you are saying.
We surely are living in extraordinary times, and believe me it also requires ordinary solutions. #