A faint edge of panic

A faint edge of panic


There are two ways of checking out the state of the monsoons. You can always enquire from the meteorological department, and take their variable word at face, or faceless, value. The more pleasant option is to switch on the music channels of All India Radio; the radio jockeys of their Hindi film song programmes look out of the window. AIR has a fabulous stock of ‘saawan’ and ‘barsaat’ songs that it reserves for the season beginning from around the second week of June, its monsoon music.

There has been a faint edge of panic -- or is it helplessness? -- around the ‘umar ghumar kar aayi re ghata; and ‘dum dum diga diga mausam bhiga bhiga’ songs this year. The clouds have not arrived with the customary charm of sky-wide turbulence. (I fear the onomatopoeia of the lyrics is beginning to affect the phrases of the column.) Mumbai’s radio jockeys can occasionally sprinkle a bit of moisture into their chatter, but those in Delhi are parched and in central India completely arid.

Ominous signs
You can sense the onset of depression in the mood. The Indian economy escaped the international collapse because its capital was not tied to the world of capitalism. It is more dependent on nature than bankers. If the kharif crop is depleted, as now expected, the consequences will be an inflationary Diwali and bleak winter. The omens are ominous. The price of Lord Ganesha idols being prepared for the festival season is expected to rise by 30 to 40 pc over last year.

Pranab Mukherjee’s budget was not designed with a future drought in mind. It had an economic message and a political purpose. The man who was hailed as the best finance minister by the World Bank during Mrs Indira Gandhi’s time sent a sharp signal that his India was far larger than the stock exchange or the tie-suits who have usurped economic policy in the name of economic reform. This was an important course correction.

 Pranab Mukherjee may not have been the principal activist in Nandigram, but he has absorbed its meaning. There is a growing feeling in rural India that the much-hyped economic reforms are a cosy arrangement between industrialists and the urban middle class from which they have been minused; their only role is to hand over their lifeline, land, as and when commanded to do so by the lords of industry and their obedient political servants. Pranab Mukherjee did not create jobs through an agrarian-industrial revolution, but he changed the internal equation of the budget. Rural India got 60 pc space instead of 40 pc. That is roughly equivalent to the demographic divide.

In ten weeks at least some of the industrialists who feel that they have not been sufficiently appeased by lollipops and cola could be thanking Mukherjee for having put some purchasing power into rural India. Nearly 70 pc of the telecom industry is now village-dependent.

The days of cottage industry soap in small-town shops are over. National and multinational brands dominate the shelves. But we are not talking good news here; merely that without this budget the situation in rural India would have been much worse.
Urban India will be squeezed by a triple whammy: higher prices, lower production, fewer jobs, and retrenchment. Since the overwhelming majority of India’s working class is still in the unorganised sector, and the Left has done absolutely nothing to move beyond its traditional trade union constituency, the voiceless will be worst hit.

A crisis is visible. Why, then, does everyone seem so sanguine in Delhi? The absence of tension is easily explained. Politicians, of all hues, turn tense only when their jobs are at stake. Other lives will be affected; theirs will go on, in enviable comfort. Delhi soaks up the tax wealth of the nation under the excuse of some extravaganza or the other. This budget was no exception in its generosity to the home of the all-party ruling class.

If the monsoon had failed last year, the sound of alarm bells would have woken up every household from here to Washington. The next general elections are now too distant to disturb the even tenor of the recently-rewarded. The only signs of worry are on experienced foreheads those of Manmohan Singh and Pranab Mukherjee, for instance. They have seen an India tortured by food shortfalls.

The last serious droughts were when Rajiv Gandhi was the prime minister, in 1998, more than two decades ago, and in 2002, when Atal Behari Vajpayee was the prime minister. Nature’s seven-year itch is back, but excellent disaster-management and comfortable reserves have dimmed the memory of punishing food shortages. Most MPs, particularly the younger lot, tend to lapse into a complacent confidence. The careful and the experienced understand the value of precaution.

Urban and rural are not homogeneous labels. At the very least there is the hunger line divide in both categories, with poverty being more intense in rural India. More than half of rural India is still beyond the reach of Mukherjee’s allotments. Governments are always reluctant to admit the truth of poverty; numbers below the poverty line have actually risen in the last five years in absolute terms. The poorest suffer the most in any weather. There is no music in their brief lives; they are outside the range of the radio of all-India.

We can continue to ignore this nether India, but are we sure that it will continue to ignore our self-satisfied approach? How many times do Naxalites have to blast our police-protected comfort zones for us to get the message? Pranab Mukherjee has seen what Nandigram did to the most entrenched political system in the country, the Marxists in Bengal, before the elections. He has watched what Lalgarh has done after the elections. He has just taken a tentative step towards telling the India of budgets that those without budgets are knocking at the gates with axe and arrow.

Another of AIR’s favourite monsoon songs is the Jaya Bhaduri number ‘Ab ke sajan saawan mein, aag lagi jiwan mein.’ This year, the fire, which once spoke of love, might have a totally new connotation.

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