The other day I was driving in Delhi cantonment when a couple on a motorbike went zooming past. The rider was a smartly turned out army havaldar and his pillion rider was presumably his better half. She was dressed in a nice sari, had a stylish hairdo and sported a pair of shades.
Though I was pleased to see the vastly improved financial status of the Indian soldier, it made me think about the change that has taken place from the time I was commissioned into the army in June 1965.
My starting salary was Rs 450 a month. With that kind of salary one could only dream of owning a bike or a scooter. So, how did one manage to live? Well, everything came cheap. We were in a high-altitude area in Sikkim and as such, were fed on government expense.
A bottle of Indian whisky in the officers' mess cost Rs 10. There was no need of personal transport. I bought my first scooter when I completed two-and-a-half years of service. It cost a princely Rs 2,900, which wiped out my savings.
When I got married in 1974, my salary as a captain was Rs 1,400 a month. My wife ran the house, including the maid's salary, for Rs 600 on a monthly basis. This included endless surprise meals to bachelor friends. Sounds incredulous but things and services were cheap.
Petrol was 90 paise a litre, onions in Nasik cost 10 paise a kg, milk was about Rs 1.5 per litre and the maid was paid Rs 50 per month. Life went on with the salary growing ever so slowly with successive pay commissions. When I took premature retirement in 1994 after 29 years, my salary was Rs 11,000.
Switch to life today. After the sixth pay commission, the starting salary of a soldier is above Rs 15,000 per month. A lieutenant starts on Rs 40,000 or so. The havaldar, who impressed me, probably earns Rs 25,000 a month. When an officer gets married, he would most likely buy a car.
I can't complain either because my pension today is five times my last pay drawn. So, is everyone now living a rich life? Well, despite the large changes in emoluments, the difference is not so great.
Petrol costs Rs 70 or more a litre, onions cost Rs 70 a kg and milk is around Rs 45 a litre. So, the question that comes to mind is that was life better then or is it better now? Well, the havaldar and his wife on the bike certainly seemed to be better off.
When you talk to old-timers, many remember the good old days when they lived a grand life on just Rs 600 a month. As for me, I would opt for now. I think it's better to live on Rs 40,000 than Rs 450 per month.