Home >Opinion >Columns >The millions whom nobody seems to care much about

As the covid pandemic continues, the Narendra Modi government has spent trillions of rupees to aid the poor. And, of course, it should have done that. But the middle-class devastation that has been going on for the past few months has received almost no attention—either from the government, or the media.

Last week, an ex-colleague, a widow, wrote this to me: “Bank interest rates are tumbling down rapidly. 1) How is the average Indian, brought up on the saving [and] investment plan of safe banking and similar government-supported products, supposed to deal with this? 2) For a person who planned his life around 7-8% interest on savings [and] who does not earn actively any longer... what happens to him? 3) So do you have to keep working to keep earning? And how do you live if you don’t earn? We have no social security in India. 4) So what are we supposed to do? Suddenly put all our money in mutual funds and go crazy with their swings? We’re Indians and we need money at intervals for things people don’t think of in the West—children’s education, marriages, healthcare... 5) Do people even know that they won’t be able to live on savings? For a guy who’s 55 or 60 or 65... how much more can he earn? And will his living standard just crash as the rates crash? So he’ll have to scale down even more than his father from socialist India?"

I could not send her any cogent reply, because I had none to give.

Pew Research Center defines the middle class as households that have an annual pre-tax income that is at least two-thirds to double the national median. Since income data in India is difficult to come by and unreliable (we don’t disclose our earnings truthfully, and no one has a clue on agricultural income), I will go by a different metric.

As per a National Family Health Survey (NFHS) survey of 600,000 households in 2016, 30% of households owned a refrigerator, and 20% owned an air-conditioner or a cooler. Since very few people in Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh or the North East would need a cooling device, let us go with the refrigerator figure. So it may be safe to assume that at least 33% of Indians are middle class—from lower to upper (the rich, such as industrialists and CEOs living at Malabar Hill in Mumbai and farmhouses in Mehrauli, are excluded).

If we go with this number of 33%, it’s absolutely amazing how these people—450 million—have been neglected or simply ignored by successive Indian administrations. The situation during the ongoing covid pandemic is particularly horrifying. Hundreds of thousands have lost their jobs, and almost everyone has been forced to take a pay cut. And we are not talking here about sectors like aviation and hospitality, which have been severely affected. Across the board, companies have possibly cleverly used covid as an excuse to cut costs and make hay while the virus blights.

I have friends whose salaries have been cut by 40%, when they know very well that the companies they work for are actually thriving. “We are going to make a bigger profit this year than in the last five years," one of them told me.

It’s just perfect: Sack people, and make the rest work twice as hard. Obviously the BSE Sensex is happy and healthy.

So, how are these people who can at best be called “collateral damage" affected? There are those who are in the 30s and had reached a point in their life to have taken a home loan. They also need to support their parents, and have their children studying in schools which charge a bomb. How much savings do they have? How have they invested their money? With bank deposit rates lagging behind inflation, their net worth is decreasing every month. And potatoes in Gurgaon, where I live, are selling at 55 a kilo.

Then there are the older people. If you are above 45, and have lost a job, there is little chance that you will ever get another one. You need to print a business card that says “consultant" and depend on the kindness of friends and strangers.

With medical science making rapid advances, you still possibly have to live for another 40 years on earth. How are you going to manage? Do you invest in stocks, which you don’t understand too much, and which are anyway subject to government policies that you can never predict? And if you are a medium or small enterprise entrepreneur, your earning prospects are already too grim to recount.

We, the honest middle class, the bedrock of our society, pay taxes (giant corporations pay far lower taxes than we do), and get almost nothing in return. We are a vast mass of voiceless victims. The country’s political parties seem uninterested in us because we are not a vote bank. And India’s bureaucrats, whose jobs are fully secure—Article 311 of the Constitution more or less ensures that a babu cannot be dismissed from service unless the individual has committed an offence of sexual violation, with three eye-witnesses willing to testify against the alleged offender—do not appear to give a hoot. Pundits will write hefty columns on the economy, but most have little or no skin in the game and don’t seem to care for us. We have no family inheritance to fall back on, yet we want our children to do better than us in life. But no government relief scheme covers us. We are on our own.

It is wretched to be in the Indian middle class, and the pandemic has made the state of affairs more obvious than ever before. And the rich are happy.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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