Saturday, December 03, 2011

On squeezed middle, occupy and bunga bunga

It seems the Oxford English Dictionary has chosen ‘squeezed middle’ as word of the year. Of course there’s the desirable kind of squeezed middle, that almost everyone in the upper middle aspires to, but the squeezed middle in the OED is sterner stuff. It refers to British Labour party politician Ed Miliband’s “term for those seen as bearing the brunt of government tax burdens whilst having the least with which to relieve it”.
Maybe the British take their taxes seriously. Here in India, of course, it’s a bit of a joke, haha. Only 33.5 million people of our 1.21 billion pay any personal income tax at all, according to data quoted by our Minister of State for Finance SS Palanimanickam in Parliament in August.  That’s 2.77 per cent of the population. If you’re bearing the brunt of taxes, like me, you should be wondering why and looking for ways to get out of bearing this brunt. Try unemployment, or a brief holiday in Tihar jail in the company of many rich and famous personalities, or both.
Some among the 2.77 per cent of us here are ‘squeezed’, and comprise the 'squeezed middle', which raises a very important question: where, in a body, is the middle located? My knowledge of biology and mathematics caused me to suspect that the middle would be sort of halfway up from the bottom...a little above waist level, generally speaking. Of course this is rubbish. In India, as we’ve been hearing expert commissions say for a few years now, somewhere between 37 and 77 percent of the population live on less than Rs 20 a day. The difference between those two percentages is about half a billion people, but hey, no one said statistics is a precise science, or that we know how to count beyond 99,999, except for tax and bribe purposes. Besides, how would we have Important Meetings without some proper sounding numbers? What would the Planning Commission do?
Even their poverty line, pegged at Rs 32 per person per day in urban areas, leaves about 30 or 40 or 50 percent of the population below the said line. Your guess on exact numbers is as good as mine, which is as good as the Planning Commission’s, because actually no one in this country knows the correct answer to this question. They ought to make it the Rs 5 crore question in Kaun Banega Crorepati and wait for the right answer.
So what I was saying is that the squeezed middle here is a part of the 2.77 per cent who pay tax. These are folks who spend at least Rs 100 a day overall, or Rs 3,000 a month each, which makes them rich compared to the poor sods who get by on Rs 32 a day. The squeezed middle is actually near the top! About ear level, I’d say.
Meanwhile a survey by a ‘wealth prospecting’ agency called Wealth X reported last month that 8,200 Really Rich People own more than 50 per cent of India’s total wealth. These are folks who own a minimum of Rs 150 crore each. They’re at the top, and the middle has to be below the top, so again, the squeezed middle is about ear level.
It’s a very thin squeezed middle, so we can safely say that in India’s gargantuan body, there’s very little between the ears.
Perhaps that is also the condition of the Oxford English Dictionary. They had stronger contenders for the global word of the year in English, but chose the one they did.
Occupy, as in ‘Occupy Wall Street’, was among the contenders. There’s plenty more force in that one. The spirit of 'occupy' is moving people and buffeting governments around the world. It’s the genuine angst that fed into the Arab Spring – remember it started with a street vendor’s self-immolation in Tunisia. His last words before he set himself on fire were reported to be, “How do you expect me to make a living?”
He was maddened by poverty and corruption after he’d had his wares confiscated by the municipal authorities.
Think of how many times a day such things happen in India. The municipal truck that comes by and steals away the street vendor’s good until he or she pays a bribe to recover’ve probably seen it happen at some point. The municipal guys, like the beat cops, are from the 'squeezed middle'. They're fighting the Arab Spring, and the Occupy.
Occupy is a meaningful word around the world. 
So is another of the contenders that lost out. I refer here to ‘bunga bunga’, meaning parties of the sort former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is world-famous for having. These involve several bare-naked ladies and quality intoxicants.
Now that’s a word with clear appeal all around the planet. Forget Wall Street...who in the squeezed middle wouldn't wish to occupy, or shall we say, squeeze into, Berlusconi's villa?