It would be fair to assume that an average middle-class family living in the metros owns a car. In most cases, it would also be safe to assume that a person is employed to clean the car daily, at a monthly wage of Rs150-Rs300.
How many times have we thought about the fact that this is an expenditure that does not count while doing our annual tax returns? And we hardly ever think how our car cleaner gets by on a monthly emolument that rarely goes beyond Rs3,000.
Welcome to the underground economy, where co-dependence is the key to daily living and transactions are made in cash or with the promise of something in kind. Every month, for a brief moment, when we dip into our wallets to pay our cleaner or domestic help, our lives intersect with this economic entity. If you add the other elements of this form of enterprise, including illegal practices such as narcotics trade, prostitution, smuggling, hired killing, then the scope of this enterprise can be startling.
Now we have a book that will help us gain an insight into the functioning of this economy, where daily compromises, many of which we would be hard pressed to imagine, are the routine. Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor by Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh and published by Harvard University Press, offers us just this and more. It is a spin-off from his dissertation work when he was studying at the University of Chicago and spent several years following lives in the ghettos of south Chicago. The dissertation resulted in a book, American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern American Ghetto.
Years later, as he himself puts it, “I soon discovered that the seemingly random collection of men and women in the community—young and old, professional and destitute—were nearly linked together in a vast, often invisible web that girded their neighbourhood. This web was the underground economy.” This led to his latest treatise.
Before you start wondering whether a book set in a Chicago ghetto would hold relevance in a developing country like India, think twice. While poverty assumes different forms subject to the context, there is no denying one common streak—the wretchedness that is associated with it. Like the millions of Indians who make do in life with less than $2 (Rs84) per day, there are others elsewhere in the world, including the ghettos of Chicago. Even a cursory walk through Dharavi would suffice.
It is precisely why people prefer to do transactions off the books. While it helps them get by, it also ensures that they stay trapped in the very circumstances that forced them into this practice. It is a process that knits the local clergy, prostitute, drug peddler, gangs and the ubiquitous institution of the money lender.
Unlike a raft of similar books, which have focused on the seamier side—the underworld and associated violence—this book takes an entirely different route. Backed by diligent research, the book walks a reader through the building blocks of the economy and how it wraps the populace within its grasp. All of which makes it detailed and fascinating, although at the cost of being a dense and ponderous read in parts.
The chapter on the clergy and their relationship with the underground economy is probably the most fascinating; it demonstrates that cultural activity is part and parcel of this shady world. As Venkatesh points out, “The role of the church affords an insightful vantage point on how an illegal system of exchange becomes bound by and fitted with a moral dressing.”
In its entirety, not only is the book a researcher’s account on how the underground economy runs itself, but to policy planners, it is a fascinating insight into the inter-dependence that prevails in the underground economy. Venkatesh says that while helping the denizens get by, it also denies them the opportunity to engage in the formal economy.
So any policy palliative will, if this book’s premise is right, have to work towards providing these social players an opportunity to rise above their circumstances.