Article The changing value of money

Changing social and cultural value of money in India

An old advertisement of 1989 of the then recently launched Bajaj Chetak Scooter showed a face of united and powerful India: how Bajaj Scooter, a bike manufactured by an Indian automobile company, Bajaj, becomes a part of a happy Indian family of parents, children and their grandparents. The advertisement’s jingle “Buland Bharat ka buland tasveer, hamara Bajaj” (The face of strong India is our Bajaj) became a hit among viewers for its cultural and emotional connotation and more than a score later, it still enjoys its popularity through youtube and other video sharing websites. This particular commercial was launched in pre-liberalisation days of Indian economy when cable and satellite channels were yet to enter Indian homes and Doordarshan was the only television channel broadcasted across India.

In 1970s and 80s, those who were employed, remember entering into workforce with just 300 rupees ($5), or less than that, as salary, which was then considered a good pay. India was primarily an agrarian society with most of the national population living in villages. An Indian family living in a village included parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, children and cousins living together under one roof. In a joint family system such as this, all family members ate meals together, celebrated festivals hand in hand and stood by each other on moments of grief and sadness. Children were expected to devote one and contribute towards the well being of the entire family. Individalism and thoughts of personal growth were nearly not existed. Televisions, phones, refrigerators could only be found in homes of upper class families. They had the privilege of watching films at theatres and travelling by horse wagons, that was then commonplace in big cities like Calcutta and Bombay. All agrarian families used to grow their own food from their lands and catch fish from ponds owned by zamindars (landlords).

A septuagenarian, Rabindra Nath, born six years before India’s independence remembers his parents stocking up food during the famine of Bangladesh in 1974. “Our family of six brothers and three sisters, with their children were 30 members. Food was cooked and prepared by my sister-in-laws and we all ate together. “ He narrates that children used to eat at first followed by men and lastly the women and wives. He recalls whoever was an earning member of the family used to give his contribution to the head of the family, who was always a male and who took care of all needs of the family. They had their own agricultural lands and two ponds in their native village, 40 kilometres away from the city they lived in. All vegetables and fishes their family fed on came from the produce of their farms. Rabindra Nath recollects, “We had no refrigerator, but we had a telephone and a car. That was a luxury in those days. People from neighbourhood who had no phones came to our house to telephone their relations and there was no bad feeling against them.” Money was then equated with well-educated families. Access to education was difficult and hence those who struggled to study and get well educated were respected in neighbourhood. Education remained the key to obtaining the coveted sarkari naukari (government job). Those who had money were widely believed to be well behaved and well cultured and were regarded highly in society.

This was in 1960s and 1970s, before the Indian economy was liberalized in 1992 by the central government of India. The Indian economy witnessed near stagnation in real GDP growth till the late 1970s. Agricultural growth slowed down during this time but later picked up in 1980s, thanks to quite a few reform measures aimed at increasing domestic competitiveness. India faced food shortages after years of its independence and remained largely a poor country. India faced a severe balance of payment crisis and in response to that, markets were opened up, private sector was encouraged, state monopolies were broken and thus gradually globalisation was embraced by traditional India.

The trade liberalization had a dramatic impact on Indian economy. The real GDP per capita increased at an annual rate of about 6%, which remained at just 1 and one-fourth percent in three decades after India’s independence. Many Indian entrepreneurs started opening new ventures across various Industrial segments and helped create job opportunities and that too with good wages. Middle class families started sending their sons and daughters out for education followed by employment. This resulted in rise of domestic income and consequently in a dramatic increase of domestic consumption. In a joint family of ten members, where one or two members were earning, after trade liberalization, six family members started earning and contributing to the welfare of the family. Free economy policies on foreign direct investment and foreign institutional investment helped in faster developments in telecommunication, roads, ports, airports, insurance and other major sectors. In 2007, the fruits of trade liberalization resulted in highest GDP growth rate of 9% when India became the second fastest growing economy in the world.

More than two decades later, the reform process is still going on; but what is interesting is that the impact of trade liberalisation has largely changed the societal and cultural norms and affected the social value of money.

There has been a steep rise in purchasing power of money and in domestic consumption of middle class families in India since 1992. People have been leaving their homes and agricultural lands in search of good job and better money. Agriculture not being seen a reliable source of income due to climate change and not perceived a prestigious job any more, people abandon their farms and travel far and wide across the country for good livelihood. As a result, joint families have been broken in to nuclear families consisting only parents and children, where sometimes both parents work bringing in good money for their offspring. Many urban spaces were developed and people from villages migrated to cities for employment. Refrigerators, television and telephones are found in every nuclear family at the present time.

The culture of saving that was commonplace among Indian middle and upper-middle classes in 1960s and 70s, has been translated into the culture of spending to avail better services and experiences. A majority of hard-earned money was saved and put into banks and post offices as fixed deposits for future emergencies. This particular norm is nowadays popular with older generation, while the present generation prefers to invest money on plots, houses, mutual funds, shares and debentures for better returns. With the introduction of
new private sector banks, who introduced retail credit for housing and for consumer durables in large, there has been a rapid increase of individual and household liabilities.

An increase of domestic consumption has oddly led to opening up of super-markets and malls resulting in brand conscious and consumerism. People now opt for luxurious experiences in lieu of credit. Cities like Pune, Bangalore, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Gurgaon, Noida, Chennai, Kolkata, Delhi have become the centres of foreign investment and encourage consumerism and rise of domestic consumption through good wages. As a result, many families came from far-flung places to settle in these cities where sometimes it is difficult to know who lives next door, a peculiar phenomenon, which was completely non-existent two decades ago. Collectivism and togetherness of traditional Indian joint families have been replaced by individualism that fuels personal growth and wealth. Families that ate all meals together two decades back now meet once or twice a year on occasions of festivals and weddings.

Women, who earlier were locked up inside homes and only cooked food for their children and husbands, now form a major percentage of working population. Women going to offices is a common sight in India. They are also the target of big consumer brands for their products. Rights of women are now recognised by many.

Indians who fed on roti, sabzi, dal and rice in their homes, now prefer Mc Donald’s burgers, pizzas and pastas and grilled dishes inside air-conditioned glass walled restaurants. The new experience of eating out and trying out new unknown dishes for many has replaced the custom of eating lunch and dinner together.

Ajit Sinha, an economist and a retired professor, feels economy liberalization has led into altered family patterns and changed values of Indian society. Thirty years back India was much more a warm and hospitable society than what it is today. These values eroded when money started coming in easily and people started abandoning their core values to make good and ready money. He continues that whether this situation is positive or negative is not the question, but whether people can sustain on this new practice on a long term is the question that one should ask.

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