We have a small opportunity to do some good. Let us use it
Ashok V Desai | July 3, 2015 | New Delhi
The media make parrots out of us. Instead of working things out for ourselves, we are taught to repeat formulae by rote. The formula on Greece is well known. It went on borrowing as if there was no tomorrow. Such wise and kind uncles as the European Union, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank kept lending to it, and urging it to mend its ways. But it did not. So it went bankrupt. Well deserved.
That is the story endlessly spun out by television channels and newspapers. But Greece is not just a government. There are a crore Greeks. Like other European countries, it is an aging population; there are some forty lac old men and women. Like in India, its two-million-odd young people study; their teachers have to be paid. If the Greek government pays its big financiers as they insist, these young and old dependents will starve.
Most people in India are too young to remember it, but India too was in a similar situation. In the 1950s, the government was getting 12 million tons of wheat from the United States – free. It sold the grain in its ration shops, and pocketed the proceeds. As a bachelor, I used to eat in dhabas and restaurants. Then Indira Gandhi had a row with the Americans, and they stopped being India’s bread basket. To save food, the government asked eateries to close on Mondays; so on that day I went without food. Today, many old Greeks are going without food; many young people are on the streets, because they do not have money for education.
It is all right to join the Europeans and blame the Greeks for their plight. But they are in such dire condition, not because of anything they did, but because their politicals blew up the bounty that joining the EU brought. We are no strangers to politicians. All the way from Nehru to Singh, Indian governments have spent more than they received. Some of them have got obscenely rich. They made up the difference by borrowing from banks they nationalized; and when that was not enough, they printed money. That caused inflation; the value of money we held went down year after year. They did not suffer; even the assets they declare to the Election Commission show most politicians to be crorepatis. When we were borrowing from the Fund and the Bank and living from one day to the next, the international institutions treated us exactly as they are treating Greece. The only difference is that our Indira Gandhi was no Alexis Tsipras; she never took her arguments with the international moneybags to the breaking point. The point is, we – I, our students, our workers, our small entrepreneurs – have suffered just as the Greeks are suffering today. It does not help them to blame their rulers any more than blaming Sanjay Gandhi solved our problems. We should give the Greek sufferers a thought.
Not only a thought; we should give them some money. The Greek government spends some 80 billion Euros a year; out of this, about a half is spent on education, health and pensions. That comes to about Rs 5.6 trillion or Rs 56000 crore. The budgetary expenditure of Indian governments – states and the centre – comes to about Rs 35 trillion, or 500 billion Euros. For 7 per cent of it, we could fund the entire requirements of the Greek young and old.
We should not give this as aid. Instead, we should give it to Indians for four purposes – to Indian airlines to start and subsidize flights to Athens, to Indian tourists on expenses of accommodation, food and drink in Greece, to Indian businessmen to buy and set up hotels, restaurants and other businesses in Greece, and to Greeks for tourist services to Indians. The objective should be to wean Indian tourists away from their shopping trips to Dubai and Bangkok, and to acculturate them to appreciation of a civilization as old as ours. Even Indian children remember Pythagoras and Ptolemy. We ought to know more than that; conversely, we should turn the Greeks to Indophiliacs (now, that is a Greek word).
At last we have an active prime minister who has striven hard to make friends: he has pushed and pulled Barack Obama, and shared the swing with Xi Jinping. His efforts have not borne much fruit for two reasons: the big powers do not think India is in their league, and none of them needs India materially. We need to start small, and Greece is small enough for our resources. More can follow; our people can get acquainted with Byzantium and Pompeii, and Greeks can start cooking curry for British tourists. Let us take the first step.
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