“Why you spend so much money on hay?” I once asked Ramu uncle.
He was busy feeding the cows in his backyard. His overworked body was scarred but strong. He had no time for a pesky boy. I asked again.
He tuned to me with visible annoyance in his eyes, “What is that to you?”
Well, his spending habits were none of my concern, and when it came to economics, I did not even have the rudimentary knowledge. It was just that often I heard Ramu aunty complain about it to my mother. Like most of the people in our neighborhood they had constant money problem. On top of that, unlike most men Ramu uncle did not have a regular job. He used to toil day and night at the small patch of land behind their house. We would let us play in the field when it was empty in mid summer. In our childhood, we gathered in the paddy field and played football with ball of jute. So we liked Ramu uncle, and it bothered me that he would spent money on hay instead of his family. “His loves those cows more than his own children,” Ramu aunty often said.
But I could not explain all that while he was annoyed, and his stare made me nervous.
“You love your cows more than Ramu aunty, right?”
He laughed out loud. “Where did you hear that?”
“Everyone says so.”
“Do not listen to all the gossip.”
He put some more hay in each big clay pot.
“I have to,” he said. “If they are hungry they cannot work. They cannot give milk.”
“And if they cannot work or give milk, what we going to eat?”
I had no answer.
“If you are smart, you take care of the cows that give you milk,” he said. “You understand.”
I did not fully understand but nodded anyway. “Run along now, I have to finish feeding them.”
From that day on, his spending habits made perfect sense to me. He had his reason, I told myself. Without my knowledge, that was my first lesson in economy.
Few decades have past since then, but I still fail to grasp the intricacies of economics. A lot has changed in the mean time. Muddy farms of my childhood are replaced by multinational firms. The cow shades of yesteryears are transformed into call centers of today. India has matured from cultivation to capitalism. Some say the change has been slow, others say too fast. But we all agree things have changed – a lot. India has entered the millennium with a new economy.
India is not yet strong enough to sit at the great table reserved for big boys (Isn’t G8 Indian spelling for great?). But it seems everyone has heard the roaring tiger – it woke up from afternoon nap. This tiger is sleeping no more. I do not know what a roar sounds like, but I cannot deny that noise this tiger is making. May be it is the stomach growling: after a long nap it surely is hungry. After centuries of practicing spiritualism our hunger for consumption cannot be denied.
The noise can be heard everywhere: the main stream media, the crowded shopping malls, the omnipresent cell phones, the car packed roads, the busy call centers. Everywhere you look there is sound of consumption. The economy has woken up and it needs to be fed. Capitalism in India is not coming as an import; it is invading through infection. It has woken up the dormant consumers in billion Indians. The signs of infection are everywhere. New shopping malls are popping up each day. There is a new cell phone store at each street corner. Everyone has a new car. Every high school graduate gets a job at call centers. No one is just a bystander in the new economy. Everyone is a participant. Everyone is a buyer. That is the equality in a capitalistic democracy. Under socialist democracy we were a nation of beggars; under capitalistic democracy we turned into a nation of buyers.
That is the image of India: billions of buyers. That is what makes the rest of the world salivate. To emphasize the power of China, the other tiger, in the last decade a marketing mantra echoed in the halls of corporations of the developed world: How clever you think you are, remember billon Chinese do not give a hoot. I have a sense that the when it comes to Indian the corporate view is simply this: Whatever anyone says, there is a billon buyers in India. It is hard to resist the temptation. The economy is growing feverish pitch. India leads the world in the growth of cell phone users. India is the number one destination for outsourcing. Indian IT market is projected to reach the moon soon. Yes, India is a giant hive of billons of hungry buyers. The thought of the amount of green honey it can produce would make anyone salivate.
Does not that make you wonder: who is this honey for? Are the billions of Indians just the worker bees? Are those few fat queen bees leave when they are done with this hive?
I ask these not for the satisfaction of metaphorical completion. As recent as last year, four in five Indians were living less than a half dollar a day. That is worse then world statistics: half of the world population lived under two dollars in the same time. Four in five Indians: that is 80 percent. That is 836 millions people!
Not exactly the picture of a roaring tiger that we are made to believe.
Do not get me wrong. I do not want to take any shine off the new shopping malls. I do not want anyone to turn off their cell phones. I do not want anyone to get off their cars. I do not want the call centers to switch off their lights. We made great progress. Things are surely much better for me. I do not use jute ball to play soccer anymore. I play jukebox on my computer. I go to mega malls and drive Nano cars. I want all that to stay. But I cannot also stop thinking about it: the number 836 million.
With all the economic growth how can that happen? Are we doing something wrong? Is there anyway I can have my cake and the 836 million can eat too – not cake but two simple meals a day. Is it possible that the call centers can keep hiring, and teenagers can get an education as well? Can we not just be buyers in the present but also builders of the future? Can we just not consume things but create values? Can we not chase after comfort without sacrificing the community? Can we practise democratic capitalism instead of capitalistic democracy?
There are just questions. As I said, when it comes to economy, I am still stuck with Ramu uncle and his cows. I know for now India Inc. seems to be a cash cow. Everyone is milking it as if there is no tomorrow. But I have a suspicion there is one, and the milking cannot last for ever. At some point we have to feed the cow. We have to invest in those 836 million people. We have to invest in our future. We have to educate the next generation beyond the call centers. We have to sacrifice a bit, and buy the best hay we can find. You might ask why one wants to spend money on hay? I would say because we have to take care of the cow.
For me the question is simple. As Ramu uncle would say: Are we smart enough to feed the cow?