The number game in India that nobody can make any sense of

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In India, we are dealing with a peculiar situation at the moment — we seem to be having a major problem with numbers! Which numbers are citizens supposed to trust? We know the numbers we can’t trust — the official ones. That being the case, which ones do we take seriously, which do we discard, which do we totally ignore?

It started with the Rs 20 lakh crore stimulus package that nobody could fathom, least of all our finance minister, who looked bewildered each time she was asked to elaborate on the figure. The Prime Minister took his favourite position during tricky situations — he placed a finger on his mouth and changed the subject. Soon we all changed the subject too. What’s the point in banging on about the package when one couldn’t wrap one’s head around the astronomical sum? Is it purely notional? Has anybody seen it? Counted the notes?

It’s a number game, at the end of it all. I confess I am severely number-challenged and can barely add 2+2. But even with my very limited grasp over multiplication and division, I can tell when sarkari numbers don’t add up. With this administration, numbers seem to pose a huge challenge. Which means one of two things — the FM and PMO probably believe we (yes, 1.3 billion of us) are all duds when it comes to simple arithmetic, or that they are clever by half. Indians are known to excel at math — Gujaratis and South Indians in particular. Maybe their ways of number crunching are different from everybody else’s?

At the moment, we are left scratching our heads trying to make sense of many gaps. Most Indians understand one important aspect of life, even if they are not intuitive mathematicians like Srinivasa Ramanujan or ‘human computers’ like Shakuntala Devi. The man on the street is saying, “Forget bogus government statistics, I am only interested in one thing — why is there no money in my pocket?” Nobody has money, bro. But gold prices did cross Rs 50,000 for 10 gm this week! Someone somewhere must be buying sona-chandi, right? My generation will recall buying the entire wedding jewellery in gold for Rs 50,000 — what were sweetly called ‘gold sets’. During the same week as this startling news hit headlines, we also read about the GVK group being booked for siphoning off Rs 705 crore. Mumbai’s spectacular T2 terminal opened in 2014 after an agreement was signed in 2006. It was built, promoted and operated by the same group. Is it possible that nobody was aware of the jiggery-pokery going on so blatantly all this while? Or does the sudden crackdown suggest something else? Aren’t there fresh bids galore to construct and develop new airports across India? Does that mean that new players angling for these multimillion-dollar contracts will get preference? And are all these new players entirely kosher in their business dealings? Someone’s going to be making a lot of money!

Our issue with numbers goes beyond money. We can’t seem to accurately calculate land areas for example: which hostile country has grabbed how much land that rightfully belongs to us — that sort of thing. We still don’t know for sure how many people were involved in the Ladakh standoff or whether such a standoff took place at all! The Prime Minister said on national television that nobody intruded into our territory and we didn’t intrude into anybody’s. OK, Sirji, if you insist. We have made it a habit to hit ‘delete’ when we don’t like certain numbers — whether it’s casualties on our borders or victims of the pandemic. Yes, we are able to count bodybags because those cannot stay hidden. For the rest, like the number of Covid cases or the number of people struggling for life, your guess is as good as mine. But don’t worry, take a look at all those colourful graphs and mind-boggling graphics… try and figure. All guesses are equally valid.

In Mumbai, we’ve been juggling with other information that is pretty puzzling — the fines being imposed right and left on motorists and two-wheeler owners flouting lockdown rules — which change every few hours. From 6,000 cars being impounded in a day to fines between Rs 5,000 and Rs 20,000 imposed in a totally arbitrary fashion, we meekly pay first and protest later. Ditto for astronomical electricity bills. What we do know for sure is that our chief minister and his wife drove to Pandharpur, a distance of 358km, to seek Vithoba’s blessings on Ashadi Ekadashi day. The stated purpose of the visit was to pray for a Covid miracle. Well, considering Uddhav Thackeray formed a government in Maharashtra with just 56 MLAs, he is going to need a double miracle to continue in his job. People have pulled out their calculators to work out the dates for the exit plan. Not that the alternative is any better. Politics has always been a game of dirty numbers.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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