P Chidambaram's pakoda jibe is an insult to small business owners, betrays mindset of middle and upper class

"Even selling pakodas is a 'job' said prime minister. By that logic, even begging is a job. Let's count poor or disabled persons who are forced to beg for a living as 'employed' people," tweeted former Union minister P Chidambaram on Sunday.

When he was called out on it, Chidambaram clarified his remarks thus:

What is a "regular and secure job"? Why has that been the gold standard for India over the past 70 odd years? Comparing a self-employed individual to a beggar and then saying that person ought to aspire for "regular and secure" employment betrays a sense of classism which comes with being a part of the Indian middle class. And it implies that being self-employed isn't something worth aspiring to.

File image of Congress leader P Chidambaram. PTI

File image of Congress leader P Chidambaram. PTI

A vendor who sells pakodas and makes Rs 200 a day earns around what someone would make under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).

In fact, that's more than what some people employed under MGNREGA make in some states. If those people can be considered employed, then why not the pakoda vendor?

And why did it even occur to the former finance minister to compare such an individual to a beggar? Such a person is providing a service to society, making an honest living and not asking for a handout from a welfare scheme.

On the contrary, this question must be considered: Why is there no social security net for him and millions of others like him? There is no Provident Fund for the self-employed, nor is there a state insurance corporation. Most labour welfare legislation of the past 70 years has been implemented for  people with "regular and secure" jobs.

Which is a problem because this country was built on the back of self-employed people like the pakoda vendor, who the former finance minister callously dismissed. Indian society doesn't value small business and doesn't give it the respect it deserves. Society is more than happy to encourage people to work for business, but not to start one. The pakoda vendor is exactly that: A small business owner. The focus should not be on stopping him from selling pakodas, but helping him grow. Helping him expand.

India is a nation of more than a billion people. It cannot grow simply by having a large salaried class. Its growth needs to be driven by the self-employed. Think of it this way: A newly-minted MBA graduate is employed by an fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) manufacturer tomorrow. The new MBA's paycheque is ultimately supported by the shopkeeper who risks stocking the product of that company. If manufacturing jobs are created, they will depend on small dealerships who risk selling the manufactured products. If India is to build a service economy, its foundation will be independent marketing agents who provide these services on commission.

Taxi drivers, shop keepers, plumbers, masons, carpenters, electricians, traders, vegetable vendors and other small business owners are the backbone of the economy. They are the last mile for businesses which manage to keep so much of the middle classes in so-called "regular and secure" employment. If it weren't for people like the pakoda vendor who go out and take a risk, India's economy would collapse.

But, for the middle and upper class — which the former Union minister belongs to — the idea that a pakoda vendor or even a chaiwalla can have the same dignity as someone in "regular and secure" employment remains unfathomable. The fact that someone who doesn't wear a collar to work can say that they are also an employed person and live without a government handout is an alien concept. This is because the idea of a great society is utterly lost on them.

A great society is not one where a pakoda vendor stops selling pakodas, but one where he makes enough money to send his children to the same school as someone working in an IT company. Where he can live in the same building and dine at the same hotels and restaurants. That's the society India needs to be working towards. Not one which claims the poor want to be tied to the welfare pipe of the government or private enterprise.

The poor also have the right to an independent livelihood. To be free to set their own work hours and cut an honest living. The focus should be on providing the pakoda vendor support to grow, providing a safety net in case things go wrong, making healthcare available and affordable and a pension for old age. Bridging the gap in welfare legislation between those employed in "regular" jobs and the self-employed.

The small business owner also has the right to be treated with the same dignity as someone who works in a big office building. The big office building would not exist without small business owners. The taxi aggregators would not exist without drivers. Food delivery companies would go by the wayside without delivery personnel. Start-ups wouldn't exist without risk-taking entrepreneurs.

The pakoda vendor is not a beggar. Not even close. He doesn't live on a handout, nor does he seek one. He's a man making an honest living. People need to eat. He provides them with food in exchange for money. He is the salt of the earth. To compare him to a beggar and state that those with "regular" jobs are qualitatively better than him grossly undervalues the contribution small business owners like him make to India day in and day out and betrays the classism inherent in the socialist approach to the economy.

P Chidambaram's comments were in poor taste He ought to withdraw them immediately, and without reservation.

 


Updated Date: Jan 29, 2018 19:31 PM

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