‘REFORMS WITH A HUMAN FACE’
Reflections by Dr.G.Venkataraman
Sai Ram, and greetings. This is probably the last article I shall be writing from Brindavan this summer, since Swami is likely to leave soon, back for the base. Of course speculation is heavy as to when exactly He would leave, and I don’t know if there is betting as well. People sometimes can be very crazy, and I would not be surprised if there is some of that too but I sincerely hope not. As it is we are given to too much trivialization of Divinity and we don’t need this extra bit; to use a corny phrase: “We need such betting as badly as we need a hole in the head.” That opens up a topic, namely gambling, but I shall not deal with it this time. Instead, I would like to deal with something that has been happening here after the recent general elections. Suddenly we are beginning to hear the phrase “reforms with a human face”. Actually, the meaning of this is very clear to those who have been reading the newspapers carefully and yet, a devotee who undoubtedly reads the papers every day, asked me, “What is the meaning of reforms with a human face?” That is the topic I would like to deal with today, especially because this topic has a deep spiritual undercurrent.
The word reform as applied in the Indian economic and political scene refers to the streamlining of economic philosophy, political institutions and the laws of the land to enable free enterprise to thrive and to allow free play to market forces. In short, it means that everything must be done to help business prosper and businessmen to thrive and make money, lots of it. The general idea is that if business thrives, money would be generated in plenty, and when money is plentifully generated and businessmen become wealthy, some of that wealth would trickle down and help the upper middle class to come within an inch of being rich, the lower middle class to climb up towards the upper middle class bracket, and the poor to become less poor. This is the famous trickle-down theory that has been heavily promoted since the seventies by the advocates of market forces, as they are called. In principle all this sounds fine and the trickle-down theory even appears to work. Experts would tell you how country X introduced market reforms and prospered; how country Y has now banished poverty, and so on. Some of the statistics that they dish out are factual and cannot be denied. And yet, in many of these success-story countries, huge problems have also surfaced. The problems are of varied kind but they are there all the same and cannot quite be swept under the rug.
You might at this point wonder: “What on earth has all this got to do with Spirituality? When did H2H turn into a business or economics journal?” Please wait! I shall come to the spiritual aspects after completing the required preamble. To get back to what I was saying, there was this trickle-down theory that was invariably trotted out to convince one and all that once wealth is generated in the country, all would get rich, all would prosper, and poverty would be a dim memory of the past. The governments of the world were told: “The business of government is to get out of business!” There is a saying that you can fool some people for some time but not all people all the time. So one fine day, many pundits woke up and challenged the trickle-down theory. They said, “Hey wait a minute! The rich are getting richer but the poor are at the same time getting poorer. Besides, the number of poor people is also increasing. The trickle-down theory is like the ‘Emperor’s new clothes’; it is fiction!” The business community then went on a counter attack and the debate was now in full swing.
Just before the elections, there was a lot of support for economic reforms as they are called and the rich had it good. By the way, actions that aid the business community are called reforms because the earlier policies were unduly restrictive. In effect, what had happened was that the economic pendulum had swung from one extreme to the other. Earlier there was excessive state control and now the move was to have the state do little or nothing at all; the mantra was that the magic of the market place would sort out all problems and take care of everything.
OK, all this was before the elections and when the elections came there were, as I just said, many parties that challenged the economic reforms and wanted to go back to state control. The entire debate now took a different turn and finally some sort of compromise was sought to be evolved. The compromise formula is: “Yes, we must have economic reforms but that must not hurt the poor people.” This almost sounds like having the cake and eating it too, but I shall not go into all that here. The point simply is that many people said, “Reforms must go on because otherwise the GDP will crash. However, we must effect the reforms in such a manner that no hardship is caused to the weaker sections of the Society.” And thus came into existence the catch phrase: Reforms with a Human Face.
I hope you have got the general hang of it. At this point I should make one thing very clear. I am not taking any sides. Basically I have said there were three points of view. First there was the extreme left, and then came the extreme right and now some people are saying we need a balance – that is all I am trying to convey.
I now wish to go away from the debate and look at the so-called trickle-down theory. The pundits in all countries who actively promoted the market forces said it would work. It has not worked in countries, which, to start with, had wide disparity in income. In India, it certainly did not. Why? For a simple reason. The trickle-down theory totally ignored human nature. It was based on the assumption that when the rich become very rich they would start spending their money heavily and this would generate a lot of jobs etc., which would help an all-round growth and benefit the poorer sections. That is what did not quite happen and that is because the authors of the trickle-down theory ignored human psychology and the tendency of humans to be extremely selfish. In spiritual language, they ignored the power of the Gunas.
Yes, when the upper strata people got more money they did begin to spend heavily but the money spent went to the wrong pockets. In India, lots of the upper strata people started buying imported goods and so all that money spent went to foreign countries. They started travelling abroad on vacations and so that money also went abroad. And so on. This is one side of the story. Many spent on luxuries within the country; for example, people go to a seven star hotel and blow money like anything. You know something? During the recent elections, a lot of rich people did not stay at home to watch the results on television. They formed groups, hired a room in a big hotel and spent the time there watching the results. Why? Because they could drink while watching and commenting! Just the other day, I was reading in the newspapers that a rich Indian businessman settled in the UK is getting his daughter married in Paris and is spending only FIFTY MILLION DOLLARS on the marriage! Imagine that, this man is spending on his daughter’s marriage an amount that is almost what Swami spent to bring drinking water to nearly a million people in Anantapur District! Swami says money is God, do not waste it. Unfortunately this man has not heard of that. If you look around, there is plenty of this kind of stuff going on.
As one of my colleagues, a professor in economics, once told me, in life we have vital necessities [air, water, food], essentials [clothes, house, education, job] important needs [water supply, sanitation, lighting, transportation], needs related to comfort [fan, fridge], and even luxuries [air conditioners]. But even beyond that is conspicuous consumption – the flaunting of wealth. If you think about it carefully, there is a lot of that going on right now. For example, there is, I am told a Bentley car that costs a little over $ 1 million in India. All the fifteen cars imported in the first batch have been sold out and there is a waiting list for 50! So one side of India wants to live like this while we have on the other side an India that we see during Grama Seva, and so on.
This brings me to the question of poverty. Ask a rich man and he will say, “The poor deserve to be poor. They are lazy, and they are idle. Look at me. How hard do I work! Do you ever see me idle for a minute? It is all due to laziness.” Superficially this argument may seem correct [at least is seems so to many] but if you look deep, you would come to another conclusion. True, there are the rags to riches stories but in most cases, the person who is now rich started off with some advantages. In some countries, it was the advantage of race. In others, it was that of community. So it is in every country. Let us look at this business of laziness.
I would like you to travel with me to the interior part of the State of Madhya Pradesh. This State has a lot of tribals who live today more or less like their ancestors did two hundred years ago. They live deep in the jungles and know just how to survive living off the land. They have no education and do not even know there is such a thing called school. Nobody has bothered about them and most did not even know that these tribals existed. Then how come they have suddenly hit the headlines? That is because of a big dam that is coming up in that State. This dam will submerge a lot of forestland and that is going to leave about three hundred thousand tribals homeless. According to a ruling of the Supreme Court, these people who are displaced must be resettled but no one has bothered about that ruling. These poor people have no clout and only a few sensitive individuals are battling for their cause. Most of Society does not lose sleep over their problems. Incidentally, many dams have been built and almost in all cases the displaced persons had to fend for themselves. No such thing as compensation etc. All on paper may be but nothing in practice.
Take resettlement. Suppose the tribals are resettled in some other place. Can they survive? They cannot; they know only how to live in a forest and not in a village. These people simply do not count. That is certainly heartless of Society. But those who are in a hurry for progress are usually bothered only about themselves and do not hesitate to trample on others. This is what is called progress without a human face. Those who talk of reforms with a human face are saying essentially: “By all means streamline the economy so that industries grow and so on but let not such progress benefit only the businessmen, leaving the weaker sections high and dry.”
Incidentally, one of the slogans of the reform crowd is: “Government must cut down expenditure. It is spending too much, and such expenditure is unproductive.” OK, let us accept this for a moment. Now let us take software. As you know there is a lot of piracy and MNCs complain all the time about piracy. Now who is supposed to tackle piracy? Who is supposed to conduct raids, arrest the pirates and put them in prison? The Government. Can the Government do all this; pay for the police, the Judiciary, the prison staff and so on without expenditure?
What I am trying to drive at is that at some point there are social costs to be paid and it is the Government or Society that is asked to pick up the tab. How can the Government do all that by cutting down on taxes etc., which is what businessmen want? In short, everybody wants a free lunch, even though there is supposed to be no such thing as a free lunch.
This brings me to the subject of social costs. The advocates of free enterprise, market reform, etc., avoid mentioning this subject because it is most inconvenient. Take a thing like mobile phones. I am told that there are today over five hundred million mobile phones. Many regard this as a tremendous progress and what not. Let us leave that aside. Do you know what happens to old mobile phones? Since fashions are changing fast, people just trade in their old phones and go for new exotic models with camera and what not. The millions of discarded mobile phones, PCs etc., end up in countries like India and Vietnam, where there are small-scale industries that dismantle these junk items. I heard in a BBC program an interview with a person doing PC dismantling in Delhi. He admitted it was a very hazardous job and might even endanger his life. But he added in a philosophical manner, “Anyway, I have to die some day. This job at least gives me some money to take care of my family while I am alive.” This is what I mean by social cost. The big companies make money by selling millions of computers and mobile phones, and introducing newer and newer models all the time. They are least bothered about the pollution they create and do not spend one cent of their huge profits for dealing with the hazardous waste. Somebody buys the waste and exports it, and the country that originally made and sold the hi-tech products is spared of pollution, etc. The cost in lives is paid by someone else. But who cares?
All progress has a price tag; only, the price is often paid by those who never got any benefit of the progress. That is the reason why social costs are seldom considered. But believe me that even rich countries cannot go scot-free for ever. When progress takes place too fast, even in rich countries people get shunted and discarded. For example, many advanced factories employ robots, which mean fewer jobs for people. Thus it is that these days we have what is called jobless economic growth. Profits increase but so does unemployment. One is beginning to see more and more of it in the advanced countries.
I have no excuse to postpone any further a discussion of the spiritual aspects of all that I have said so far. There are two points I would like to mention and discuss. The first is the hierarchy in Creation that Swami often mentions. He says the hierarchy is: Vyashti, Samashti, Srishti, and Parameshti, meaning, the individual, Society, Nature, and God. Man must first realise that he is a part of Society, that Society is a part of Creation, and Creation is something that has come out of the Creator. If man always keeps this perspective in view, then his actions would be proper. One who forgets this is likely to indulge in wrong action.
Take a simple thing like plastic bags [about which I wrote recently]. Shops give practically everything in plastic bags, with least concern for the pollution they create. Who is affected by such pollution? Society. Besides Society, the environment or Nature is also affected. And by being indifferent to Nature we are actually insulting God – few realise that. However, one who has understood the links pointed out by Swami would not act in that way. He would, if he were a merchant, offer paper bags instead of plastic bags. Incidentally, if only we were to limit our desires a bit, there would be much less of these plastic bags floating around. Thus, both ceiling on desires and the hierarchy mentioned indicate how the question of social costs is related to spirituality. If the individual were not spiritual, then he would be forcing Society to pay a price. And one fine day, he would end up by paying a part of that price himself. This is actually happening to the rich, as Swami often tells them. They the rich are busy amassing wealth, in the process trampling on many. When the wealth-divide increases, so does crime. And one fine day, the rich find that they are the targets of kidnapping, extortion etc.
This is one aspect of the spirituality business. There is another aspect that is seldom discussed and worth mentioning. I have touched upon it earlier and so shall be brief; and that relates to the trusteeship concept. Rich people think the wealth they have accumulated is theirs because they have “slogged” for it. However, do they ever consider the fact that if there were no Society, they could not have earned one cent? They cannot hide from that fact and must realise that they are what they are on account of Society, which means that they must show at least some degree of social responsibility. In what way? By regarding their wealth as God’s property and themselves as the Trustee of God. If only this man who is spending close to 50 million dollars on the marriage of his daughter felt he was a trustee of God! By the way, material wealth is just one of the many types of wealth that God bestows on us. Some receive the Grace of God in the form of talent – that talent too is wealth. Some are very intelligent – intelligence too is wealth. Thus, all of us in some manner or the other are trustees of God and we have to take care of everything God gives us, including our body, our eyes, our brain etc., using them only for sacred purposes. If only people did that, there would be no pornography, no cheating, no swindling, etc.
Impossible? Why should it be? All one has to do is to start by being a bit less selfish. One can always be a bit less selfish but one does not want to – that really is the problem. By the way, when I was discussing this reforms business with a learned devotee, he said: “Transformation accompanied by the rise of humanness will automatically lead to reforms with a human face!” I thought that summed up the issue neatly.
Do you agree? Why don’t you write and let us know what you think?
Jai Sai Ram.