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Since 1st March, 1999
 
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CIMA Gallary

VIEW FROM THE TOP

Having joined the ranks of octogenarians, I have made a survey of the situation. The first reaction was a surging pride within me that I was continuing to play a positive role in the national interest because I was helping national life expectancy to keep rising — a significant factor in human development studies. At the same time, while the nation’s managers of economic affairs may be gloomy about the deleterious effect of increased longevity on pension fund commitments that may divert funds from development requirements, fortunately, here, too, I am no burden to the economy because I have no pension to support me as I changed jobs several times quite late in my working life.

I belong to the generation of high-powered managers and directors whose salary was pegged to Rs 7,500 per month and to provident funds (often non-indexed), and pension, if any, was linked to this figure. Many of us worked for organizations that simply did not or could not introduce the system of paying cash in envelopes. However, to be fair, one must mention that within the ambit of the prevailing tax structure, many employers adopted several means of providing lavish reimbursements against bills for soft furnishing, entertainment, domestic service or travel with the family. But this could send out wrong signals whereby close relatives could be led to think that while our standard of living was really high we scrounged when looking after their interests. The situation can be best explained by the fact that while we lived in superb furnished accommodation and could choose to dine out every so often in posh clubs and restaurants and ran cars without any heed for fuel consumption, when it came to buying a pair of shoes, the decision often had to be postponed to the next month. (Credit cards had not come at the time.) I often recount the fact that when I, as a director, was awarded the legitimate commission of 50 per cent of my annual salary, that is, Rs 45,000, for tax purposes 12.5 per cent representing the taxable perquisite of free furnished accommodation was added to it; as this receipt took my earnings deeply into the marginal tax rate of 92.5 per cent over the Rs 1 lakh threshold, the calculated tax on the commission was more than the commission itself. Naturally I refused to accept this payment — although our tax man pointed out that since the shareholders had already sanctioned this amount its return to the company could be construed to be within the purview of gift tax — which was payable by the donor. It was truly Hobson’s choice.

We retired before the freeing of shackles and the runaway increases in managerial remuneration. (The personal ‘tragedy’ in post-executive life was to chair as a non-executive director the remuneration committee meetings of a big, profitable company and sanction increments of many lakhs a month for directors quite regularly.)

The galloping inflation that has followed forces us to continually make downward adjustments in lifestyles, modest though they are compared to the ‘glory days’ and make us envy those who have succeeded us. That demon of inflation has cast its net wide and keeps people like me constantly searching for ruses to survive. How long we will be able to do that and play the noble national role mentioned above is a matter of serious doubt.

I must confess that India’s gross domestic product growth rate, which governments boast about at every opportunity now, fills me with fear whereas once I too had crowed about it. There is little evidence that benefits from growth trickle down to the poor or that they provide means of quality service in hospitals and of transport at affordable prices; we now know for certain that the high GDP growth means, instead, more goodies for the rich. Instead of seeing that no Indian goes to bed hungry, the rich will continue to raise the prices of their products and keep for themselves unwarrantedly large portions of the ensuing profits for their conspicuous consumption, while we are forced to make further cuts in our modest standards of living. Kotak Wealth predicts that the number of ultra-high net worth households will treble in the next three years to 2,19,000 and their net worth is expected to rise from today’s Rs 45 trillion to Rs 235 trillion in that time. The condition of the poor, those below the poverty line, will continue to be debated all over, but who spares a thought for those ironically supposed to be upper-middle class, who will be making further cuts in their household expenses for items considered by them all their lives as fairly indispensable? This is at a time in their life when they thought that with all major commitments having been met, with the children settled, a home secured, they had just about enough funds to meet the basic needs for a value-driven life.

The pensioners of the Central and state governments, the armed forces and public sector units are shielded from inflation, so the protest will come from only a small class which can be ignored. They can only look at their dwindling assets and wonder how they can fight this perennial increase. It is hardly possible to guess how long this tussle will continue, so one has to maintain health and a degree of sociability. Children and their children do help emotionally and materially in many cases, but their world has become very far flung and they have their problems too. When we have jettisoned the joint family for a nuclear family we must play by the new rules of the game.

In my youth I was an avid cricketer and played at the university and at the high grade local club level. It is my infinite regret that while I have many 50s to my credit I have not a single century to show. My best effort was when I was rather unfairly run out at 89. Somehow the memory of that comes to the forefront of my mind. Maybe a century is still waiting for me but given the circumstances I may well like to be run out before I reach that figure.