There is a widely quoted and talked about elusive race of people in India, who everyone seems to love, care for and are always anxious about, but no one really knows who they are. Everyone wants to be a part of them, but not openly and all the time, but only when it suits them, as throwing around this name has a lot of benefits. The biggest fan clubs of these people are formed by politicians of all colors and flags, who quote him in whatever they do, and are even ready to sacrifice the interests of the nation for his well-being. In case you haven’t figured it out, the hallowed race of people I am talking about goes with the name of “the Common Man”, or “Aam Aadmi” (Directly translated to Mango-People) in regional parlance, though they have mostly nothing to do with Mangoes. In fact, it is ironical that Aam Aadmi or “Mango People” can be said to be those people who cannot afford Mangoes.
Now, who are these people? As the name implies, these are the “everyday people”. The common guy on the street. The problem with this definition is that there are way too many people on the street these days. Anyone can lay claim to this title of “common man”, no matter if he is a homeless ragpicker or a BMW-driving millionaire. Coming back to the definition, by including social standing, the “common man” can be said in simple terms of someone who is not rich. Again, “richness” is mostly defined in relative terms and not in absolute terms. Like some wise guy widely quoted by the feel-good and e-mail-forwarding mafia says: “How much money is enough money?”, we can say in this context: “How much rich is not rich?”
Will the real “Common Man” Please Stand Up?
I think I can tell you who is not a common man. The common man is not someone who owns a car, a house with more than 3 rooms and running water. The common man is not someone who sends his kids to posh private schools. He certainly does not live in apartments, does not travel by Air Conditioned accommodation and so on. I am not to say his level of income, I am no Economist. And I certainly don’t believe that anyone can live on Rs.28 per day. Board a General-Second Class compartment on a long distance Express train or an Ordinary bus, those people crammed into it will be mostly “common man”. The common man does not regularly go to KFC, fly or drink Scotch. The common man is all but invisible, though he makes up more than 60% of Indian population. And the common man votes. That is why politicians are scared of him and endorse him. And that again, is the reason why everyone from the frequent-flyer to the two-cars owner and the pub hopper declare themselves to be “common man”, in all their righteousness. And that irks me no end.
I came across this comment on Facebook where some guy demanded that a junction should be created on the eternally crowded Old Airport Road in Bangalore to allow motorists coming from after the Wind Tunnel Road till Domlur flyover to take a U-turn to go towards Marahahalli/Outer Ring Road side. Now, the stretch we are talking about boasts some of the most prestigious addresses in Bangalore, including many posh apartments, Rustom Bagh layout (where the going rate nowadays is Rs.5500/sqft) and Diamond District, where an apartment costs upwards of a couple of crores. The problem here is that there is no break in the divider, so people this side of the road have to drive two kilometers to take a U-turn. The cake was taken when the commentator in all his humbleness exasperatedly commented: “Why do the common man have to suffer sitting in his car?!” This sentence is so wrong on multiple counts. One, a person who can afford a place in this area certainly is not a “common man” on any count, and I seriously don’t think you are actually wallowing in misery sitting inside an air-conditioned car. Oh, the hypocrisy!
Petrol Prices and the Common Man
Petrol prices are raised again, this time the heaviest ever, with the liquid gold now being dearer by a whopping Rs.8 per liter! Undoubtedly a draconian measure, it affects everyone, from the TVS XL driving laborer or newspaper-delivery guy to the Mercedes SLK driving rich daddy’s son. A price hike like this is rarely justified, and is always the result of poor policy planning and bad economics by whoever makes these policies. However, as it always is, it was the great Indian middle class who jumped out of the woodwork and into Internet forums and social media lambasting the hike and tearing the government to pieces, raging about how the government is insensitive to the (yes, you guessed it), common man and his needs and so on. But who do people here mean by common man? The erstwhile mentioned TVS XL driving plumber? No, of course not! They meant themselves!
The Great Indian Middle Class
The middle class, the self-appointed saviors of the nation, who do everything to save the Nation except what is really necessary (for instance, vote), take it upon themselves to outrage, for themselves. They live in the city and all they see is people like themselves driving cars around and going to malls. They fail to see the real “common man” or even if they do, pretend he is not there. They close their eyes and make the problem seem to go away, in their entitlement believing that they are the ones who are driving the country forward and hence are the common man. It does not matter that their household earns 10 Lakhs per annum, have one or two cars and eat out at Pizza Hut. They are still the “common man” who cannot make ends meet.
In case you want to say it with numbers, let us put it this way: There are 1.2 billion people in India (120 crore). Out of that, the size of the wide Indian Middle Class is estimated to be 150 million, or a paltry 12.5%. There were 40 million cars on Indian roads in 2010, and that is estimated to be 60 million today. Let us assume that each person owns only one car, even then, only 5% of Indians own cars. Even today. “Common man?” I don’t think so. On the other hand, there are 350 million (30%) of Indians living below the poverty line. Those are the real common man. Yes, the “invisible” poor are more than twice the number of the great Indian middle class. The Middle Class is just the most visible.
On another angle, the lower sections of the middle class do qualify to the “common man” title, as a friend on Twitter pointed out. Lowest level-rung (A Segment) cars in fact are affordable to them, who live on tight family budgets. But not certainly the 10 Lakh annual income household.
How Does the Petrol Price Hike Really Affect You?
Now, all this is not taking away the fact that fuel price hikes affect everyone. The real common man IS burdened by fuel price hikes. The common man, unfortunately, does not have access to Times of India and Rediff comment pages and Facebook to outrage against it. He silently suffers it. The common man is the guy who rides his TVS XL moped or 100 cc bike brought on EMI to his daily wage work. It affects me too. I own a petrol car. I do not know what the economics behind this are, nor do I know what the production cycles are and the specifics about the Global markets and all. That is not my job. That is the job of the people governing this nation, to fix the economy and lift people out of poverty, which I don’t see them doing. On the other hand, I also do not agree with people raging that the fuel must be subsidized and so on. Why should the government collect taxes to pay for people to drive around in cars? On the other hand of the great fuel price debate, cool down a bit and think: how does the fuel price hike really affect you? Commodity prices are unlikely to go up because of this. So what is the problem? This?
Tell me how the petrol price hike has affected your every day livelihood. That you cannot drive your car to work to show others?
— vadakkus (@vadakkus) May 23, 2012
What is wrong in taking public transport? I see a lot of cars with only one person in it, AC in full blast driving to work every day, when there are cheaper public transport options available. It does not hurt taking the bus or train or metro a couple of days, it is cheaper, entails less stress and fatigue and health problems. And there is not excuse saying public transport is not good enough, especially if you are in cities like Bangalore, Delhi etc. The only downside being that you cannot have total privacy and your “own space” and all that. I think the basic reason is the same one which I stress again and again in my “Driving Like Dummies” series:
We waited for generations to become 'rich' and buy a car, drive it and move up in life. Then the buggers raise petrol prices! – Indians
— vadakkus (@vadakkus) May 24, 2012
The Perspective of Being Rich
A real disaster now would be a Diesel price hike, which will push up prices of everything. I am not speaking out justifying any hike, but only that the perception of people should change about who they really are. Middle Class people in India are not “common man” YET. You know what it the India I dream of? Yes, along with all these, when a “common man” really is one who can afford a car. You cannot claim to be something that you are not. You study, get a job, earn, buy a car and move out of the “common man” bracket. Well, that is one of the fallout of moving up in life. Being rich is a matter of perspective. A homeless guy might deem a day-laborer to be rich, who will see the Alto owner to be rich, who will see the IT professional family to be rich, who will see the SUV driving real estate guy to be rich, who will see the politician to be rich, who will see the business tycoon to be rich… and so on. But the fact remains that the real “common man” is the one who remains at the bottom of the ladder.
It is no sin being rich. In fact, yes, it is an achievement that we all vie for in life. To say otherwise would be lying to your self. There might be somethings that are beyond our control, and we should learn to live around that and survive. To expect everything to be fed to us on a platter would be sheer naiveté, something that is really plaguing the Indian Middle Class today. To survive, you have to be tough and street smart, make sacrifices in life and learn to live. This is no Utopia. Until we get a good Government who wakes up to the people, this will continue. Till then, let us accept facts.