17 October 2011 National the Secret Diary of

Montek Singh Alhuwalia

I don’t quite understand all the hullabaloo about the Rs 32 ceiling for the urban poor for this figure was not arbitrarily arrived at.
Montek Singh Alhuwalia
Illustration by Sandeep Adhwaryu
Montek Singh Alhuwalia

I don’t quite understand all the hullabaloo about the Rs 32 ceiling for the urban poor for this figure was not arbitrarily arrived at. We did our homework before we concluded that those who could spend even a rupee more didn’t qualify to be labelled as poor. Why, at home, my wife Isher and I did our own Rs 33 experiment to see if we could have three square meals a day and have some money left over after. The day we chose for our historical test was a muggy Sunday evening (but with the AC in full flow, it was more like Kashmir in spring at our home on Aurangzeb Road). And, yes before I forget, in our endeavour we were helped by Paul Frugalman (ex-CIA and now head of microscopic studies at NASA).

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Incidentally, I had already drawn up a menu for dinner. And I’ll have you know it was a five-course meal? For starters, there was caviar torte, consomme julienne soup, spicy red beans and rice, carrots and broccoli salad and Danish pastry for dessert. And all this washed down with champagne. (Isher, who is careful about what she eats, chose a light meal of black bean, corn and tomato salsa salad).

Now, you may wonder how such a meal can fall within Rs 33. Well, we set out on the exercise by invoking the wisdom of Socrates who said, “Thou shouldst eat to live; not live to eat.” Next up Frugalman set up his gear (a very specialised microscope) on the dining table. “Monty, this baby is better than all the microscopes that NASA has,” Frugalman said with wonder in his eyes. “But more of that later, let’s first get down to business,” he said, taking out a packet of slides from his briefcase. Isher came and set the food and the champagne on the table. Then our man from NASA took a tiny portion of the caviar torte and placed it on a slide. (In fact, it was so minuscule that it was not visible to the naked eye). But under the microscope I could see the caviar in all its dark and elegant glory. “Take a good look,” he said, “the better part of eating is seeing.” After a few minutes, when I was through, he gave me the slide which I licked clean. Thus we went through my five-course meal. Meanwhile, Isher did some number-crunching and concluded that my dinner cost only Rs 2.50. “It would have been less if you had avoided the champagne,” she observed. But then I justified my indulgence by quoting Winston Churchill who famously said about the bubbly—“In success you deserve it, and in defeat you need it.” (By the way, Isher’s dinner worked out to a mere Rs 1).

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I must admit I was quite pleased with our experiment. But Frugalman saw one hitch. “How will those people afford these damn microscopes?” he wondered. I said he had a point there and would sound out the banks to provide soft loans. “Monty,” he said as a parting shot, “the world knows about your macroeconomics, soon they will know about your ‘micro’ economics....”

(As imagined by Ajith Pillai)

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