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Mainstream Vol. XLVI No 26

To Talk about Austerity…!

Sunday 15 June 2008, by Nikhil Chakravartty


The air is thick with talk about the economic crisis facing the country. The Finance Minister has called it “ a grave economic crisis”. “We have not experienced anything similar in the history of independent India,” he has said.

In Parliament, in newspaper offices, in the university campus, in Chambers of Commerce, the talk centres round the urgent need to borrow, to contract loans so that our economy could be sustained and the nation does not collapse under debts.

In other words, our Finance Minister claims that he has been trying to snatch us back from the very threshold of the frightening debt trap.

It is not that we have a derelict economy. The government’s Economic Survey underlines the “solid gains registered by our economy during the last forty years since independence”. The point to note is Dr Manmohan Singh’s warning that we have been living beyond our means. He has pointedly referred to the “mindless and heartless consumerism we have borrowed from the affluent societies of the West”.

In lucid terms, he elaborate what he has in mind:

My objection to the consumerist phenomenon is two-fold. First, we cannot afford it. In a society where we lack drinking water, education, health, shelter and other basic necessities, it would be tragic if our productive resources were to be devoted largely to the satisfaction of the needs of a small minority.
The country’s need for water—for drinking and for irrigation—rural roads, good urban infrastructure, and massive investments in primary education and basic health services for the poor are so great as to effectively preclude encouragement to consumerist behaviour imitative of advanced industrial societies. Our approach to development has to combine efficiency with austerity. Austerity not in the sense of negation of life or a dry, arid creed that casts a baleful eye on joy and laughter.

To my mind austerity is a way of holding our society together in pursuit of the noble goal of banishing poverty, hunger and disease from this ancient land or ours.

Indirectly, Dr Singh has repudiated the fashionable theory of the day which lays down that the upper 10 per cent of the society needs to be attended to, as by itself it constitutes a huge internal market of more than 80 million. With abundant purchasing power, this top income bracket opens up a huge market, while the rest of the 90 per cent can wait for the benefits to trickle down.

In the last 10 years, there has been a clearly discernible trend towards upholding this elitist view of our social development.

If Dr Manmohan Singh is anxious to debunk it, he would have done well to attack it, bold and sharp. A society blatantly compartmentalised into two worlds—the very affluent rich coexisting without compunction with the penury and destitution of the millions, who constitute 90 per cent of our population. Apart from the immorality of it all, it is a dangerously explosive situation. Opulence of a section of the society, and that too a small minority contraposed against the want and misery of the rest, touches off tensions and conflicts beyond control. It is this dehumanisation within the society that undermines the social balance.

The affluent elite, assured by their wealth and power, view the integration of the Indian economy into the global set-up as an insurance for the perpetuation of their position of primacy. What this really amounts to is the integration of the elite of the Third World countries into the club of the rich in the First World. Surely, Dr Manmohan Singh with his scholarship and social perception realises the enormity of this trend, and here is to be sought the real root of what he aptly calls the “mindless and heartless consumerism”.

In a vibrant democracy such as ours, why should the standard be set by this affluent minority wedded to inhuman consumerism? If the country is passing through acute economic crisis, it is the duty of the powers-that-be to enforce austerity.

It is not enough for the Finance Minister to make a wistful plea for austerity. He has got the power and the responsibility to enforce austerity. Why is there no provision in the Budget to ban what in the official jargon has come to be known as “conspicuous consumption” (in plain language a vulgar display of wealth)?

We had in the past a Guest Control Order, which restricted hospitality on social occasions to a fixed number of guests. Although this was often violated by those who could pull the necessary strings, it had its salutary aspect insofar as it provided a legitimate protection for those who could not afford lavish spending. There was also restriction of wasteful illumination, which helped save electricity as also cut down thoughtless spending.

What is really needed is a nationwide economy drive even if Spartan austerity is not acceptable. But any call for austerity coming from our political leadership would hardly carry weight if it is not accompanied by at least some symbolic sacrifice at the top. There is no doubt that our Ministers and MPs and legislators at the State level enjoy enormous perks and privileges.

On the last day of the last Parliament, it is worth recalling, the MPs voted for a hike in their salary and perks in a manner which was scandalous. The bulk of the benefits were not related to their work. Why can’t these eminent personages forego these perks at least for the period of the economic depression? From the Rashrapati Bhavan downward, the appurtenances of power and protocol have grown enormously. If these are cut down or suspended for the time being, it will be good not only for the well-being of those who enjoy them, but also send a clear message across the whole country that until poverty is banished and the well-being of the millions assured, this nation shall abjure all demonstration of ungainly opulence.

(Mainstream, August 17, 1991)

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