A funny thing appears to have happened on the way to economic superstardom. The poverty line has got redefined. I am not talking about the government’s definition of poverty here. The real poor are where they have always been – sitting at the bottom of the pyramid, waiting for fortune to arrive.
Their definition of fortune is pretty basic: a reasonable assurance of regular meals, a roof over their heads, clothes on their backs, and, for the wildly optimistic, a crack at education and the chance it provides to redefine their existential paradigm. What about the other India, the new resurgent India which is going forth and conquering the world, with a little help from people like you and me, minute cogs in the great engine of progress?
The other India seems to be doing pretty good. The numbers have never looked better. India’s economy has just got a booster dose of steroids. The growth rate has spurted to 9.2 per cent for the year, spewing, if wage surveys are to be believed, prosperity in its wake. According to the latest international survey to hit the papers, the Indian worker—and that number includes yours truly—can afford to laugh at inflation, thanks (or so I am informed) to a seven per cent increase in real wages (net of price rise) in the pocket.
So how come my definition of poverty doesn’t appear to be very different from that of the really poor? Why does that cut-off line appear to be just as out of reach today as it was when I started working about 27 years ago?
Welcome to the paradox of middle-class India, which appears to have everything, but feels that it has nothing. Admittedly, I get more than two squares a day, with the odd drink thrown in. But as for the rest, I find that I am more or less in the same position – at least mentally – as India’s deprived millions. I do have an extensive wardrobe, but nothing which I have really coveted. I do have a roof over my head – but it is owned by someone else. My son is getting an education – but not the one I would really like to give him. I even have a car – but that does not stop me from joining my son in ogling the streamlined behemoths roaring past my battered Maruti.
Am I asking for too much? Or am I just plain greedy? If my case were presented to the average Indian, they would probably plump for the former. Gandhians and leftists would pick the latter. But ask them to look at their own case, and I am willing to bet that a majority of the great Indian middle class would join me in bemoaning their current economic status. I don’t think I am being overly sensitive when when I say that it stings when a property broker chuckles quietly and asks me to come back with a crore in my pocket for a tiny, two-bedroom flat in some distant suburb. Or when a week’s family holiday – and, like you, I worked hard to earn that break – sends me into credit card debt for six months.
Back in the late 1980s, a government consumption survey found out something startling – people with zero detectable income nevertheless owned ‘assets’ like bicycles and radios. Today, a middle-class survey might throw up the reverse result – net of loans, many with even large incomes might actually own very little.
That is the economic challenge facing the new India. We need to translate that real growth into real prosperity.