Those who grew up in the decades of the 1960s and 1970s have pretty clear memories of the paucity of everything in the country and the austerity with which children in the household were brought up.
Food was rationed, clothes were limited to just two new sets a year – one on birthdays and one at Diwali or Eid, even text books would be second hand and passed on either from older children to those younger or borrowed or bought at half price from others in the neighbourhood.
Things gradually began to improve from the decade of the 1980s and by the 1990s, a sea change was visible in how people who grew up with scarcities and austerity were now leading their lives. Nothing was too much or too little for their children; clothes, books, toys were all bought anew for every child in the household; no longer restricted to rations, there was a boom in the culture of eating out and thereby restaurants and everything began to be available in India – we no longer had to wait for someone to travel abroad to load him or her with lists of consumer goods or eatables that we desperately wanted from those countries.
Children born in the decads of the 1980s and 1990s have not had to contend with the meaning of the term ‘deprivation’. Everything has been on call for them at a hand's length and a moment's notice.
So it was very startling for my friend’s young son, working for an automobile company, to discover that his company was putting their staff on rations in their subsidised canteen, of late – which meant there was no unlimited access to everything as in the past, portions have been limited and waste strictly discouraged in the name of cost cutting.
Even as I was mulling over that one, came reports that the consumer expenditure graph has fallen for the first time in four decades and people are desisting from buying food!
Food? One would have thought there is a basic, direct relationship between food and life in all beings, whether they be humans or animals. We live, work and earn for the food we must put on our tables.
So, if people are cutting down their expenditure not just on things like underwear and motor cars, as was reported earlier, but even biscuits and rice and dal, I shudder to think where we are headed as a nation.
In the austere years, successive governments in this nation were never known to live in a state of denial as this government seems to be doing. They made efforts to grow more food, put more money into the pockets of people. This government responds by denying the validity of the statistics.
Past governments tried to reduce taxation from enormous levels like 97 percent to reasonable ones at 30 percent. This government now plans to impose the Goods and Services Tax even on salaries that might leave people with even less spending power than they seem to be having today.
A little over five years ago, despite years of prosperity and a flourishing economy, people did not have the patience to ride through the temporary downturn in the economy and were willing to write off a world class economist in favour of a regime where no one understands the difference between even simple interest and compound interest and has driven the economy to the ground.
Earlier this decade, during the course of my travels through Gujarat, there were ample signs of how skewed Narendra Modi's economic policies were in the state (the politics was tainted too but that is a whole different story). Every small, medium or even big entrepreneur, barring the big three of Ambani, Adani and Tata, found they no longer had a conducive atmosphere to do business and wished to relocate to states, including Maharashtra, where they thought they could deal with a more reasonable and intelligent political regime.
However, Narendra Modi's hype and rhetoric blinded many others to his complete inability to understand the workings of a larger economy. Even with poor understanding of larger economics, one could see that Modi was all about trade – or more correctly trade-offs.
The larger links between agricultural prosperity and industrial growth quite escaped him then as now. Which is why today onion farmers are actually weeping because they get less than Rs eight per kilo for a crop they produce at a cost price of Rs 20 or 22 while end consumers weep even louder when they have to buy that produce at Rs, 100 per kilo.
The middlemen trading in the commodity should be laughing all the way to the bank. But they are not. That onion brings tears to their eyes not just because of its pungency - the GST regime has skewered his returns at a time when he had barely recovered from the after-effects of the ill-advised demonetisation.
A farmer from Western Maharashtra recently told me looking at how non-profitable farming had become, he had shifted to being a trader – in seeds and fertilisers.
“But most days, I sit with my goods from morning to evening and not one kilogram of anything sells. I was having problems growing food then, I am having problems buying food now.”
Then there are unconfirmed reports that in a huge city like Navi Mumbai, builders sold only two premium flats this Diwali.
So with all sectors of the economy – primary, secondary and tertiary – in the doldrums, I guess it is high time now that the ruling dispensation take the advice of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh seriously and get down to first identifying and diagnosing the symptoms and causes without which there can be no solutions. Certainly not by brushing the figures under the carpet and by burying their heads in the sand, hoping the storm will pass without causing any damage.
For I shudder to think what the situation would be in this country if most people grew poorer and only a few grew rich at their expense. Already, migration from rural areas is on the rise despite MGNREGA, the resentment of slum dwellers for those in high-rises is growing. And, yes, many of those we previously regarded as rich and privileged too are unable to hold their own in the face of the favours doled out to a handful of even their own class.
As food disappears off the tables across the country, we face a situation worse than probably seen during the Bengal famine. Then there was food but was diverted to British troops. Now there is no food to grow, let alone eat.