Less is not always more: The politics of austerity and its shortcomings

Manohar Lal Khattar would have found a kindred soul in Charles Dickens’ Mr Micawber with regard to the latter’s famous advice on the virtues of thrift: ‘Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.’

It was with a similarly laudable objective of good husbandry in mind that the Haryana CM took to task Arvind Kejriwal, for being too prodigal with the usage of anti-Covid vaccines in Delhi, saying, ‘Even we can administer 2 lakh jabs in one day and exhaust our stock. But… if we keep administering 50,000-60,000 doses to people daily, our work will keep going on.’

The Delhi CM’s rejoinder to this, ‘My aim is not to save vaccines but to save people’s lives,’ revealed a lack of appreciation of the laws governing supply and demand in a country where chronic shortages, of not just vaccines but just about everything, are a norm. So, the mismatch between what is available and what is needed is best made up by tightening the belt of demand and not by loosening the purse strings of supply.

An exemplary case in point is that of electricity. We can’t seem to produce — or efficiently distribute — enough of it, with the result that there are frequent unscheduled outages, despite claims regarding the progress made in and the declaration of ‘power cut-free zones’. So, what’s our solution to this persistent problem? Not an increase in supply, but a deterrent to demand by imposing punitive changes on those who consume the most power — an inversion of the blithe belief that economies of scale result in a lowering of costs and prices, and not a raising of them.

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A similar principle of ‘less is more’ was evident in the ‘Miss a Meal Day’ that was promulgated in Calcutta in the 1960s. Every Monday, the residents of the city were enjoined by the authorities that, to eke out scant food supplies, it was their civic duty to eschew eating either lunch or dinner on the designated day of the week. To facilitate this programme of abstinence, restaurants and eateries had to have a special ‘Snacks Only’ menu to be served either for lunch or dinner.

No one questioned this dietary diktat by asking why the food deficit, which supposedly was responsible for it, could not be made up both by increasing produce and ensuring that stockpiles in government godowns weren’t left to rot or be eaten by rats and other vermin.

Nor did anyone in authority address the point as to how a ‘Snacks Only’ policy for a single meal could significantly restrict calorific intake. No specifics were given as to the quantity of ‘titbits’ that could be ordered, thus enabling a customer to follow Marie Antoinette’s injunction and eat lots of cake, not to mention samosas and sandwiches, in the absence of daal-roti.

Ever since Sarojini Naidu — referring to Mohandas Gandhi’s insistence on travelling in third class on trains and so making it mandatory for his security to have an entire coach reserved for him — remarked that it cost the taxpayer a lot to keep Bapu in the frugality he was accustomed to, conspicuous, and competitive, austerity has been the shambolic mantra of our polity.

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Khattar’s statement that by vaccinating fewer people than Delhi was doing, he was ensuring that ‘our work will keep going on’ is a reprise of Indira Gandhi’s strident sloganeering of ‘Garibi hatao!’ subsequently paraphrased by different dispensations. While the garibi, like a recalcitrant squatter, refuses to be evicted from the vote-bank premises it continues to occupy.

For if garibi were indeed to be hataoed — and all shortages, be they of vaccines or of food, or anything else, eliminated — there would be no further need of the proponents of what some would call use-less policies, and others term merely useless.


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