Monday, June 30, 2008

Killed by Inflation

One can meet more people these days at weddings and funerals than at any other place. A couple of months ago, attending the wedding of a niece, I heard the story about one of my aunts. She had been invited to the wedding but was unwell. So she had sent her two sons to attend the wedding on her behalf –with a letter. The letter came with an intriguing stipulation – that it had to be handed to the bride’s mother – her sister-in-law or to the bride herself and no one else. The two sons who made a somewhat hurried exit from the wedding left the letter with the bride’s mother as they hurried out. They stayed quite a distance from the wedding venue and had to return.

In the busyness of the wedding, the letter remained unopened. The wedding guests departed slowly one by one and the letter remained buried in the purse where it was randomly tucked in on the wedding night. There it remained until the news arrived a few weeks later of the death of the aunt in question. At that point, memories were juggled and someone remembered the forgotten letter and after a lengthy search, the letter was finally found and read.

To say that the contents of the letter shell shocked my middle class family is to put it relatively mildly. For in that final letter, my departed aunt, unable to come herself to the wedding and meet anyone had poured her heart out in a letter which she had obviously hoped would be read in her lifetime.

My aunt’s letter described the effects of inflation far better than an economist would be able to, for if inflation is a pandemic, a contagion, then my aunt was one of those felled by it, much as dengue or cerebral malaria or cholera might claim its victims. She described in detail how the modest poultry business her two sons were running for a few years was ruined, first by the onset of bird flu and then the subsequent panic leading to reduced demand in the city. Just when they were beginning to recover and get back on their feet again, inflation began rising and once again the demand failed.

The only steady income in the family was a meager family pension due to my aunt on account of her late husband’s government service. Of late, it was not just the only steady income; it was the only income with her sons’ business in liquidation. The family was faced with a Hobson’s choice - was the pension money to be used to buy provisions and groceries for the family or to buy medicines for my aunt’s several age related ailments.

The decision was made more complex by the fact that the meager family pension would continue only as long as she lived but she finally cast the die and decided that she would wither away so that her sons could live as the little pension money would not allow her to buy any medicines after the groceries were bought. A couple of months later, she was dead. Unlike the many farmers in Maharashtra and else where who need to commit suicide when life becomes unlivable, she was spared that expense. Crude oil prices set somewhere in the New York Stock Exchange and the spiraling inflation took care of that.

Inflation has always been presented to us in newspapers and business media as an economic phenomenon. All the inflation-related fire fighting has been done by macro-economic bodies like the Reserve Bank whose tools are graphs, tables, prediction and politically-laced policy inputs. But these erudite economists need to know that while globally, inflation may be studied as an economic phenomenon, in India’s huts and homes, it is a rapidly spreading infection and potentially fatal among the particularly vulnerable.

In the absence of a prescription, the casualties are rising.

No comments: