Fact is stranger than fiction
I discovered a new word: Mitron. It means, ‘A large group of unsuspecting people about to be hit by something they will take a long time to recover from.’ Ironically it comes from the Hindi word — Mitron (Mitr = friend. Mitron = of friends). I believe we are in a Mitron moment; the discovery of a word and an experiential understanding of its true meaning.
Demonetization has hit us all but it hit the poor the most. People who live on the knife edge of society which can change overnight from a life of dignity to a life as a beggar on the street. People who have no ‘nest egg’, no safety net, no backup. I recall two things as I write this article. One is an article by my good friend, Prof. Madhukar Shukla of XLRI who wrote about these people on the knife edge; the other is one of my own very early consulting assignments. Let me tell you about that.
In the late 80’s I was hired by The Commonwealth Trust to assess a very interesting economic development program that they had initiated in East Delhi (how many Delhiites even know that East Delhi exists?). The program was well-intentioned in that it offered interest-free loans to ‘small entrepreneurs’ but with the condition (supposed to be a benefit) that they pair up with corporate executives so that they could teach them a thing or two about business. My first thought, as an IIMA grad was, ‘I can smell an MBA behind this from a mile away’. I say that because it was a typical theoretical approach without a clue about the reality on the ground. Let me explain.
The loans given were to ‘small entrepreneurs’. I keep using apostrophes for this term to underline what ‘small’ meant. Rs. 3000 (which wasn’t all that much even in the 80’s) was the average loan amount. It was given to the Istri-wala (mobile clothes iron man).
This wonderful picture will bring to mind the man (most cases it is his wife who works on this cart) whose services every one of us urban Indians have benefited from. We send down from our fancy apartments, our clothes to him who parks his push-cart in the street outside our compound wall. He irons our shirts and trousers, sarees and skirts; charges a few rupees which we pay in cash and he moves on to the next building or villa. What he earns that day pays for the rent of his ‘house’ (this article is getting too full of apostrophes), school fee for his children (you can’t keep people from aspiring), and food for his family. That money is what keeps him on the knife edge and saves him from falling off and coming to your house with begging bowl in hand. The Commonwealth Trust offered small loans to people like him, the vegetable vendor, the cobbler, the shoeshine guy, the bicycle repairer, the truck tire puncture repairman and similar ‘small entrepreneurs’. The biggest loan had been given to a man who had a printing press with a single machine in a small shop where you had to turn sideways to get past the machine.
As I mentioned the ‘fringe benefit’ according to the initiator of the scheme and The Commonwealth Trust was the partnership between this small entrepreneur and a corporate executive. The corporate executive with his education and presumably greater understanding was supposed to help the small entrepreneur to keep good accounts, pay tax, use technology, build a customer base, survey his market and make growth plans. The formal introductory meeting was arranged in a five star hotel with tea and samosa in an atmosphere of pretended equality between partners and the pairs were made. Three years later, the project came up for evaluation and that is where I came in.
That is also when I discovered East Delhi and that too in July. Those who have lived in Delhi in summer without air conditioning may understand what I went through. The lanes of the area of East Delhi are so narrow that even a Maruti 800 can’t drive through them. I would leave my hired car on the main road and either walk or take a local auto rickshaw. I preferred the latter because the driver knew the people who I wanted to meet and usually told me stories about them later after being a silent listener to the conversation that I had with them. I spent two weeks on this assignment and learned what every Tandoori Chicken knows; what the inside of a tandoor feels like. East Delhi was also one of the places most affected by the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984, the perpetrators of which still walk free and victims suffer in silence. But then in a country where to break the law with impunity is a status symbol, that’s understandable and expected.
To return to my story, I met these small entrepreneurs, every single one of them. I sat with them in (or near) their businesses. Drank tea with them (which bless our culture, our poor are those who uphold it) which they insisted on paying for and asked them how their business was going and how their partnership was doing. All conversations were in Hindi but I am translating here for your benefit.
Me: Namashkar Jee, how are you. I am Yawar Baig and have come from The Commonwealth Trust you ask you a few questions about your business.
He: Namashkar Sahib. I am repaying my loan on time. I have not defaulted.
Me: (as red in the face as someone with my complexion can get): No, no, no! I didn’t come to ask about repayment. Of course, you are repaying on time. You have a great record. The Commonwealth Trust is very pleased about this. I have only come to ask how things are going with you and with the partnership that was made with Mr. S0-and-so.
He: (relieved smile followed by eyes shifting): All is well Sahib.
Me: Please don’t call me Sahib. My name is Yawar.
He: Jee Achcha Yawar Sahib. (I gave up after trying for some time).
Me: So how is it going? Do you meet each other? How often do you meet?
He: (eyes shifting again): All is well Yawar Sahib.
Me: (persevering): Do you meet each other? How often do you meet?
He: (realizing that I won’t go away): Sahib, we have not met after that first meeting.
Me: (genuinely shocked): Why? Why didn’t you meet? What happened?
He: (hurriedly): Sahib, it is not his fault. You see I tried to meet him several times. But Sahib, I am a small man (hum chotay aadmi hain. Wo baday aadmi hai). He is a big man. I went to his Kothi (mansion — Hindi for big house — not necessarily a mansion but he calls it Kothi to honor its owner). But his Chowkidaar (security guard) turned me away. He refused to believe me that Sahib had asked me to come. Yawar Sahib, I am a small man but I have izzat (honor, dignity). I didn’t go there to ask for charity. I went there because they said that we were partners and I could talk to him any time. But if the Chowkidaar turns me away, I won’t go again and again.
Me: (at a loss for words): But didn’t he give you his phone number? Couldn’t you call him and tell him to speak to his Chowkidaar?
He: I did Yawar Sahib. He told me to meet him in his office. But there it was worse. So, I gave up.
Me: But this partnership was supposed to help you. What did you do when you couldn’t even meet your partner?
He: Yawar Sahib, the truth is, how can he help me when he knows nothing of my reality. He lives in a different world from mine. So, different that he can’t even imagine what my world is like. I agreed to the partnership because that was a condition of getting the loan. I never expected that it would work. And it didn’t. I am most grateful to The Commonwealth Trust for the loan. I needed that. The partnership I didn’t need, so it doesn’t matter.
Me: (wondering what I am going to write in my report): What did you do when you needed any advice?
He: I went to my Mamaji (uncle or father in law) and sometimes to my neighbor (essentially his competitor) and asked them. They advised me and I followed their advice.
Me: Your competitor gave you advice about your business which was good for you? Isn’t he your competitor?
He: (shocked at my ignorance): Of course, he gave me good advice. He is my competitor but first he is my brother (from my community, extended family etc). Of course, he gave me good advice. He is easy to reach. We have a relationship, a real relationship, not only business and above all, he understands my reality because he is a part of it.
This conversation was more or less what I had with every one of those in that survey. One common factor with all of them; that their entire business was in cash. After all, when was the last time you paid the Istri-wala or the Sabji-wala or the Bai who comes to clean your home and cook your meal and the many walas our life quality depends on, by cheque? When was the last time he asked you for your credit card to swipe? All their business is in cash and so is the business of all those in the value chain they deal in; those they buy the necessities of their lives from. All cash. Out of their meagre and harsh existence it is the genius Indian woman that they save some money — again cash. They don’t bank it. They buy gold if they can or just keep the cash. It is their saving for an emergency and since the biggest requirement of emergencies is liquidity, they like cash. Sometimes this saving is done over such a long period that it amounts to a good bit; maybe three to five lakhs (3–500, 000). But that is what they slogged and sweated for over decades. Should that be taxed? Especially in a country that has no social security, no emergency services to speak of and no support for such people except what they can get from their savings and families.
Indeed, they don’t declare this income to the Government. They don’t bank it because every trip to the bank means a loss of business. They need cash and in cash they trust. It is not for nothing that even in bigger establishments you may have seen the sign, ‘IN GOD WE TRUST. REST STRICTLY CASH.’ That is not a statement of religiosity but of hard reality. Does that make them ‘black marketeers’ and thieves? Indeed, these small businessmen and women don’t pay tax but they contribute to the economy both directly by buying and indirectly by providing services. As I mentioned earlier, they add value and quality to our lives and take away the drudgery of daily chores. It is all these people who are the true backbone of the economy. It is they who spread goodness all around them because of the food chain that they are part of and support. It is they who create neighborhoods which are dynamic and alive though overall poor. Unlike dead American inner cities which are home to the poor in Western societies. And these, our poor, our small entrepreneurs, our salt of the earth man and woman who are the hardest hit in this Mitron moment of demonetization.
I was reminded of all this when I read this interview:
I was reminded about this because the demonetization move has once again underlined the fact about our society that decisions that affect millions are taken by those who are as foreign to them as Martians would be to us Earthlings. People who either don’t understand their reality or couldn’t care less. People who don’t even think of them as a ‘vote bank’, because momentarily, votes can be bought or swayed by tearful oratory. And that is enough to get elected and then it doesn’t matter what those who voted think or feel; survive or perish. People, who even if they knew that reality once upon a time, have chosen to forget it and take pride in associating with the high and mighty rather than with those who they were born among and grew up with. But then you can’t fault a person for his aspirations, can you? As long as rhetotrick (my coinage — tricky rhetoric) is in plentiful supply, facts don’t matter. What happened doesn’t matter as long as its creators can give it a positive spin. Human life is not cheap. It is priceless. Has no price. Is free. (not the usual inference of the word, ‘priceless’, I realise).
One economist friend said to me, “The economy will take a decade to recover from this move.” I said to him, ‘Economies don’t ‘recover’ in a decade. They are replaced because all those who participated in the old economy have perished.’ ‘Recover’ is a term that economists use on their neat charts. The reality is neither neat nor painless. India’s economy ‘recovered’ after the Bengal Famine. But 2 million people perished. Economists don’t care about that. Not that they are heartless. It is just that they don’t have the language to express the monetary value of sweat and tears; of life and death. Numbers are used so much because they are neat and help us to remain out of touch with reality. When our reality, that which we have jointly created, is so painful, nasty and brutal, we need tools to keep it at bay. Numbers are one. Entertainment is another. We need to forget reality. The alternative is to change reality so that we don’t need to forget it, can enjoy it and benefit from it. But that takes too much trouble. It is easier to forget.
I mention this here because in this race to garner all resources for oneself without a thought about others, we have created a society that is crying out in pain and grief. It is inconceivable to imagine that the resources of the world can possibly be concentrated in the hands of so few, but as they say, ‘fact is stranger than fiction’. I can imagine the derision or at best amused smiles if any author dared to suggest that 62 people would own 50% of global assets and the rest of the world would watch silently. But that is not fiction. That is fact.
For perspective, let me state that a bus has 65 seats excluding the driver’s seat.