Reflections On The Genius Of The ‘Pakoda’ Economy

Some of us may recall that revolutionary doctrine enunciated by one of India’s leading economists, Mr. Amit Shah, a couple of years ago, viz. that selling “pakodas” on the road constitutes gainful employment. Or that other one on this subject by our second most eminent economist, Mr. Piush Goyal, that unemployment rates in India are high because more and more people are opting for self employment. These twin blasts shook our neo-liberal foundations like the earthquake in Delhi earlier this week, and caused quite a stir among the subordinate economists from Harvard, Yale, DSE, the IMF and the World Bank; those in the Observer Research Foundation, of course, merely applauded politely- they had never doubted the brilliance of these two gentlemen, not even when the former had announced that India would become a five trillion ton economy by 2024, or when the latter had mistaken Einstein for Newton (or was it the other way round? Not that it matters, relatively speaking).

But you know what, folks? Our two leading economists were right! No, I haven’t joined the RSS, I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel now that the light in the tunnel itself has been switched off. What makes this country survive is not the Finance Ministry, or the Nutty Aayog, or the Chief Economic Advisor, or the corporate fat cats of the Davos variety. No sir, these worthies only create more billionaires and multi-millionaires; what sustains our teeming millions of common folk is- they said it- self employment, the “pakoda” economy, the “juggad” at the bottom of the economic pyramid. Though I prefer to call it “proletarian entrepreneurship” on an industrial scale, something they don’t teach you at the IIMs and Ivy League snob-shops, perhaps because they are not even aware of it. But it feeds millions of households, enables Mrs Sitharaman to crow like a cock about our growth rate, and keeps the country growing- without a paisa being contributed by the government, or even one of the 40 million government employees having to move an inch. This is the real “atmanirbharta”, not what you hear in Man ki Baat. It’s genius is all around us in our daily lives, but we rarely stop to think of it or to acknowledge it.

This home-grown genius consists of spotting the tiniest of demand niches in our economy or society, and then scrambling to fill it- provide that product or service required- without handing out expensive consultancies to Mckinsey or TCS or retired IAS officers. For example, on my many treks to remote areas, I have always marveled at the intrepid individuals who set up shop in the most inhospitable, climatically severe and sometimes dangerous locations. I am not talking here of areas like Khir Ganga or Kasol or Marhi (on the way to Rohtang pass), which have become mini-townships serving car borne tourists and require no entrepreneurship, just a few contacts in the Forest and TCP departments.

The real entrepreneurship is to be found in near inaccessible areas. Like the young man from Baijnath I met in Chandratal lake (14000 feet, 20 kms from the roadhead): he had pitched a huge parachute as a tent on the shores of the lake, and for Rs. 100 per head provided accommodation, bedding and a hearty dinner (the rum was BYO, though mine host could arrange even that for an extra premium!). During the season his Hilton Heights catered to about 5-6 trekkers every day. Or Sharmaji’s dhaba in a dense forest on the track to Khir Ganga in the Parbati valley, miles from anywhere: he told us that his biggest problem was dealing with black bears who were attracted by the smells of his chhole chawal and Maggi. Or the bravest of them all- a couple who had pitched a tent at Merh, just below the Thamsar pass at 16000 feet on the climb down to Bara Bhangal village; a more bleak, freezing and windswept location would be difficult to imagine. It served as an inn for exhausted trekkers (and locals) and no one minded sharing the tent with a few sheep or mules- in fact, they provided much needed warmth.

Only a marketing genius, with courage to match, would have chosen to ply a business in these remote regions, hundreds of kms from their homes. They are the stuff of Bata and Levis. They chose their spots with a perfect eye for the customer’s needs, provided a badly needed product and service, acted as a clearing house for local news and weather, and have probably saved a few lives in the bargain too. They would pack up with the advent of winter, go back to their families in Baijnath, Kangra or Chamba, and return the next year in spring to resume. No bank loans, no PLI incentives, no subsidies, no complaints. Genuine entrepreneurship at its purest, outside what learned persons call the “formal” economy.

I see the same initiative, enterprising spirit, and appetite for risk in the urban habitat where I now live, in a massive, multi-storeyed housing society. Services which even an Elon Musk could not have predicted a dozen years ago have now become mainstream, something the privileged residents of these RWAs cannot do without now. Take pets, particularly dogs.

Pets are now a status symbol, a plaything for kids, a substitute for missing grandkids, and the pet care industry in India is valued at Rs. 4800 crore, growing at 16.50 % per annum. But that is only the formal part; the informal service sector I discovered only when I moved to the society. I’ll give just two examples. There is a huge demand for “dog walkers” since the dog owners are either too busy, or too old, or too drunk or too high brow to take their doggies out on a leash. The job provides a good living: Rs. 4000/ a month for two walks a day, about 30 minutes each. A dog walker can easily do five pets a day- that’s 20000/ a month the CBDT does not know about, more than what your average Management graduate or lawyer earns. Then there is the dog “groomer”: for about Rs.1200/ to Rs. 1500/ the groomer will shampoo your pet, brush and trim his coat, cut his nails and brush his teeth for good measure. At the end of it the doggie looks better than the missus does after spending Rs. 4000/ at Tony And Guy’s or some other such gender neutral salon. Not exactly a dog’s life, you will agree!

I have another enterprising young chap in my society- he specialises in fixing anti-pigeon nets on balconies, a business niche like no other. Since statues are now all more than 100 meters high, and trees a rarity, pigeons have taken to roosting on balconies and depositing their “shagan” in them in respectable quantities. Enter Ajit Chauhan, who, at Rs. 15/ per square foot will give you a lifetime (the pigeon’s life, not your’s) warranty against the nuisance. The final charges for a 4 bedroom and 3 bedroom flat work out to about Rs. 12000/ and Rs. 10000/ respectively. And he does all the fixing himself, with just one kid as helper. He makes more money than an Apex scale IAS pensioner, and doesn’t even have to submit a Life Certificate every July!

My little village of Puranikoti, a safe 15 kms form the sanitary landfill known as Shimla, also has its jugadu entrepreuners. A Sikh gentleman comes on his motorcycle once a fortnight (he covers the entire panchayat) offering to sell/ repair/ service gas burners, regulators, pipes etc. It’s a vital service for us at our doorstep, literally, since the nearest gas agency is 20 kms away and has never heard of the “Right to Repair” concept or law. A young lad from Haryana gets his womenfolk to make huge quantities of pickles back home, puts it all in his pick-up and motors up to Mashobra regularly to hawk his wares to us country bumpkins. I always buy my pickles from him, they cost Rs. 100/ per kilo ( yes, you heard that right- a KILO) as against about Rs 700-800 for the branded varieties, and are fresher and much more delicious.

It is these unknown and unsung (at TIMES NOW or INDIA TODAY type conclaves) innovators who are the real Atlases holding up the Indian economy and creating informal livelihoods for its teeming, excluded, millions. Unlike the Adanis, Ambanis and Mahendras, they don’t demand or expect concessions from the government, they don’t create NPAs, they don’t fly to Davos in CO2 spewing jets, and they don’t issue IPOs to milk the public. They do it all on their own. They represent our true genius. I’m waiting for some political party to make the “pakoda” its party symbol.

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