For us, the millennials, the two ends of our present lives are separated by years that not only formed the contours of our physical and mental being, but also fashioned something that typifies our behaviour — a market. The gulf between the pre-liberalised India and a contemporary ecosystem oozing electric entrepreneurial zeal, has made us witness some seesawing sights. The most seminal and central to it is how we as a nation have changed — or in some matters, have not, our perceptions towards India Inc.
As kids, back in the day, to experience a form of distaste and distrust towards businesses by the masses was not uncommon. The sense prevalent was that most businesses are crooked. All the more so are those whose marketing efforts translated to frequent TV commercials. Advertisement campaigns were seen as flagrant efforts of corporate skulduggery to deceive people into buying products (services were rare) which otherwise deserve no takers.
Very few businesses instilled trust, especially in rural and mofussil India. This was predominantly for two reasons, with each unfolding differently with time. First, the distribution network for most companies to the far-flung countryside was near absent, unlike today. Hence, the see-it-to-believe-it forms of materialistic gratification remained largely afar.
Second, consumers were deficient in purchasing power — which though has improved since but has stayed low — generating a 'grapes are sour' attitude towards consumerism. Urban consumers were slightly better off — soft drinks, pizza, jeans, TV, camera, the telephone had made their way to ordinary urban households before the turn of the millennium. Consumerism — buoyed by the interplay of a wave of neoliberal politicism and capitalism — was morphing rapidly but had some distance to cover to attain today's level.
Consumeristic behaviours, whatever has changed from that era to this, have aligned with some headway at scale — poverty alleviation and improved mortality rate among others. Tough times, disasters such as the one we are in, however, paint a gloomy picture out of what — and it counts many — have not changed. For all the growth and maturity of the market and capitalism that paved such growth, their absurdity and short-sightedness have hindered a holistic path of our fulfilment as well.
Escalating one problem at a time
Two apps I frequently use have rekindled the vitality of business empathy in the times of crisis. One of a food delivery company. The other, a fitness start-up. The latter touched all positive emotions in their energies to help me carve out a fulfilling regime. Wrecked with no choice but to shut its brick-and-mortar centres, it roped in celebrities and athletes on its web-only platform to bring back the mojo. With all its notifications and insights, the app made it challenging to ignore health. In regular times, it reprimands people for wrongdoing (deduct membership days if they cheat by missing classes) and it rewards them in cash for their accomplishments (for meeting fitness pledges). In dire circumstances, it coaxed and motivated its users to remain healthy by going an extra mile. It emanated an added sense of compassion when it pleaded members to contribute to those — its fitness trainers — who are missing out on earning opportunities. Its business model not only brought rejuvenation in monotony or provided immunity amid frowning thoughts but also radiated humanity.
The food delivery app which went near-defunct this while had once got my ailing mother-in-law in its dodgy capitalistic mesh with its reprobate advertisement (there's a paradigm shift in people's response to ad campaigns today over yesteryears); when its commercials propagated a notion that eating gulab jamuns or ghee laddoos for a diabetic patient is acceptable; in fact, fun, escaping prying eyes of the well-wishers as long as the supply comes easy and cheap. In abeyance, the company made me relish the experience and taste of the means and ends of a long drawn, shop to dish-wash process, called cooking. In the synchronous acts of the players, from arriving at a consensus on a menu to several solo acts of shopping ingredients, the cameos of timekeeping, to serving to one's calorie needs and to logically agree to the division of dish-washing labour, it brought joys that could never be 'delivered'. While it could run complex analytics, the app did not bother to specify, albeit a ballpark estimate, the calorific value of the foods it made us consume. Let alone a baby-food-esque disclaimer — that could read, “we recommend home-cooked food for your sustainable nourishment” for the greater good — it didn't bother to run a quirky for-a-10k-run-enjoy-the-Biryani-fun campaign.
When we train our minds to differentiate among our wants, needs and preferences dispassionately, we understand that only a few start-ups, like the fitness app, out in the market are 'solving our problems'. Rest, the way they are designed, are in an attempt to do something very different principally. The social media applications that claim to connect us had had us outfoxed with its casino-like addictive notification styles. The ride-hailing app which incorporated all the acumen of a money-minting utility product, ‘fails’ to see the need of 'safety' feature in its MVP design. The personal finance company which makes loan sanctioning and disbursement easy with umpteen features and touchpoints, keeps online payment option missing in its app — to lay hurdles in easy prepayment of high interest-swallowing loans. The OTT entertainment platform that displays flashy monthly and yearly subscription options, furtively renews subscriptions once opted in. The bitter aftertaste of enterprising exploits is often too much to ignore.
Growth-centric polity means an ecosystem that is continuously conspiring and tempting us for mad consumerism that makes the market's engine running. (Photo: Reuters)
To cut them some slack — as my consumer conscience kicks in — not all their enterprising undertakings are devoid of empathy though. In promising a short delivery time and implementing it, in exploiting our weaknesses at a relatively discounted price (thanks, VCs), in reducing carbon footprint in shared transportation (or delivery in e-bikes), there's some compassion, some relief in our misery. Most, however, keep us in perpetual problems: by hypnotising us with their mystic tech prowess, by feeding us on our weaknesses and by creating an economy where the days of complete self-sufficiency seem a thing of the past. Such enactment of the division of labour to such levels of discreet outsourcing in an ever-expanding economy would have left, its proponents, the Adam Smiths, startled.
Seen solution and the unseen problem
The lion's share of our misery is not inflicted by those we invoke a call to action from our smartphones though. Today's tech companies, by some measures, rank high on the empathy index. Their sins are tiny compared to the sheer abuse to our welfare perpetrated by the old economy behemoths.
A desire to question the unquestionable — need not be the socialism vs capitalism debate — may make us come in contact with some vicious reality. If our healthy sustenance requires all the oil, coal and precious metals dug out of nature's womb just because our cunning wits have found a way to market so, the mining activities alter the carbon cycle equilibrium like nothing else. If earth's skins need to be stabbed and scraped to the extent we did—we have transformed 51 per cent of the earth's total surface area including cropland, pastures, forests, and urban land, analysis shows. If our roads need to be bustling with so many variants of energy-sucking engines and carriages —transportation causes two-thirds of all emissions. If we need our markets brimming with all the sugary SKUs, bottled chemicals and packaged junk synthesised, inventoried, peddled and consumed at the cost of precious earthly resources for what has long been kept unrestricted, glorifying such economic activities — profligate and reckless alike — as mere 'living-hand-to-mouth' efforts in a market that’s given a divinity.
A pandemic like Covid-19 may give an impression that its sorts are more a result of political failure; partly true; but its management and moderation expose the sheer market failure. In fact, in the real world, market never works in quarantine from state politics. That our nation-states have more artilleries and ammunition today than ventilators, that lean and just-in-time (JIT) techniques exist more for industrial products than therapeutic devices, that prices of essentials are raised with the slightest of opportunities, that alcohol (excise duties off it) has turned the second or third largest contributor to most Indian states’ own tax revenue, blow wide open the market's misplaced priorities.
Search of solace
Every year, out of parental love when my parents come over to be part of my big-city life, a recurring theme becomes our pastime argument. One that sums up why the prosperity bolstered by enhanced per capita GDP, for which people like us argue our lives are at stake, does not impressively reflect in my lifestyle: a life in the inadequacy of floor space, everlastingly spent in hustles, gasping in smoggy air, living off pricey but often stale food items, lacking familial merriment, and more. The pandemic has added fuel to my parents' such thoughts.
On the one hand, for long we have considered earth's resources as infinite, by debunking the ‘scarcity principles’ (mainly on the use of land proposed by Malthus and Young) — we must note, if we consider the technological challenges to make all of the planet's resources accessible when the easy-to-access portions are exhausted, the reserves appear limited — and have not made efforts to assess its worth. Some attempts have been made recently, pegging the total value of planetary resources at approx. USD 50 trillion. On the other hand, as it seems (I am sure it is just not my parents), an ever-expanding economy does not necessarily manifest in happiness. An economy where growth-centric polity means an ecosystem that is continuously conspiring and tempting us, the subjects, for mad consumerism — aimlessly moving in a diesel car, smoking cigars, watching movies, eating junk that makes the market's engine run as against finding solace in activities — like reading, meditative walking, leisurely family nattering, romping with pets — that are market-decoupled. To put the available resources in perspective, one may note that the Gross World Product value and total Global Assets are worth approx. USD 100 trillion and USD 300 trillion respectively, that's leveraging (by exhausting) our resources at quite a steep rate.
One might think that such thoughts, of doomsday, is transitory and an effect of the situation we are in. Things are, after all, not that bad, and there are ways to have the cake and eat it too — to make pace with steady growth without hurting nature. No, preach many economists. In Good Economics for Hard Times, Nobel laureates Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo argue, "It is a ghastly trade-off: saving lives today, or moderating climate change to save lives in the future". To save the world from the Armageddon, they close out with, what might seem meek, "people's consumption will need to fall", but not before they cite a series of examples for putting across their point, "mitigation through better technologies may not do the trick".
All this is not to prop up an untidy proposition, one that mixes climate change with a pathogen-induced pandemic as one and blames (all sorts of) economic activities as its root. What is, however, clear, is that if not in the genesis, commonalities exist in which catastrophes (of all kinds) are felt worst by our wrongly arranged economic orders. For example, in the absence of health orientation, in abuse of the milieu, in a profiteering mindset devoid of apathy, in growing inequality, and in the irrationality of the marketplace that’s given a free hand. We can be much better prepared if we can achieve growth in alignment with healthy sustenance or find ways to steer ourselves towards that. An economy where singular corporate motto to earn profits becomes societal development that creates consumerism of needs and not consumerism that is abhorred in plights and qualms. We need management that encourages business expansions by weaning away from sinful products to healthier ones, so that public wellness does not become a test of prodigious restraint and intellect.
The tech ecology should think beyond high returns and cost-cutting and instead, promote self-reliance and truly eliminate our weaknesses by the ethical business (apps and websites) design of high standards. For nations, safeguarding climate should come no more as a future-choice but a necessity to prevent mass annihilation of today. The market, which is gradually becoming a place of winners-take-it-all, should be brought back to days (pre-1980-era) where the distribution of ‘all’ was much less skewed among labours of the world.
The glimmer of hope is that such designs, in buds or blooms, from noble businesses to more equitable societies, exist today, albeit in rarities. In India, Tatas grant more than USD 200 million in philanthropy each year and ITC’s share of the revenue from tobacco today is much less than a decade ago, several tech-enabled businesses are solving genuine societal problems at a micro-level. Elsewhere, even in highly capitalist countries of Western Europe, inequality is much manageable. The concern is that for such hope to become a way of life, we need strong across-the-board stakeholder (states, corporate, consumers) resolve — something that has proven hard to garner even with available better alternatives habitually marred by short-term self-interest and bad policies.