Saturday, July 9, 2011

The fifty buck divide

A large fraction of the world's population lives on less than a dollar a day. Recently, the "dollar-metric" has been revised to be 1.25 dollars a day. And so, economists deal with the "poverty line" very frequently, when they make decisions involving income patterns around the globe. Karl Marx, the father of communism, was one of the first intellectuals to define a line between the "haves" and the "have-nots". In the last few decades, we have come up with so many new lines, that divide one group of people from another, primarily, on economic terms. For example, there is the "light-bulb divide", that divides people who have access to electricity from those who don't. There is the "flush-toilet divide", the "washing machine divide" and very recently, economists have come up with the "digital divide", which separates the people who have laptop computers and cellphones from those who don't. I was wondering if modern economic theory was all about coming up with lines that divide people who have something from those who don't.

"Sa'ab, shall I pull over to the side?"

I was woken up from my reverie by the driver. We were headed to the airport to pick up my wife. It was a late night flight, and we had timed our drive in such a way, that we wouldn't have to wait long at the airport. In front of the entrance to the huge and shining airport complex, we could see a long line of cars. Pulled over, with engines and lights turned off. And waiting. The idea was to save on the parking charges. If you entered the airport complex, you would have to park. And, if you parked, you had to pay. The minimum amount was about fifty rupees, or approximately, 1.25 Dollars, the new global poverty line.

"Of course not!" I said rather vehemently. "Do you know what a big safety hazard this is?. All these people are trying to do, is to save fifty bucks, and so, they are parked on the side of fast moving traffic. In the dark, with the lights turned off. Never, ever, do anything like this." I warned the driver. I love preaching to the poor fellow on road safety and traffic rules, whenever I get a chance to do that.

So, we continued on. Through the new and shining four lane highway, that connects the city to the airport. I could see more cars parked on the side, and waiting for their passengers to arrive. I spied a couple of Toyota Innovas, which have now become the rich man's SUV in India. Obviously, someone was trying to skimp on money, but I was definitely not one of them. 

I remembered a conversation I had a few days ago, with a friend of mine. It was a hypothetical question on being mugged in a dark alley. "What would be the amount of money in your wallet, for which, you would put up a resistance?" My friend had asked.

"It would have to be a very high amount, since nothing is worth more than life."

"But, what would be the amount of money that would make you flinch? You know, wake up the next day and kick yourself for giving it up so easily. A thousand bucks? May be five hundred?"

I didn't have an answer, but my friend had two. He said, that the amount would be somewhere between the lowest denomination you could withdraw from an ATM (which is a hundred rupees in India), and the price of four cups of tea, that you could buy from a decent street-side vendor. The second number is hard to arrive at, but my friend did put a number on it. Forty bucks.

And so, after much deliberation, we arrived at yet another economic figure of merit. The line, which separates the people who lost fifty bucks to mugging and felt sad, from the people, who didn't.

The fifty buck divide.

My cellphone was ringing. My wife was calling from the baggage claim area. She was going to walk out in about ten minutes. We were about three minutes from the pickup area. I told the driver. He moved to the side and slowed down. That was the only way, we could pick her up without having to park. A few taxis and a few BMWs, whizzed by. The taxis had to get there in time, and the BMWs obviously didn't care. It was only fifty bucks.  

But now that we were so close to saving my fifty, why would we not? That was my driver's argument. And, I did see the validity of his point. After all, fifty bucks were half of what you could withdraw from an ATM, and you could definitely get four to five nice cups of tea with that kind of money. True, our slowing down in the left lane was somewhat of a hazard. But, we were definitely better than those irresponsible people parked on the roadside. In the dark, with their lights turned off.

In a few minutes, I was sitting smugly on the back seat. My wife was making a few hurried phone calls as our car was racing back to the city. I had saved fifty bucks, by just slowing the car down. I was not one of them, but, I still did it!

As we made a turn and drove out of the airport complex, I noticed the long line of cars waiting in the dark. They were definitely on the other side of the fifty buck divide.

And which side was I on? The happy side.


  1. You brave soul, you!

    No one would like to admit their loyalty towards the happy side. The icing on the cake is your interesting way of putting it across.

    Have you read The Age of Kali by William Dalrymple? I am just about to finish it and don't know what to make of it. He talks so painfully honestly about the Kaliyug in India, and yet, there is something missing in the truth -- the perspective of the person flinching at the loss of forty bucks, I guess.

  2. PS: I just successfully subscribed to your blog! Phew. This must've been the nth attempt. Consider this a compliment, by the way.