Some things begin with birth, and do not go with death. Needs, for instance (even the dead have things they require). Every human has needs that only he or she can fulfill. Need usually cannot be imposed from above, though an illusion of need can be seductive. When not met, needs create dysfunction. A needy person, for instance, has trouble meeting the demands of society.
What, then, is mandatory? What can we do without? A human being needs half a mat when awake, a whole mat when asleep, goes an old Japanese saying. It relied on the wisdom that the neediness of a human lessens as the power of money decreases. Last year, a group of men and women collecting information in India found, to their shock, that many Indians counted a mat and a pot among their valuables. Among other things, they found that 77 percent of Indians lived on Rs 20 a day. Twenty rupees?
A human being needs half a mat when awake, a whole mat when asleep, goes an old Japanese saying
As 2008 prepares to fade, India is learning a new an old lesson: the quantity of money is often its only effective quality. When the money gets big, it tends to magnify a part of human nature that seeks to rule over the other. Each seeks to create a new need in the other, which creates a state of dependence. Economists recognise this as private enterprise.
Sometimes enterprise can be fantastic. In the Karnataka assembly election in the summer of 2008, the Congress party announced it would give away free colour televisions to the needy. Free televisions were already on offer in neighbouring Tamil Nadu, so the Congress was merely following precedent. Apparently the political parties, masters at spotting need, had caught on to a trend. People were willing to overlook the pinch if they had a status-elevating toy.
Until the big depression was announced in the US, India was gorging. Cellphones, cars, food, perfumes, clothes, shoes, movies, magazines, television channels, real estate — there were new objects every week, with new forms of enjoyment. This was good for many. It created jobs and infused a sense of competition in the economy. However, greed was a substantial ingredient. It made people make and remake their sense of need.
The resulting wealth of human needs has finally limited the amount of wealth going around. Too many useful things have been produced, and so the populace is becoming useless. Disciples of gain like banks, BPO firms and airline companies, for instance, are seeking help. A few big firms, which put profit over people, have asked the government to bail them out of thinning profits. Layoffs are the new theme. Fleecing is on pause.
When man cannot feed man, he becomes debris. There is only so much he can spend. When the belt tightens, the nature of human interaction changes. In India, the creation of needs is slowing. Those already created have to be met. Budget, a word used mostly in tough times, is back. The family that ate out as if restaurants were going out of fashion, is looking at home food again. The i-pod can wait. The new car is on hold. The new house deferred.
Karl Marx, prescient and foxy, got it right: Extravagance and thrift, luxury and privation, wealth and poverty, are equal. Whatever one does, there is an antidote. How strong can the magnate get when his buyers are not biting? So here comes the sparing and the pain of discipline. As Indians struggle to become economical again, gratification looks to be on hold. It is the same story for movie stars or manual labour. Both know the signs of a harsh winter.
The questioning of need, the re-emergence of thrift, and the dropping of the value of a commodity because of the potential for non-use, are happening in the sphere of public life. Over the next few pages, TEHELKA looks at the ways in which life is being altered across the country because of the changing economic situation. There will be stories of awakening, of weaknesses and strengths, and of, hopefully, the return of common sense. This is a microcosm of India. This is about us. This is our need.