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A covert imprisonment


October 31, 2010 16:16
Tags : George Orwell | Eric Arthur Blair | INTUC | West Bengal State Electricity Board |


George Orwell – born as Eric Arthur Blair in Motihari, Bihar, on June 25, 1903 – may be laughing in glee in his grave today with a hidden conceit as his words: "Man is the only creature that consumes without producing" ("Animal Farm") ring axiomatically exacting at least in India today. And had he been today at the AC Market near the Gariahat-Rashbehari Avenue crossing in Kolkata, he might have rephrased his words with a biting innuendo about the menace of affluenza.

I went to buy a pair of shorts and a pair of trousers and casually asked the young shop owner about the sales pattern during the pre-Puja days. He shot back ecstatically, "Never, never did we have such a sellers’ market, not at least in my 15 years in retail."

The middle class, more pointedly salaried people in not only private corporate and public sector undertakings but also in government departments and directorates too have the unmistakable feel of affluenza. In every locality, the number of foreign liquor shops rose steadily over the last two decades. Every Saturday or on the eve of clubbed holidays, long queues in the afternoon identify IMFL counters: a reflex of shooting conspicuous consumption which is a threat to the economy. The syndrome is well spread out. Look at the rising sales curve of brand new four wheelers, continuously upping as if never to taper off.

"An average award staff – clerical, technical or running – gets Rs 40,000 a month, after the recent pay revision. This was unthinkable even five years ago," admitted Milan Choudhury, general secretary, West Bengal State Electricity Board (WBSEB) Employees’ Union, affiliated to the INTUC. He was talking about the staff under the West Bengal State Electricity Distribution Company Limited, born out of a split in the WBSEB upon the diktat of Asian Development Bank that clamped such conditions before granting a multi-billion rupee soft loan for revamp of the electricity sector. A class IV staff in any petroleum company in the public sector has a take home pay of Rs 45,000 on an average. Most of them have four wheelers. But what alternative do they have? Pathetic to note as it may be, planners at the helm in South Block in New Delhi or Yojana Bhawan never thought of engaging economic research bodies to suggest ways of putting the huge liquid cash, resulting out of significant salary revision of thousands of white and blue collar workers, in productive use and in beefing up welfare objectives that our governments are constitutionally committed to.

Imagine one whose take home pay was hardly Rs 7,000 a month a decade back now returns home with Rs 32,000 - 45,000 plus. How shall he or she plan the vertically upped income. Shall such people eat money? ("Will Indians eat steel", right wing American economist W. Malenbaum commented after learning about the IInd Five year Plan which spelt construction of three steel plants in Bhillai, Rourkela and Durgapur).

If one strolls along the pathways in a shopping mall, one unwittingly gets educated in what can be defined as built environment of consumerism. But this is not confined to the state-of-the-art shopping malls. The contagion has percolated down to the pavement.

A professor-rank lecturer with a Ph.D in a college today earns Rs 80,000 against the Rs 15,000 he would make in the early 1990s. I won’t take into account the unaccounted income through private tuition. A primary school teacher under the state government begins his career with a take home of Rs 10,500 a month while his predecessor in the early 1980s got at the most Rs 800.

A veteran trade unionist who joined the undivided Communist Party of India in the mid-1950s told me in a pensive mood. "Today, our union members, even in steel plants and Central public sector enterprises, reluctantly take part in nationwide strike even at the call of all premier central trade unions. Loss of one day’s salary is more agonising than the loss of economic freedom to the predatory neo-liberals that rule from Washington and destroy livelihoods of millions the world over, including India. But even in the early 1980s, they used to pressure us for strike calls including indefinite strike actions."

To have more liquid cash does not mean more freedom to choose what to purchase or how to spend. Retail chains dictate us what to buy. Consumerism is an invisible toxin but it’s no use blaming the apparent beneficiaries of affluenza which is unlikely to sustain. Salary-inflation induces some kind of powerlessness that accumulates in our ordinary living to escape like hot gasses. "There is a lot of this splintering off into colonies of the instantly righteous. This is happening to all of us. We’re a sleeping monster," aptly wrote Reverend Billy Talen several months back. The US is bloodier than India but we – the victims of ‘alienation’ via consumerism – too are on the same orbit.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017