August 04, 2020
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A National Low Cal Debate

Why is the Outlook for India so grey when, with the same indicators, Calcutta is so bright and shiny? Can't feelgood take a right turn instead of left?

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A National Low Cal Debate
Sandeep Adhwaryu
A National Low Cal Debate
After reading the January 26, '04, issue of Outlook, one could be forgiven for wondering how something that's wrong for India as a whole could be wonderful in Left Front-ruled Calcutta (This is Cal, Katalysed). Especially as the magazine, while on the issue of India's economic performance, has been shedding copious tears for the 80 per cent who haven't benefited. Apparently, when Calcutta is in the arclights, this 80 per cent vanishes, the focus being the jetsetting 20 per cent. If nothing but to redress the balance and set right a few biases, let's consider the following.

In the national scenario, all the feelgood indicators—forex reserves, sensex hitting the 6000-mark etc—"are middle-class benchmarks" for Outlook. "There is no room in it for the poor and dispossessed; the Muslim craftspeople displaced after the Gujarat riots, the tribals who lost their land to the Narmada dam, the fishing communities who disappear after each cyclone...." Very concerned for the poor, I admit.

But when it comes to Left Front-ruled West Bengal, the report sees magic in the neon signs. "The positive energy in Calcutta now is unmistakable," the report quotes a GM of a five-star hotel. "A quiet movement to turn Calcutta on its head has taken shape. Islands of action have linked up to form a landmass of revival. And suddenly, the results are stunningly visible."

That's all very fine, but it begs the question: what happened to the "poor and dispossessed" 80 per cent in Calcutta? People still sleeping on the footpaths, entire families living at the edge of the railway tracks? What's happening to the hundreds of jobless people from the many establishments that have downed shutters in the state? What's happening to the "dispossessed", like those from the Sundarbans marshlands, thrown out due to fears for the environment? What's happened to Calcutta's pavement hawkers, victims of a clean-up drive of the LF government? There was no mention of any of this in the story.

Presumably, it's the "stunningly visible" symbols, the neon lights of neo-capitalism which blind Outlook's eyes when it comes to Calcutta. And what are these "stunningly visible" results, cited with a convert's enthusiasm? "Calcutta as a consumer hub for 400 million people; wealthy Bangladeshis flying in when they catch a cold; shopping for one's trousseau to private healthcare...." The list goes on. Apparently, the city is also the first choice for real estate and is now primed for the "next flush of economic growth". And being "the second largest metro market", it's bursting with those granite and marble shops, beauty parlours, gyms, branded stores etc. Even Calcutta's malls come in for great praise.

Well, all this is very good, but just one query. Why are malls great in Calcutta but a sign of decadence when they come up in the rest of India? "No jobs and few salary hikes, but the malls and multiplexes across the country are still overflowing" (The Leeward Side, Jan 26, '04). If there are no jobs and salary hikes as you put it, who is spending money at these malls? Angels from heaven? Sheikhs from Saudi Arabia? Also, do the malls in Calcutta mean that there are so many jobs and salary hikes?

"The lot of a large majority of Indians remains unchanged," says the same Outlook report on India's achievement. However, in West Bengal the situation's different with a rural revolution afoot and more agricultural output. India produced over 220 million tonnes of foodgrains this year. Did it have no impact on rural incomes? And it was no flash in the pan. In the last five years, rural incomes have been on the rise.

In 2000, for which statistics are available, 61 per cent of B&W TVs, 37 per cent of CTVs, 68 per cent of cassette recorders and 56 per cent of ceiling fans were sold in rural India.The motorcycle industry says that 51 per cent of all bikes sold are now in rural areas. Is this not a sign of change in income levels? With all these statistics, how can one say the "lot of a large majority of Indians remains unchanged"? Why do you see see change only in rural West Bengal?

In 1995-96, according to the NCAER report 2003, there were 193 million of the "consuming class" and 312 million "climbers". In 2001-02, after four years of NDA rule ('98 March to March '02) there were 280 million of the consuming class and 429 million climbers. And the bottom class? Down from 190 to 140 million. This means almost a 100 million added to the consuming class and another 100 million to the 'movers'. Two hundred million is one-fifth of the population—so many people having a better life. Fifty million less poor and another 60 million less in the lower middle class in just four years of NDA rule, then why does the "lot of a large majority of Indians remain unchanged?" Somewhere, facts have to speak, not prejudices.

The story doesn't end here. The NCAER projection shows that the NDA's initiatives will lead to development in which by 2006-7 the consuming class would burgeon to 462 million and the climbers to 472 million with the bottom sections reduced to 95 million. That is, the poorest will be less than 10 per cent of the population. In 6-7 years, the Vajpayee agenda will have reduced poverty from above 20 per cent to around 8 per cent, the numbers of the better off from about 500 million to over 900 million (78 per cent of the population), making India a larger market for lifestyle goods than the entire EU and US put together.

An NCAER economist is quoted to debunk the rise in foreign exchange reserves. But the same NCAER's review on rising consumption in rural areas is ignored. The NCAER Indian Market Demographic Report of last March says "rural consumers are increasingly buying Group III items" (The Economic Times, March 29, '03). The 1999 figures show rural consumption growth even in white goods like washing machines and refrigerators.

The subsequent figures will be even more revealing of the buying power of rural areas. On November 27, '03, an ET report under the headline 'Not just Gurgaon, it's gaon gaon' said the following: "The rural retail revolution is knocking at the Indian farmer's door and everyone is invited. Cigarettes-to-hotels major itc is setting up 45 shopping malls in the countryside, each the size of Delhi's Khan Market, to retail everything from John Players' clothes and ICICI life insurance to Eicher motorbikes." The report added that "over the next two years, 10,000 villages in MP will have an itc mall". It is inconceivable that a market-savvy private company like itc will sink so much money building malls in rural areas unless it has made doubly sure there is purchasing power in the region to back it.

Now, take the jibe "while cellphones and white goods have become cheaper, rice and dal are more expensive", which also seems to circumvent Calcutta. The Outlook report on the city sings praises about the five-star culture and the jetset that frequents these joints. It goes into raptures over Calcutta's "gourmet menus that cost up to Rs 1,200 for two" and the queues outside the Oh Calcutta and Grain of Salt restaurants. If cellphones are cheaper, it's nothing. You still complain about rice and dal being costlier but strangely a meal for two that costs Rs 1,200 is marvellous progress! and what about power problems? It's wonderful Calcutta doesn't have one as it is a private company that distributes electricity there. But let the NDA government advise the states to privatise power distribution—and the the same Left Front comes down like a tonne of bricks and accuses it of betraying socialism.The LF government in Bengal has also notified the IT industry as out of bounds for labour laws. But let the Centre try to rationalise labour laws, the same Left will be barking "betrayal".

Outlook may want the world to believe the current feelgood mood and the 8 per cent growth rate are all a chimera, but perceptive observers look at it differently. "India Inc is busy scripting a global story," said ET on November 27 last, reporting on how Indian companies are acquiring US- and UK-based companies. When Tata sells its Indian-made cars in the UK or HAL its helicopters in the US, is it just a flash in the pan? Surely, government policy must have had a say in these scenarios? Almost all chambers stress that the feelgood isn't just flash but the outcome of India's fundamentals being sound. But your report sees only the gloom.

Some 100 Fortune 500 companies have made India an r&d destination for their knowledge-based centres. Who gets jobs in them? In BPO alone, a lakh jobs were created in the last three years. Why doesn't this find mention? Our new jobs all come in the knowledge sector and the good thing is you don't have to be a PhD to work at a BPO centre. Many are just graduates. When NASSCOM says there will be one million jobs in this sector by 2006, it isn't a joke.

Yes, certain areas of growth are unsatisfactory. We have Bihar where every social indicator starting from infant mortality rates continues to be so. This depresses overall national achievement. But one has almost given up on Bihar. It's an Alice in Wonderland area. There's no money to pay even salaries to government employees and almost the whole state-owned fleet of transport buses is grounded, as there's no money to buy spares. So it's no surprise that even improving infant mortality rates is an uphill task?

Meanwhile, in Left-ruled West Bengal "the momentum has caught on, all we need is to play our notes right and we can create a beautiful symphony," says the Outlook report. But when it comes to the national scene, "the disaster zone is 80 per cent of the rural population—incomes for them haven't risen since '89." The last statement seems to indicate that poverty is the result of NDA policies. The fact is the Vajpayee government had inherited vast multitudes of the poor, the result of the crony socialism practiced for the first four decades after Independence. Now, for the first time, prosperity is expanding and poverty retreating.

The malls are creating a symphony in Calcutta but the same are a sign of the decadence in India. Thank you, Marx, for teaching us there can be double standards.

(The writer, a Rajya Sabha MP and the BJP think-tank convenor, can be contacted at

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