From The Indian Economist archives (2012)

By Manan Vyas

Every morning and afternoon, on my way to and from the metro station to my college, I observe an old man sitting patiently with a weighing scale. For the princely sum of Rs 2, you can judge the effectiveness of your present exercise routine and generously deduct upwards of a kilo accounting for your shoes and jeans. Strangely however, I have never seen a person getting himself/herself at his weighing scale. Ever. Its not difficult to understand why. He sits in full view of every student of Delhi University that uses the metro station. Imagine this scenario: A girl comes up to the old man’s weighing scale, puts her bag on the ground, tosses her chappals aside and grandly stands on the weighing scale in full view of her peers. Can’t imagine? Well, its never happened. I tried it myself, and though I am not the self-concious type  (I have stayed in a rural area and my evening runs were a subject of much amusement to the villagers who couldn’t understand why any person would actually run  for recreation. Multiple times I have even been offered a lift by kind villagers), I found myself the subject of not a few stares as I tossed my chappals and gently stood on the scale. And then I realised, this gentleman was hardly earning any money.

While he has no marginal cost, his marginal revenue is Rs 2. You would need to multiply that by 14 just to reach the poverty line! I can safely say that the poor man is well below the poverty line. This got me thinking. There are many in India who are unable to add enough value to the economy to earn well enough. Many a time this includes women and old men who are incapable of manual labour. Thus they resort to selling small trinkets, minor repair work, or in case of the gentleman in question, weighing scales. Their margins are low. Marginal revenues are as low as Re 1 and as high as only Rs 5 (those above that figure are excluded from this study). They are the poorest of the poor, homeless and having a daily income of not more than Rs 25-40. Coming back to the old man..Lets examine him from a different point of view.What if he sells his weighing scale, discards his cardboard sign that says “Weigh Yourself for Rs 2″ and simply put forward his money box. The students of Delhi University are politically and socially aware and generally quite compassionate. Suddenly the entire perspective of his positioning changes.

He is sitting at a spot that most students pass by every day. Vishwavidyala metro station records a daily ridership of around 25,000 people and on an average day, students pass by his spot 10,000 times. I can safely say that the number of students willing to give money to an old beggar far exceeds the number of students willing to get themselves weighed in the full view of public eye. Furthermore, with changing times, inflation and changing perception of the value of the rupee (inflation leads us to the perception that each rupee is worth less), the amounts going into the beggar’s bowl may far exceed the Rs 2 he was charging earlier.

Students may donate anything from Rs 5 to Rs 10 to even Rs 100 if they have had a good day. And I believe the changed perception of the value of the rupee and increasing upward mobility (trickle down effect – parents earning more money will give more pocket money) would allow the beggar to earn anywhere between Rs 50 to Rs 100 on a good day (This is my personal opinion, the reader is welcome to his/her own view on the subject).

Now this is where I reach the crux of my article. The old man is probably aware of his predicament. He is aware that his income is stagnant, and far too little. He is aware of the options available. Yet he persists. Him and millions like him persist in occupations that earn them less money than a beggar. Ideally, the amount of money that a beggar makes in a day should form a income floor. Essentially, it would be impossible for anyone in the economy to earn less than the income floor because thats what a beggar makes.

And yet millions toil away, day after day, as people pass by them hardly noticing their tiny wares on sale that simply don’t add enough value to the economy to earn more, and yet they resist. They have a trade-off option: Self respect for the extra amount of money they can earn as beggars. They resist the easy option of simply taking up a bowl and putting it in front of them.

And that’s the price of self respect.

The writer is the Co-Founder of The Indian Economist.

Posted by The Indian Economist | For the Curious Mind