As the security woman at the entrance to a multiplex turns my hand bag inside out giving competition to an airline security check, she gleefully hits pay dirt. Not a small grenade, she’s found my bottle of gum and my tiny jar of dry fruit. No food allowed. But this is not food, it is something I carry in my bag all the time. An argument ensues and the movie experience is reduced. Once inside the complex, I find myself unwilling to pay exorbitant prices for average quality food that is pushed hard by ushers-turned-waiters who come in the way of movie watching.
What food costs inside a multiplex is suddenly part of the urban middle class discourse at dining tables, at social events, on social media, with the humble popcorn itself at the core of this debate. Popcorn in a multiplex costs about 500% more than what you get outside in the mall. Pop them at home, and the mark-up is more than a 1000%. While there is other food and drink being sold that is more expensive than retail prices outside, the price point of popcorn shows the highest mark-up. To force sales, multiplexes prohibit outside food from entering their premises, making for a captive consumer group who is out to have a good time and is in a mood to eat, drink and be entertained.
A long time ago when I was in my first job as a trainee researcher in a magazine, I would take the chartered bus (a working people’s school bus that collects people from a residential area and drops them in an office hub) from home to office. The art of eavesdropping on conversations must be ingrained because I still remember some of the chatter around. One particular conversation thread was between two women in their 40s. They looked like junior bank staff. The women were discussing how their friends who married men who could support them financially made a better deal. “We now have two jobs—at work and at home.” Indian men, it seems, get so tired at work that they have no strength for housework in a double income home.
Middle class Indian fathers used to be distant, authoritarian and usually dictatorial. They ran the extended household with an iron fist keeping a tight hold on expenses. The middle class pre-independence Indian father struggled to meet the needs of an extended family with meagre income and prospects. The fight for economic survival translated into the immovable patriarch image. Economic growth has changed not just fortunes of families but also the equations within the home. Smaller, nuclear families, better economic prospects, and more money has meant a larger role for the father within the home. From changing nappies, to school pick and drop duties, to doctor visits, the dads are a part of bringing up the baby. However, in most households, for a variety of reasons, the one thing that has remained largely constant is the control of the finances.
The $16 billion Walmart-Flipkart deal came closer home to many Flipkart employees when a letter sent to them listed out the process and price of the employee stock buyback. For those who are current employees with already vested options (see this story to know more about this: bit.ly/2wDOsfC), the money will come in three tranches—half on the date the transaction closes in about 60-90 days, a quarter a year later and the rest at the end of two years from the first liquidation. The letter puts the value per share that the firm will buy back from the vested stock options between $125 and $129. At the current conversion rate, a person holding 10,000 shares will make approximately a pre-tax Rs8 crore.
I’m the salt and pepper hair woman who you may notice walking into one of your hangout joints and exiting quickly for the fear of raising the average age of the room. You must know that I occasionally step into or past your congregations just to inhale some of the new energy, the vibrant mood, the chirpy buzz. At your age, people like me were in an India that was very different. I remember sitting in a pub with my friends in the UK, post my Masters and just days before I returned home to Delhi. This was in 1994. Not that long ago. But two decades is indeed a long time. We were going around the table talking about what we will miss about life in Cardiff. We were a bunch of girls having a drink and I remember saying that I will miss the freedom of sitting in a public place having a drink without being judged or propositioned when I’m in Delhi. So, pardon my thinly concealed joy at seeing you girls out there at all hours without giving a damn.
If the Union Budget looks ahead at the year and makes forecasts on how the government will gather revenue and spend it, the Economic Survey looks back to take stock of what happened and then lays out the big-picture goals, challenges and scenarios for the Indian economy. It is more of a vision statement than a to-do list. Just as the Budget document has the signature flavour of the finance minister, the Survey carries the DNA print of the chief economic advisor. The key message of Arvind Subramanian’s Economic Survey for 2017-18 can be summed up in one phrase: revival and risk, and he shows this in one chart on the behaviour of bond prices and stock prices. (See table)
The rise and rise of the stock market points to the revival in the economy and the rise in bond yields points to worries on deficit, inflation and oil prices going up. Why are the stock markets rising? The Survey finds that the revival part of the story is “robust and broad based”. With the shock of demonetization and the Goods and Services Tax behind us, gross domestic product (GDP) growth for the current year is estimated to be 6.75% and for the next year between 7 and 7.5 %, making India the fastest growing major economy in the world. The reason for the robustness is the implementation of several deep reform initiatives. GST reform has added another 3.4 million indirect tax payers and GST collections are on an upward trajectory. In fact, the overall trend for widening the tax net is positive. The Survey finds that post-demonetisation, there has been a 0.8% monthly increase in new direct tax filers—an annual growth of 10% or about 1.8 million new taxpayers.
The auditorium was packed. Girls were sitting on the floor in the aisles. I was visiting Banasthali University, 75 km south of Jaipur, to speak to the postgraduate management and journalism students. About 250 curious pairs of eyes were bright with anticipation and I was hoping that I don’t let them down.
For those who don’t know, a quick update on this unique university. The journey of how this university came to be is quite a story. In 1927, the Jaipur state secretary in the home and foreign department, Pandit Hiralal Shastri, left his powerful job to relocate to a remote village (then) called Banthali to work on rural reconstruction. His friends said he’d gone half mad to do this. Who gives up power, prestige and money like this? But he moved himself and his family to the village. One day he found his 11-year-old daughter, Shanta, teaching the village kids under a tree. Sometime later she asked him for a room so that she could teach them without fear of storms or wild animals. He told her—you build the bricks and I will build the room. He forgot about the story thinking that the child will move on to other things. Three months later she showed him 300 handmade bricks she and the village kids had made. I saw one of the bricks that the institution has preserved. To touch the brick made by a determined young lady almost a 100 years ago was surreal. Shastri built that room and decided to give his daughter the best education he could manage. Music and martial art classes were organized. There is a painting of young Shanta in a sari, wielding a lathi and practising in one of the preserved rooms. When you remember that this was in rural Rajasthan in the 1920s when girls were married off as soon as they could be, the image of the lathi-wielding girls just adds to the amazement.