Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Power & Politics / The Sunday Standard/ February 05, 2012


Numb and Number: Overdose of Good News Masks Unholy Reality

Numbers were invented to quantify the reality on the ground. Of late, number crunchers are liberally using figures to only portray illusory prosperity. Last week, we were informed by valuation-chasing corporates that India, a poor nation of 1.20 billion, has over 850 million mobile connections. Wow! Does it mean everyone, from a toddler to a 90-year-old, is always chattering away on the phone? Or, even those who earn less than Rs 25 a day, own an instrument worth Rs 1,000, to indulge in exchanges of pleasantries? With over 30 per cent of India’s population living below the poverty line, Indian cellular operators are telling the world that illiterates, poor women, infants and tribal now prefer to stay connected, than stay alive.

If that wasn’t enough, the media was also fed a story that the recent Supreme Court verdict on 2G would mean a loss of around 36 million subscribers in Uttar Pradesh, which has a population of 190 million that includes infants and women. These 36 million customers belong to a company whose licence was cancelled. By this calculation, other telecom majors like Airtel, Vodafone, BSNL, Reliance etc, should have over 150 million subscribers in Uttar Pradesh. If we add up the figures, every individual in Uttar Pradesh would ownat least two mobile phones. What a joke it is, that residents of a state with less than `40 per capita income per day, can afford two cellphones each!

Ill-informed citizens are being snowed under by a powerful statistical avalanche. India is being projected as a country where people are hungry for gadgets and not food. It is possible the number of SIM cards issued since cellular services started may have crossed 800 million. How many connections remain active? How many are actual revenue generators? Mobile operators would never publicise such figures. Banks that roll out red carpets for extending loans after accepting artificially bloated figures, and the stock market, seem to have been manipulated to unrealistically inflate the market value of telecom scrips. Consequently, some domestic and international promoters found their names in the list of the richest individuals in the world. Even social inspectors never demand a social audit of numbers that sell dreams of unimaginable wealth to gullible Indians.

The Indian story of 7 per cent average GDP growth is as misleading as the continuously plummeting inflation. If the GDP has really grown by an average of 6-7 per cent in the past 10 years, why are more and more eligible adults unemployed or underemployed in the country? The government never forgets to publicise its growth data, but has hardly ever bothered to release unemployment figures on a regular basis. It is evident that the numbers are making the rich richer and the poor poorer. The UPA government, which is run and monitored by economists and foreign-educated advisors, has encouraged all private and government institutions to release figures about stock markets, FDI, production of luxury goods and the promotion of elitists sectors. Various corporate bodies churn out statistics on massive investments made by their members in India. Ever since economic reforms were introduced in 1991, India has been projected as an oasis of growth and prosperity. Instead, it has led to the emergence of crony capitalism, in which, chosen favourites have made their billions at the cost of the poor. Official megaphones never miss a chance to plead for a withdrawal of PDS subsidies, but they go on a powerful offensive to extract maximum concessions for corporates. While the numbers on the growing cost of subsidies are prominently displayed, when the finance minister gives fiscal concessions worth Rs 4.50 lakh crore to India Inc, the figure is hidden in small print in the budget papers.

This phantasmagoric opera of numbers hardly reveals to the nation, the real number of people who have no homes to live in, no access to basic education, who hardly get power for two hours a day, and the rising number of infants dying in government hospitals.

Recently, more statistics were released to project the India Rising story. Over 11 million motor vehicles were added last year to choke and pollute the already devastated environment. If that figure is correct, how many kilometers of new roads have been added to the national road network? How many kilometers of roads were widened to accommodate these motorised monsters? The time has come to expose the selective exploitation of numbers to build castles in the air.

The numbers are numbing. The overdose of numbers is aimed at hiding the real decay inflicting every other sector of the economy. These numbers are generated by the rich, the famous and the mighty, to add more numbers to their wealth. In the process, the numbers that measure reality have been effectively erased.

Follow me on Twitter @PrabhuChawla

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