What has led me to reflect on the ‘Taj Mahal Economy’ and the woes of the poor’ is the report on ‘Spurt in farmer suicides in Bundelkhand’ published in the Times of India of June 13, 2011. This is the story of poverty and indebtedness in one of the most historically glorious regions of our country. The story, drenched in pathos, pertains mainly six adjoining districts Banda, Hamirpur, Jhansi, Lalitpur, Mahoba, Chitrakoot and Jalaun. The report presents a comprehensive account of people’s sufferings: it says—:
“Locals here say most of the suicides are by indebted farmers, their world darkened by the burden. The actual number, however, is difficult to tell. Official figures confirm 519 suicides in the seven districts in the first five months of this year. This figure includes all suicides. But even if one were to go by the official figures, there has been an alarming rise in the rate of suicides in the last five months. In the 12 months of 2009, there were 568 suicides in the seven districts against 519 in just the first five months of this year. In 2010, 583 suicides were recorded. Between 2001 and 2005, there were 1,275 cases of suicide (the period includes 2002 and 2004, two harsh drought years).”
My heart went to the suffering people of that region. I had traveled widely in that area, and had seen the plight of people. My reflections brought to my mind what I had written sometime back on the economic model that our government and the neo-liberal think-tanks are pursuing these days. I think appropriate to tell you, (a) what I mean by the ‘Taj Mahal Economy’; and (b) the depravity and ‘moral deficit’ of our high GDP-driven society with demonic tendencies most pronounced.
(a) Our ‘Taj Mahal Economy’
I have called the present-day economic management the “Taj Mahal Economy”. This heading may not appeal to the amour propre of the economists of Yale, Chicago or Cambridge till they catch its suggested import. I would tell you how this expression ‘Taj Mahal Economy’ came to my mind. It came to my mind while studying the economic management of Emperor Shah Jahan who got constructed a mausoleum, the Taj Mahal, at Agra to commemorate his love for his deceased wife Mumtaz Mahal. It is considered world-famous as “the jewel of Muslim art in India and one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world’s heritage.” Thousands of artisans and craftsmen sweated over more than two decades turning stones into an expanding metaphor of love or exploitation (depending on how you look at it). The tomb was described by a poetic genius as “one tear-drop…upon the cheek of Time”. This Taj was built when the Mughal prosperity was at its best. The Great Mughals had reached its cultural acme, and had acquired renown world over which our historians tend to describe with passionate intensity, and ever waxing pride. The feudal lords and the denizens of the privileged classes rolled in luxury pretending a cultivated taste and rich aesthetic sensibility. It was again Shah Jahan who had built his Diwan-i-Khas with precious stones studded in the ceiling exhibiting the glitter of gold, and the shine of the choicest marble believing, as the inscription engraved on it says, he was in the Eden of Bliss on the Earth:
Agar firdaus bar ru-yi zamin ast
Hamin ast, u hamin ast, u hamin ast.
But the best of times was also the worst of times. The commoners of the great Mughal Empire could eke out their living only by becoming the beasts of burden, or at best mere serfs. Didn’t the Emperor and his advisors believe in something like the ‘trickle-down effect’ theory of our present-day economists? Assuming that the imperial expenditure was made as a strategy of response to the terrible famine which broke out in 1556-1557 in the neighborhood of Agra and Biyana, and Badauni, it can be well said that the remedy was outright foolish. Spending the State’s resources over the construction of the Taj Mahal or the Diwan-i-Khas might have brought joy for the Emperor, and those chosen-people of his realm who needed some glamourous rendezvous, but for the rest of people these were cruel jokes cut with macabre taste. Whatever the artisans, craftsmen and the labourers earned as daily wages were lost in the expenditure on luxuries peddled out by the swarming sellers of drink and lascivious mujras . The great poet Sumitranandan Pant wrote a poem on the ‘Taj’ where he said (to render it in English from Hindi):
What an amazing and celestial worship of Death,
Whilst the people remained despondent under gloom.
He was rightly shocked by this arrogant extravaganza mocking the poor of those days. Shah Jahan knew their plight, but, like our present-day wielders of power, indulged in crystal gazing. He must have known that in 1556-1557 (and even thereafter) in the neighborhood of Agra and Biyana, and Badauni “men ate their own kind and the appearance of the famished sufferers was so hideous that one could scarcely look upon them…. The whole country was a desert, and no husband-man remained to till the ground”. ‘The horrors of this calamity were so great that, as ‘Abdul Hamid Lahori, the official historian of the reign of Shah Jahan, writes, “men began to devour each other, and the flesh of a son was preferred to his love” [Majumdar, Raychaudhuri & Datta, An Advanced History of India p.564]. A Dutch merchant, who witnessed the calamity, notes that “men lying in the street, not yet dead, were cut up by others, and men fed on living men, so that even in the streets, and still more on road journeys, men ran great danger of being murdered or eaten”. Shah Jahan “opened a few soup-kitchens”, distributed 1½ lacs of rupees in charity and remitted one-eleventh of the land-revenue assessment; but this could not suffice to mitigate the sufferings of the starving people.’ [How close is this strategic response to what our government has done to alleviate the suffering of the starving farmers in our country!] The nobles and the rich considered the sound of ghungroos as the very index of people’s welfare in Shah Jahan’s or Wazid Ali Shah’s time. This state of affairs contemplate the classes of he exploiters and the exploited. This was the world in which, as William Blake says:
Some are born to Sweet delight,
Some are Born to Endless Night.
(b) Even this can happen; oh, no, this has already happened
In Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the rich General lived ‘on his estate with its two thousand serfs, imagining himself to be God’, and had ‘his hangers-on and clowns’. He had ‘hundreds of hounds and just about as many kennel attendants, all dressed in special livery and everyone of them mounted’. Dostoyevsky does not tell us how many entertainers that creature had, and how many he had acting as the ‘pleasure providers’, beauticians, image-makers, advertisers, procurers, and go-getters. You can get an idea about that sub-human creature, if you go through the novel. Dostoyevsky also tells us how one Richard lived under circumstances in which he enjoyed developing a “longing to eat the slops given to the pigs to fatten them up for the market”. Do you know what this great food ‘slops’ was? ‘Slops’ is defined in a dictionary to mean: ‘wet feed (especially for pigs) consisting of mostly kitchen waste’. I think the General might have needed at least 1000 men and women for his comforts. As we live in the society of calculators, there is no harm if I calculate certain somber figures to transmit a message that I would not be able to transmit merely by scribbling lines of words. Think dear friends: how many humans one super-rich would need to help him to live the way the General lived in The Brothers Karamazov? If one super-rich needs 1000 persons to work for his comforts and to promote his vanity, 10000 such super-rich creatures would require 10000000 human beings! Such super-rich creatures tend to believe that they are the great benefactors of the downtrodden: thus promoting a cause so dear to Christianity! Their hired intellectuals, and managed institutions would write tomes with graphics and statistics to prove that the problem of unemployment stands solved, and the best days ahead are being designed for the suffering humanity. They claim that all the ‘employable’ people would get employment, and none need bother about the unemployable that must be left at the mercy of the market-forces. It is the market’s ‘Invisible Hand’ that would decide which sections amongst them are to be preserved and nursed to provide the work-force for the oligarchy controlling the ‘Invisible Hand’, which sections to be tolerated as the organ-farmers for the corporate-farmers to reap super profits, which sections can be used as commodities (called res commercium), and which sections, wholly of no use, : hence deserving elimination through devices which might include making wombs barren through genetic engineering, or making such beings eat chemically treated food!!!?
What sort of democratic society we are building when in this country, Bharat, one can spend more than $ 1 billion on his house to be looked after by more than 700 ordinary mortals. You can imagine how many persons for comforts that superrich would employ giving occasions to our economists to show how salutary is the new-capitalism’s ‘trickle-down effect’ What I have said is not an absurdity: it has already taken place in our Mumbai, in our country with a democratic socialist constitution with an unmistakable signature tune of Justice, Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity for ensuring dignity to all. What sort of society we are building where we allow the mighty silhouettes straddle majestically in the Realm of Darkness which the fraternity of crooks has created just because we trusted our watchers who failed in keeping them under vigilance. Modern history would record a series of the greatest betrayals of trust in different spheres, including the academic world. We see around us the insanity and delirium under which the blood-suckers are sucking our nation’s resources: we see how the MNCs are sipping our blood from our hearts like the proverbial Vampires about which we have read only with suspended disbelief.
‘Justice’ is in effect nothing but ‘fair play’. It rejects a resort to deception and camouflage to promote greed in its variegated manifestations. The system is surely unfair if it facilities a segment to scale heights in wealth, but others to die as destitutes, or live on mango-kernels, or live life worse than that of the animals, or whose voice is not heard in the din and bustle of the high pressure advertisement and the craft of the murky strategists. Such a system deserves to be undone: whether through creative destruction or destructive creation.
Mahatma Gandhi had said (as displayed in Gandhi Smriti, Birla House, New Delhi):
“I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test:
Recall the face of the poorest and weakest man whom you have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to Swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions?
Then you will find your doubts and yourself melting away.”
Is it foolish if I conclude that the talisman that Mahatma Gandhi had given to our decision-makers of our free India has already been lost; or simply cast off in some secret jurisdictions, or declared at our Stock Exchange as a thing of no worth.