The Cruelest Month

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 I respectfully disagree with T.S.Eliot’s statement that ” April is the cruelest month.” July is always the worst time of the year for me. It’s the month when one has to reluctantly abandon the sylvan beauty and quiet of the mountains and return to the toxic soup of Delhi where the humidity is so thick that even our Parliamentarians can stand upright for a change, supported entirely by the dense air. I have a feeling that Delhi’s IAS lobby may soon have to depend on the humidity too to remain erect in their face-off with Kejriwal, now that the BJP is likely to withdraw support to them in the wake of recent and expected SC judgments. It is also that dreaded month consecrated to the Income Tax goblins when one fries one’s brains deciding how much of that paltry income to hide from the tax man. My CA tells me that it is cheaper to pay the tax: ever since the Sixth Pay Commission decided to hike salaries exponentially by linking wages with incompetence, the cost of that other route ( “patli galli”) has also gone up and is now unaffordable. July is also the month when I annually revise my will, primarily to keep my progeny on their Myntra adorned toes, but also because I never know when I may fall into an open manhole (why do they call them that ? Shouldn’t it be “person hole” in these gender neutral days ?) or drown under Minto bridge. It is also the time when I have to submit my “Life Certificate” to the Treasury Officer Shimla to convince him that I am still alive and entitled to my pension. Every year I have to run from pillar to post to find a gazetted officer to sign on the dotted line, which is beginning to look more and more like an arrhythmic ECG line with each passing year. So far no one has pointed out the obvious fact that I may be brain dead, perhaps on the presumption that any one who has served in the govt. for more than ten years is presumed to be brain dead, and so that can’t be held against a pensioner.

There’s another reason why I’m sick to my stomach every July: it’s the time of year when the press informs us, with a flourish of trumpets, about how much Mr. Mukesh Ambani’s net worth is in pure Mammon terms. The Hindustan Times informed us on the 18th of this month that his worth is now US$ 43.3 billion ( Rupees 2,94,000 crores), having increased by US$ 3.4 billion( Rupees 23120 crores) in just the last seven months. This tells me a number of things. One, that Make In India is working fine for some people at least. Two, that the govt. may consider modifying this slogan into  “Make hay while the Sangh shines.” Three, that Mr. Jaitley (who apparently still calls the shots, if not the odds, in the Finance Ministry), may also consider nationalising Mr. Ambani- at one shot 30% of the NPAs of the banks can be written off with his wealth. Four, that if Ambani comes can Adani be far behind.

But why, you may well ask, does this make me sick ? Now, I’m no card carrying Communist or socialite socialist of the IIC variety, but I can’t help but look at some other figures- that 200 million in India are still below the poverty line, that 80% of our population have to make do with less than US$10 per day, that almost 40% of our children are either stunted or malnourished, that 51 million youth in the age group 18-25 years are unemployed, that more than ten thousand farmers commit suicide every year, that India is at the 66th rank (out of 78 countries) in the UN Inclusive Index. And I can’t help but feel that one reason for this dismal state of affairs is that people like Mr. Ambani are hoovering up all the wealth- they pocketed 73% of all the wealth created in 2016. The “they” are all Ambanis in the making- according to the Global Wealth Report, 101 billionaires, 200,000 millionaires and 137,100 HNWIs (High Net Worth Individuals).

These numbers fade into insignificance when compared to the USA (540 billionaires and 15.7 million millionaires) or China ( 594 billionaires and 1.3 million millionaires) but it must be kept in mind that these are countries far richer and more inclusive than India. Our per capita income ( on PPP basis) is US$ 5350 while those of the USA and China are 58030 and 15500 respectively. They are also far more inclusive in their economic growth trajectory and the gap in the standard of living between the average and the rich is nowhere as pronounced as in India. The rich may be getting richer, but so are the poor-unlike in India.

Its not that the uber rich in India (maybe barring a few) are getting richer because of any exceptional talent or acumen, or sparks of brilliance of the Jeff Bezoz, Bill Gates or Elon Musk variety. They prosper because of a vicious cycle: money accesses political power which generates more money. This was very succinctly expressed by Angus Deaton, the 2015 winner of the Nobel prize for Economics: ” the rich capture more than their share of political power, so that the state stops serving the majority of the people.” A perfect illustration of this was presented to the nation last week by the Ministry of HRD when it notified the (proposed) Ambani Institute as one of ten educational Institutions of Eminence. This would not have raised any liberal eye brows, except that even by our accepted standards of cronyism this took the cake- the Ambani Institute does not even exist! It is at the moment just a gleam in Mr. Mukesh Ambani’s eye- no land, no infrastructure, no faculty, no students, zilch. And yet it was put on the same pedestal as an IIT and the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore – bodies which have existed for years and have much academic and research work to establish their credentials. This is precisely what Mr. Deaton was referring to. Just the IOE tag would have enabled the Institute to make thousands of crores in higher fees, sponsorships, donations.

Our billionaires and millionaires have battened on political power which has given them unlimited access to the country’s natural resources and public funds. Take Reliance Industries itself: according to a Bloomberg report quoted in the Hindustan Times of 19th July, RIL has total borrowings of Rs. 220,000 crore, and this is expected to increase further. Guess whose money this is ? It is the nation’s common resources which they are exploiting ruthlessly to garner riches for themselves – the recent Vedanta protests (and killing of 11 people in police firing) in Tamil Nadu is an apt example of how this wealth is generated with the complicity of the administrations everywhere, regardless of which party is in power. Money is the new Esperanto or universal language. I find these atolls of opulence amidst an ocean of want somewhat obscene, and it is perfectly symbolized by the Ambani residence in Mumbai, Antilia, a 27 storey hulk surrounded by slums, an upraised finger admonishing the lakhs residing in them for their poverty. So okay, he IS very rich but does he have to rub it in our face ? Capitalism has run amock. As the wit remarked: Communism is the exploitation of man by man; Capitalism is the exact opposite.

Welcome to the country which prides itself on the ease of doing business, even as millions of kids go to bed hungry each night. Come to where the flavour is, said the Marlboro man, come to Marlboro county. He died last year of cancer.

I don’t like July. And forgive me if I’m not turning cartwheels at Mr. Ambani becoming the 15th richest man in the world.

Avay Shukla retired from the Indian Administrative Service in December 2010. He is a keen environmentalist and loves the mountains.....he has made them his home. He blogs at http://avayshukla.blogspot.in/

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