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THE DECADE THAT WAS
- What The Telegraph heard on the campaign trail

While many are humming “achchhe din aaney wale hain” (good days are coming), The Telegraph’s election feature Decade Decoder suggests that several Indians did not consider the “beete huey din” (days gone by) to be so bad, either. The overwhelming mantra of young and old has been that they are certainly happier and wealthier in 2014 than they were in 2004.

The newspaper’s reporters across the country spoke to ordinary Indians from different strata of society, different age groups, different professions and different communities — asking them the same questions and recording their answers. The questions were completely apolitical and focused on roti, kapda and makan to find out whether life for the average man or woman in the street had changed in the last decade for the better or worse.

The answers were an eye-opener and contradictory to the doom-and-gloom discourse that has been the leitmotif of the election campaign that has just been fought.

Most of the respondents, particularly those among the working class, said that they were much better off today than in 2004. Whether it was the widowed domestic servant, auto-rickshaw driver, farmer, day labourer or retired schoolteacher — none of them said they ever needed to sleep on an empty stomach any more or ran out of money for food by the end of the month. In fact, many said they were able to save more now, compared to a decade ago.

Ironically, it was those on higher income scales, like the branch manager of a stockbroker firm, who, while admitting to a higher salary today than a decade ago, complained about being able to save less because of high prices and running out of money for household expenses by the third week of the month.

For most respondents, their food habits had not changed — with home-cooked dal, chawal, roti and subzi being the staple — but the quality of their diet was definitely better now. The working class could afford the occasional home-cooked treat more often than before but eating in restaurants was rare.

It was the middle classes who admitted to eating out and indulging in fast food even as they complained about inflation and how salaries had not kept pace.

Traditionally, most families bought new clothes around festivals like Durga Puja, Diwali, Id, Holi and, generally, these few outfits lasted the whole year. The survey revealed that almost all the respondents had more clothes now compared to a decade earlier.

While the working class continued to buy new clothes just before big festivals, the more affluent middle class bought them round the year, mostly from street markets and occasionally from shopping malls.

The makan story among the poor was perhaps the biggest surprise. Many respondents claimed that their main achievement of the last decade was to convert their kachcha dwelling into a pucca house, no matter how small, for their families. To be able to save enough money and build a brick-and-mortar home is a dream that many said they were able to fulfil in the last decade.

As for possessions, all the respondents experienced an overall improvement in the standard of living. If they walked everywhere before, now they had a bicycle. In rural areas and small towns, some had even progressed to owning motorbikes, tractors and even the odd car. Almost all had a cellphone, which they mostly used to call family and friends. The next necessity was a fridge and then a black-and-white television set to provide entertainment at home.

The MGNREGA (the rural job scheme) emerged a winner among the various government schemes to help the poor. Many respondents accepted that getting work under the scheme had enabled them to improve their lot. While people had got themselves the Aadhaar card, most admitted that they had not used it so far.

Corruption was another bogey that everyone had heard existed, but asked when they last felt it or paid a bribe, the majority of the replies was: “Never.”

The emphasis on education really stood out in the survey, conducted among all strata of society. If the poorer and older generation bemoaned the fact they had no education, they were ensuring that their children went to school and many said that the midday meal scheme was a boon.

The ambition of those who had themselves gone to government-funded schools was to send their children to private, English-medium schools. All the respondents seemed to have realised that the best route to a better life was through education and for this they were willing to sacrifice anything.

The middle class accepted that despite their high incomes, the rising cost of good, private education for their children was forcing them to tighten their belts.

Another trend that emerged was the appreciation of the need to have smaller families for a better life. Across all castes, classes and communities, “Do bus hain (two is enough)” has caught on.

Having more than two children was an aberration. The majority of the younger respondents had either one or two children and understood that in this day and age, it was too expensive to have more, particularly if they wanted to provide them with good education.

The spirit of enterprise emerged as a pan-Indian trait with few waiting for handouts or doles but starting their own businesses, big or small, and improving their standard of living.

Whether it was the woman in Patna who started her own tailoring business to feed her growing family, or the garment trader in Muzaffarnagar who sold ice-cream on a bicycle a decade ago, or the taxi driver in Bangalore who went from lifting sacks of grain in 2004 to owning two cabs today — these were the real success stories.

Along the way, a couple of really heart-warming stories also emerged which bucked popular trends and made us proud.

Somlata, a scientist from Jawaharlal Nehru University, refused to follow the herd and go abroad from where she had received lucrative offers, and instead decided to take up the science and technology ministry’s Inspire fellowship and show students that one can do research in India.

Then there was Abhinav Anand, who left Bihar and reached Calcutta to study hospitality management. After working for Taj Sats and then a multinational coffee house in Delhi, he returned to his small-town home in Vaishali, 110km north of Patna, to start his own restaurant. He wanted to prove to the non-believers that one could do business in Bihar too.

The story that perhaps gave us goosebumps was of the humble, soft-spoken Ali Asgar of Wankaner in Gujarat. Coming from a wealthy family, Ali Asgar lost everything, including his father, three sisters and his family business, in the earthquake that hit Gujarat in 2001.

A young boy left with nothing and a mother to look after, Ali Asgar, through his own hard work and determination and no help from any government, has today started his own bakery, looks after his mother and is happy.

The last question asked of all was “are you happier or sadder now than in 2004” and the resounding, unanimous reply was “happier” — so where is the doom and gloom?

Sajeda Momin is a senior journalist who worked for The Telegraph