Madame Sitharaman, it is time to rejig outdated rules and challenge Budget traditions.
The other morning, I went to my neighbourhood bank locker looking for something to wear during the ongoing Ganesh Utsav. I expected the bank to be deserted, and the old, familiar bank officers to be sitting around morosely with nothing much to do, no business to conduct. Instead, I had to wait for a longish period while ladies from the vicinity did whatever they had to do with the contents of their lockers. The bank was filled with people, and I didn’t sense much gloom and doom, even with the Sensex tanking, bouncing back and dancing uncertainly to some freaky disco beat. This was most confusing. Just that morning, I had read with much trepidation, long reports written by financial wizards, which had made my toes curl. I imagined the worst. And I rushed to my locker to make sure the modest gold jewellery I had accumulated over the past 40 years, was indeed still intact and where I had left it. Just in case I needed to flog it for groceries down the line. There was no free money floating around. And my wonderful lady friend who is in charge of my savings, had warned me of dire times to come. I had listened, holding my breath, as she elaborated on a scenario which was scary as hell. Timorously, I finally dared to ask, “Will the coming crash be worse than 2008…?” She shook her head forlornly, stared at her toes and said ominously, “Just hang on to what you have.” Oh dear! There wasn’t all that much to hang on to. I decided my best option was to tighten my belt… and avoid avocado salad for a month.
Next came my neighbour. He is a serious money man who tracks global financial trends. He announced emphatically and loudly, “This country is going to hell. Our economy sucks. There is no money in the market. People are being laid off. There are no fresh jobs. We are in for trouble. Big trouble.” After that, we tucked into a moist and rich apple crumble pie (with vanilla ice cream) and quickly changed the subject. Suddenly, our mood improved. I figured we were hitting a sugar high. Outside, I could hear a street band playing Ganpati aarti, as Mumbai welcomed its favourite deity.
The visit to the bank locker definitely cheered me up as I congratulated myself on being smart four decades ago, by buying traditional Maharashtrian and Bengali gold jewellery, when all my friends were investing in rocks and stones. In India, gold has always been our security blanket — the best protection against financial disasters that have nothing to do with sweet old us! What can citizens do when elected representatives screw up? We have no say in what goes on in those mighty corridors of power. Could we do a thing about the current administration getting `1.76 lakh crore from the Reserve Bank of India’s reserves? We were given an explanation, of course, and offered many justifications for this unusual action. If we weren’t convinced, well, too bad. It was a done deal, take it or leave it. Then came the merger of PSU banks and we went, “Huh?” All sorts of strange policy decisions were announced, with our finance minister breezily explaining roll backs and what not. Why have a Budget at all, if important fiscal announcements are going to be reversed later? Why not switch to a more realistic system in which financial policies are rolled out as per the need of the hour, and not in a wholesale fashion? No Budget can work on a “one size fits all” model. Madame Sitharaman, it is time to rejig outdated rules and challenge Budget traditions.
Clutching my gold close to my heart, I got home feeling smug and called up a daughter to gloat. She seemed most disinterested, and I hastily changed the subject. How was the festive shopping going? I asked. Was her generation cutting back on splurging? Were they rethinking their X’Mas breaks in exotic foreign locations? Did they discuss the impending financial crisis with their friends and warn their own kids to stop wasteful adventures? She looked surprised by my questions and asked, “Ma… did something happen that you aren’t telling me?” Hey Bhagwan. Are we all living in a bubble? Under a stone? Are we in denial? As I drive through Mumbai, and stroll through malls, am I missing key indicators and fooling myself? I checked with another daughter, who has told me recently that the average spending for two in any halfway decent restaurant these days was 15k. Given that this generation goes out twice a week at least, it seemed like one hell of a lot of money. She smiled and said, “Even a single movie trip to a multiplex on a weekend works out to 5k per person, with just snacks during the interval.
Which cuckoo-land am I living in? I keep staring at my gold bangles and gold chains these days and experience a deep sense of security, even comfort, knowing if all else fails, I have my little stash of gold to fall back on. Always knew my mother and grandmother were right when they advised me to hang on to gold, no matter what! Sigh… maybe I can go back to enjoying guilt-free avocado treats after all. But I will be a good girl and sacrifice modaks. Can’t afford another sugar spike!