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A call to alms

The guys at Vicco Vajradanti have got it. They know that the crisis the Indian economy is facing is that of a mammoth current account deficit — the total imports of goods, services and transfers being much greater than the country’s total export of goods, services and transfers. Indrajit Hazra writes.

columns Updated: Aug 31, 2013 21:56 IST
Indrajit Hazra
Indrajit Hazra
Hindustan Times

The guys at Vicco Vajradanti have got it. They know that the crisis the Indian economy is facing is that of a mammoth current account deficit — the total imports of goods, services and transfers being much greater than the country’s total export of goods, services and transfers. With foreign investors now seriously doubting that they will ever get adequate returns on their investments in India, one way out of this mess is for Indian companies to become export-oriented.

A few days after the Food Security Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha, the ayurvedic company ran an advertisement in newspapers. It showed a young man posing with what’s supposed to be a proud smile but looks more of a nervous show of teeth. There’s also a stock photo of New York’s Brooklyn Bridge, the whole effect being that of an Indian student in America. The ad copy is in the form of an email that he has sent someone in India: “I saw a white man purchasing Vicco Vajradanti in a shop here. I felt immensely proud. Whether it is a grip on the world as a superpower or on the teeth by gum power... Americans have got it!”

It’s too early to celebrate the presence of an Indian toothpaste in every white household in America. But the fact that India needs to create wealth by selling their goods and services to countries where the emaciated rupee can get robust returns is a mantra in the making. After decades of providing cheap back office services that didn’t provide too many jobs but got us what we’ve always hankered for — maximum earnings from minimum investments — that happy Indian growth story fed on foreign money has expired. The general gloom felt by Indian industry and the consumer classes is the hangover that comes after a rollicking party, a party where an overwhelming number of Indians were never invited.

The hostility and discomfort the Indian consumer class feels towards the food security law is the discomfort it feels when a beggar sidles up to the car window at a traffic crossing and asks for money. No one, of course, wants India to have beggars — or people whose food we have to subsidise by shelling out money from our pockets. But suddenly, instead of rolling up the car window and looking the other way to make beggary disappear, we find ourselves having to dish out more money to the poor by law.

The resistance to give alms is disguised in standard fears: Is the beggar really poor? Is the stump that he’s displaying really a stump or is it a whole arm that’s being tucked away cleverly in the folds of his shirt? What is the point of giving a beggar any money when he’s really a) a lazy sod, b) a charlatan, c) a drug addict? Transpose these questions to the concerns of whether the Food Security Act will actually benefit those in need of subsidised food, and we have our standard response to beggary.

Like a festering sore, India’s poor have been our shame and irritant for as long as we can remember. Before the cliché of the Indian software professional, there was the cliché of the famished Indian. The rich world’s gaze thankfully shifted to ‘Africa’ around the same time knowledge-empowered Indians started providing a far better window-dressing for the country than ribs-showing Indians and babies with bloated stomachs. But India’s poor remain like a tubercular strain. If the credit ratings company Moody’s doesn’t like India going further into debt by ‘wasting’ money on a massive and permanent food subsidies bill, that’s because Moody’s and its many clients don’t have to live in a country where abject poverty still exists or deal with its poor. Why would you and I, for instance, bother about America’s gun control laws if we plan to do business with General Electric?

Mass extermination of under-fed Indians not being an option (as it was in the 1943 Bengal famine), continuing to treat them as invisible has served us well. There is a growing anger against a government for being ‘anti-industry’. The timing of the food security Bill also has been thought suspect — as if earning votes from grateful voters is something terrible by itself. It’s a strange thing to see people get upset with competitive populism in a parliamentary democracy when the issue is about providing fundamental comfort to a class that, by popular consent and imagination, is supposed to show their mettle and genius by being able to live in poverty.

I don’t know whether the UPA will be adequately rewarded by Indian voters for laying down a law that takes the first step to provide food security to all. One brave act of good may or may not make India forgive the UPA government for its many other unforgettable acts at the hustings.

But if and when the law is up and running without the standard obstacles that give our public distribution systems their rogue reputation, the way in which India looks at itself and at its poor will change forever. As for how post-2014 governments, both at the Centre and in the states, will fund food subsidies at such a massive level and generate jobs for the poor to be able to earn, I’m sure some of our best brains will think up of something. Now that the guys at Vicco Vajradanti have provided us a hint.

First Published: Aug 31, 2013 21:15 IST