Last month, The Economist declared: “The era of cheap food is over.”
In my house, we didn’t need the magazine to tell us what we have felt happening for some time now. But we hadn’t really intellectualized it until last week, after several thousands extra spent on groceries, mostly thanks to the shocking price of cooking oil. My husband suddenly said: “Have prices gone through the roof?”
“Yes,” I said. “It’s called in-FLAY-shun.”
I said it real slow and he rolled his eyes at my sarcasm. But then he asked: “What do you think it’s like for the driver?”
“I think it’s hell for him,” I said. “I think it’s hell for most Indians.”
We soon gave raises (and loans) to those who make our home run.
Even as I type these words, I hesitate because they violate the unwritten ground rules set up in Wider Angle: no columns on heat, traffic or servants. And 18 months after moving to India from the US, a time period I have tried desperately to shed the NRI label, judging Indians for how they treat the help is a play right off the Not Really Indian golf course.
So consider today an aberration, an urgent and one-time, one-person rally triggered by this new beast called food inflation and the old reliable constant of two Indias, separate, unequal, inextricably dependent.
For if the era of cheap food is over, perhaps it’s also time to end the era of cheap labour? Not cheap labour in the outsourced jobs sense, but the heart-wrenching kind that makes it so difficult to fathom how most of this country makes ends meet. Laws of supply and demand might not warrant raises, but what about those more important laws governing decency, compassion, the right thing to do?
Of late, I wonder which number we in the privileged class have been more obsessed with: the rate of inflation or the percentage of our salary increment. My guess is the latter.
While higher prices have hurt us, made us choose between, say, boneless chicken or a roaster, the Indian brand or the imported, the steady increases in pay have been high enough to allow us to live a comfortable life, to make choices, to consume. And so we read about Rs1 crore bonuses and nod, knowing people who fit that bill, and we can almost delude ourselves when we see headlines such as “Crore becomes new standard in Indian pay.”
Indian, how loosely we use the word.
Here’s another India, broken down by Pranab Bardhan, an economist at University of California at Berkeley. Writing in YaleGlobal, he said: “In India the latest survey data suggest that the rate of decline in poverty somewhat slowed for 1993-2005, the period of intensive opening of the economy, compared to the 1970s and 1980s...some child-health indicators, already dismal, have hardly improved in recent years. For example, the percentage of underweight children in India is much larger than in sub-Saharan Africa and has not changed much in the last decade or so.”
His conclusion: “The Indian pace of poverty reduction has been slower than China’s.”
For us, it’s a question of which oil, not whither. For most, it’s a question of whether to eat or educate children.
It is not a fair choice.
Among the endless ironies of India, many of us sit in offices bemoaning the state of the Indian talent pool and education system and then go home to places where uneducated people serve us — as invisibly and unobtrusively as possible. At work, we demand more training and better pay. What happens when the workplace is our home?
According to one study, there are an estimated 20 million women, children and men in domestic work in India.
And these numbers seem on the low side, especially with the middle class estimated at 300 million.
At social gatherings a few times a week, I make small talk with total strangers. Fifteen minutes into the conversation, pretty much every time, we discover we know someone in common, a colleague or a relative.
“Small world,” they say. I nod. To myself, I think, No, it’s just that the reality is that there are so few of us in this bubble called new India.
Let’s stop kidding ourselves that someone like my driver is a member of India’s middle class just because he has a mobile phone. A more appropriate label might be the “missed call class”; they care so desperately for every rupee that they’d rather ring and hang up than pay the pittance.
And we feel like our increments this month have been a long time coming.
In One Night@the Call Centre, writer Chetan Bhagat famously likened call centres to “air-conditioned sweatshops”. We may feel helpless about poverty at large but there are a few people who make our comfort, our balance, our new Indian dreams possible. It’s time to offer them living wages. For there’s one air-conditioned sweatshop we have absolute control over — our home.
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