Dear PM Modi, Beware of GDP Bhakts
By Raghav Bahl
Remember India Shining? Roti, Kapada, Makaanaur Mobile? Those were the heady slogans which sank Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s seemingly imminent re-election bid in 2004.
Why? Because for the vast majority of Indians, while a mobile phone was a very useful product/service to have, it wasn’t something to preen/crow about, especially since it did precious little to clean the filth around them or bring teachers to their kids’ defunct primary school or mix nutrition into the awful gruel they were fed in mid-day meals or shield their women defecating in the fields or re-open the crumbling primary health centre or bring the rains or control the floods, or prick the sadly protruding bellies of malnourished infants.
In the lacerating words of a poet, Ek Shahenshah Nay Bana Kay Haseen Taj Mahal,Kiya Hai Ek Gareeb Ki Mohabbat Ka Mazak (the Taj Mahal is a spectacular monument built by an Emperor for his lover, but it vulgarly rebukes a poor man, who may love as passionately yet cannot build a mausoleum).
Is GDP Shining Another India Shining?
So I get another sinking sense of deja vu when I hear Prime Minister Modi and his bright-eyed bureaucrats hold forth on India’s “spectacular” GDP growth, “the fastest among the world’s largest economies”.
This shrill self-congratulation rings aloud from every nook and cranny — from the ramparts of Red Fort to one-on-one interviews with chosen/silenced TV anchors to late blooming IAS officers (who were just as malleable selling socialism in the 70s/80s!) spewing free market jargon, flirting, smiling, joking with sparkling women presenters on true blue business channels.
GDP Shining is now the sexiest government chant, the new mantra. But beware! Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.
Lilavati & Shambu Don’t Exist In India’s GDP
Far away, remote from all the textbook cacophony, is Lilavati, who is not a hospital, nor a hotel, but a poor woman in scorched Chhattisgarh. She lives on a half-acre patch of land with Shambhu, her husband for over two decades. They inherited the land.
Shambhu and Lilavati have six children — Hema, Dev, Asha, Raj, Bipasha and Rishi. The family built a two-room mud hut with their own hands; they did not employ any outside labour. They also grow all the food they eat. They have never bought or sold anything to or from anybody. They have never seen or used cash. They have never needed to.
Net net, their contribution to India’s GDP is zero, nil, zilch. It’s as if they don’t exist. And frankly, if you go online and ask Siri to find them in the GDP matrix, Siri will say: They. Don’t. Exist.
Now suddenly, their idyllic, GDP-anonymous life is disrupted. The Railways want to run a bullet train over their patch of land. They are given Rs 5 lakh, and evicted. In a fateful flash, they have “added” Rs 10,000 to India’s GDP — that’s the stamp duty they have been forced to pay because their ancestral land has been seized.
Strike 1: India is richer by Rs 10,000, but eight of her citizens — Shambhu, Lilavati, Hema, Dev, Asha, Raj, Bipasha and cute, adorable little Chintu (aka Rishi), have become landless and destitute.
Hopeless and clueless, they put Rs 4.90 lakh in a thaili, and board the train to Mumbai. Before that, they have to buy five adults’, two children’s and one quarter-price infant’s tickets for Rs 13,000.On the journey, they spend another Rs 2,000 for sticky samosas, milk for Chintu, chai, bananas, daal-rice and soap.
Strike 2: Now India’s GDP is richer by another Rs 15,000, while Lilavati’s thaili is down to Rs 4.75 lakh.
Destitute Migrants Swell India’s GDP!
Bewildered, they join the crush of humanity on the platform at the Grand Victoria Terminus. They don’t know whom to trust, where to go, who to ask. They pay Rs 10,000 to Ramesh taxi-wallah, who asks them to hand over another Rs 15,000 to Chhagan, the decrepit chawl owner for a few days’ refuge; and before they know it, Amchi bhai has talked them out of Rs 25,000 to help find a job for Shambhu.
Strike 3: India’s GDP just earned a handsome Rs 50,000, but Lilavati’s thaili dwindled to Rs 4.25 lakh.
Unfortunately, the pace of misery now quickens, hurtling the uprooted family towards a brutal climax. Angelic little Chintu is hit by a drunk film star’s BMW, which in turn goes flying over the pavement.
The film star gets Rs 50 lakh in insurance, another notch up for India’s GDP. But poor Chintu dies in a super specialty hospital’s ICU after two failed surgeries. His medical bill is Rs 8 lakh, a neat little uptick for the output of India’s health sector — and of course, another tiny upward nick for India’s GDP. The poor kid’s funeral cost another Rs 10,000, swelling the income of funeral service providers and India’s GDP.
Strike 4: Simple arithmetic shows that the family is now severely indebted, for about Rs 3.85 lakh in unpaid bills. Shambhu begins running cash for Chaggan. Dev and Raj start doing odd jobs near Bandra-Worli Sea Link. Lilavati joins a brothel.
Hema, Asha and Bipasha have young and lithe bodies — they become quite the rage at Amchi’s dance bar. The whole family now earns Rs 1 lakh every month. They have finally become respectable contributors to India’s GDP.
Within 30 traumatic days, they have helped add over Rs 58.10 lakh to their beloved Motherland’s income, including a brand new insurance-paid car for a macho film star. If you were to now google Siri for an answer, she would say: They are one among 200 million middle class Indian households.
An Illusion Of Growth/Prosperity
Honestly, while Lilavati’s tragic tale is a work of fiction, it slams home a simple point: as a poor economy develops, plenty of unrecorded distress/poverty is slung into the “national income”, magnifying the illusion of growth and prosperity.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not panning GDP growth — in fact, the bulk of it does show up in a genuine improvement in living standards. I am a great votary of rapid GDP accretion. All I am trying to prove is that it should not be hailed as the Gospel of Prosperity by a vocal prime minister and his bright-eyed talkative bureaucrats. People at the top should not thump the GDP chest, because some of it is a product of increasing crime, illness, dispossession, forced migration and myriad other evils.
In 2004, millions of Lilavatis and Shambhus could not understand how their second hand Nokia phones were making India shine. In 2016, Lilavati and Shambhu can’t figure out this whole fuss about a “7 percent plus growth.” Why do their political masters keep on asking them to celebrate India becoming the “fastest growing large economy on Earth”?
Yes, they would celebrate when the filth is removed from their slum; when their children go back to school; if Chintu had survived; if their land was not snatched from them, shoving them into extreme poverty and the shadow of urban crime.
Why — and how — should they celebrate a mystical, mythical (for them, at least) GDP growth of 7 percent plus?
(Raghav Bahl is the co-founder and chairman of Quintillion Media, including BloombergQuint. He is the author of two books, viz ‘Superpower?: The Amazing Race Between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise’, and ‘Super Economies: America, India, China & The Future Of The World’.)