# 31 Learning From Kumaon, Whose Recession?
Jaikishan Patel - Pixabay
Learning From The Kumaon
This morning, huffing along the ridge above our mountain home, I met Tara Dutt, the retired school principal. His elder brother’s dog, Tyson, sniffed my sweaty ankles.
“The very first Satoli home I visited, in 1991, was yours”, I reminisced.
Sushil had just contracted to buy the farm below the road from his father Devi Dutt, who was packing apples into crates made of pine wood planks. He carefully picked out two apples for us. “Welcome to Satoli.”
Chomping our apples, Sushil and I slid back to the path, and threaded down the ridge. He stopped at a gap in the pines, and pointed to a tiny clearing in the woods, to a rural home built in stone and wood. Gopal Singh and Jeevanti lived in the house, farmed the land, and took a share of the produce. Sushil would move into the upper floor, and till they found another home, he agreed to have them live in the floor below, in the ‘godh’, the traditional space for cattle.
A few months later, I shook hands with the owners of the adjoining fields. Their families had long shifted to the plains, and they were happy to get some cash for abandoned lands. That night, we celebrated on the mud-floor of Sushil’s dining room. His boom-box played his favorite Dylan album, Blonde-on-Blonde, and Darab pounded the bongos. I did a war dance, and Kalyan kept the Old Monk flowing. In the wee hours, we heard a ruckus in the courtyard below. Sushil cocked a ear:
“Wonder whether Jeevanti has popped - she’s expecting her fourth brat”
We poked our heads out of the tiny windows.
“What’s happening?”, we shouted down.
“Don’t know”, the ragged kids clinging to the folds of Jeevanti’s sari, “maybe an earthquake; clumps of earth are falling from our ceiling.”
Anita sniggered from behind us - “You guys!”.
We sauntered down the stairs and looked around.
“Must have been very minor… seems to have passed”
Those were wild days. Our folk heroes were Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. When I could take a few days off from Delhi, we would drive a tiny Maruti 800 deep into the Kumaon, exploring her hill-tops, her woods and rivers in pale imitation of ‘On the Road’, fuelled by Old Monk, strong coffee, and the fragrant weeds of the Himalaya.
When I look back, it sometimes seems as if the mountains were the main event of my life, work and career merely a side-show. While I found a precarious, shifting balance between Satoli and Delhi, Sushil sublimated his love of the Himalaya into Aarohi, a charity he set up with his late wife, Oona. The rural hospital he ran until a few years ago commands a panoramic view of the Suyal river, and in clear weather, of Nanda Devi and her snowy neighbours. Across the road, on a series of broad terraces, the Aarohi school is run with love and passion.
The educational system run by the government has not served our villages well. When we moved to Satoli in 1997, for an extended honeymoon, I tried to teach arithmetic to our gardener’s son Vikky. His 4th standard homework required him to do some simple division ‘sums’, which were completely beyond him. After watching him make a few attempts, I realised that he couldn’t subtract two numbers, if a carry-over was involved.
“Surely you learned this in Class 3”, I asked him.
He looked blank. I asked him to bring his Class 3 textbook to our next session. “There you have it”, I pointed to one of the later chapters of his arithmetic book.
“But we didn’t study those chapters”, he explained.
I looked at the pages; they were unmarked, unused. “We couldn’t complete the course”
Now that they were in Class 4, of course they couldn’t possibly be studying the Class 3 syllabus.
Yesterday, my wife interviewed a candidate for a teacher training course.
“I’m studying English for my B.A. Double English.”
“And what are you reading these days?”
“Tell me something about Shakespeare”.
“He was a story-teller”.
Before the pandemic, only 25% of students at the nearest ‘Inter College’ passed their 12th standard exams. After 2 years of shuttered schools, I don’t know what contortions the students and teachers are now suffering, how many uncovered chapters are creating vast gaps in their learning.
We moved back to Delhi when our son was 5, to put him into a city school. In Satoli, Vikky struggled with school for a few years, then dropped out. He was picked up by the police for a burglary, did time in the Nainital jail, tried his hand at a factory job near Dehradun, then returned home, demanding that his father finance a down-payment for a taxi. We helped make this possible, but in a couple of years, he drove his taxi enterprise into the ground.
Like Sushil, Kalyan and Anita stayed in the mountains, and worked with rural communities near Ranikhet. After a few years in a local convent school, they moved their son to Sherwood School in Nainital. Dhruv, or JoJo, as we call him, is now a corporate lawyer in Dubai, and we just heard that his parents have gone to visit their new grandchild.
Gopal Singh and Jeevanti moved off Sushil’s farm, and set up home across the meadow from us. The daughters got married, the boys dropped out of school, and went off to the city in search of work. They both lost their jobs during the COVID shutdowns. Kamal skulks around the family home, while his father tends to our garden with slowing hands. Deepu finally returned to Delhi, and bakes tandoori rotis at a dhaba.
When Sushil’s son studied as far as the Aarohi school then went, he movead to Pune with his mother, to attend a city school, then to the Rishi Valley School. The academic life of college didn’t grab him, and Vairaag is now on his way to Canada to train as an airline pilot.
Gopal Singh and Jeevanti’s elder daughter, who lives in a small village in the foothills, sent her daughter to Satoli, to live with her Nani, and attend the Aarohi school. I deeply hope their faith is well-placed. I have seen one generation of Satoli children deceived by the promise that attending school would equip them for a better life. We can’t fail another generation.
Whose Recession Is It, Anyway?
Every few months, I conduct a seminar for students of policy at the Center for Civil Society (CCS). For my session yesterday, the organisers asked me to address the question of whether the Indian economy was in a recession.
But her people may be.
An economy is declared to be in recession when its GDP drops for two consecutive quarters. The Indian economy is targeted to grow at 7% this year; though I believe this number reflects an optimism bordering on delusion, I don’t think our economy is shrinking.
Pardon wage earners for thinking otherwise, though. This chart, prepared by the Azim Premji University, shows the trajectory of wages and employment for the last 3 years:
Real Wages have been trending down for over 3 years, and the Worker Participation Rate, already one of the world’s lowest, is at 36.8%. Just over one in three adult Indians is either working or looking for a job.
“But our airports are packed”, a friend said the other day, proposing the counter-narrative. I ran some numbers with him:
In 2019, our airports saw 4 lakh domestic departures a day. I assume that most people who fly out will take a return flight home, whether later in the week, or month. On average, every day, 2 lakh passengers are beginning a trip by air, whereas the other 2 lakhs are completing it. Multiplying by 365 days in a year, Indians take 730 lakh, or 73 million, air trips a year. If each air traveler takes only 1 trip a year, those who fly* are 5% of the roughly 1400 million Indians. At best then, the revival of air traffic suggests that the richest 5% of Indians are on their way to recovery. If we assume that the average air passenger takes two air-trips per year, this lofty layer will have to be marked down to 2.5% of India.
Even for this layer, the recovery is not complete. For a couple of days around last Christmas, domestic air traffic hit the pre-pandemic level of 4 lakhs. Since then, it has sagged, and Indians now notch up between 3.3 and 3.5 lakh departures a day. At these prices, I’m not surprised. I thought I’d fly to Bangalore for my mother-in-law’s birthday, and went into sticker-price shock when I realised the cheapest flights were 10,000 rupees, each way.
I know it sounds stupid, because I will book those flights, and the prices won’t come down, but, last night, I actually shut down the app to digest those numbers.
For the first time in several decades, I had an inkling of what it means to postpone a consumption decision because of elevated prices. If we can’t control prices, a recession will creep up, even on the 2.5%.
* I don’t think rebel MPs who take charter flights are counted here.