Subhas Warrier
Guest Article

Notes from Fort Kochi: My 12 dollar contribution to economic recovery

“As I walk along the market place of Fort Kochi, the sentiments of the shop owners is palpable,” writes our guest author.

As the first phase of the pandemic seemed to be receding, with a lot of hesitancy, in a particularly lonely moment, I ventured out. What could you do in an old city like Kochi? Head to a bit more older side of town, Fort Kochi. They call it the Mahatma Gandhi Beach. Don’t get misguided as there is no beach there; it is just a creek by the Arabian sea, yet a lovely place to spend a quiet evening. But this evening was not a quiet one. It was crowded and it seemed people were beginning to cut loose a bit. I did not see the ominous sign as I write this piece by which time the second wave had raised to its peak.

As I meandered around, I wondered what can each one of us do to help build confidence for ourselves and for the people around. I truly felt that we were few of the lucky people in the midst of this havoc. We founded a company, built a revenue base from which we were able to survive, grew enough to have the courage to take up a Share-a-Office, and thus came along a few talented people who have understood our predicament and our positive outlook for the future. On the other hand, we have heard about so many companies winding up and hence creating a massive hole of unemployment in the nation.

As I walk along the market place of Fort Kochi, the sentiments of the shop owners is palpable. The place was slowly opening, shop fronts being washed up, it looked like a semblance of normalcy returning. People had flocked to spend a Sunday outside but the faces did not show any disdain to the situation as such. Perhaps, like me all the feelings were buried at the back of the face.

I had returned to this place after almost two years. As I walked past, I noticed, surprisingly a little crowd. I was taken aback by the realization that we may have thrown away all the protocols of social distancing. The place was a little market place full of women selling a range of products. From garments, cosmetics to kitchen aids and kitchenware. Quite a few things, a clear sign of things to come, as more women are turning into entrepreneurs. The place was greeted by a live band playing English music which was a welcome sight but what about the protocols? I wondered. My first fiscal stimulus to instil demand took place when I was stopped by a lovely pack of Coconut Paste, a ‘long life’ substitute to Coconut Oil. The woman behind the counter was evidently well trained to inform the product benefits and I saw this as a good innovation.

The second immoderation was to buy a bracelet, which I thought my daughter might like, a bracelet with beads in the shape of a fish and the last purchase was a wrist watch (JW!) from a hawker who, I would have imagined would have struggled to send some money back to Jharkhand, his hometown. This watch had an interesting three-month window. “Bring it back, Sir and I will replace it or repair it."

I didn’t have a working wrist watch so I thought why not help this chap by the creek of Fort Kochi. Even if the watch lasts few days, I had convinced myself that I will not complain or think about it too much. I did not even bargain much because I felt the Rs. 300 that I handed over was meant to help people who are struggling to pick up the threads and come back to normal life. As luck would have it the new China-made watch had already stopped working before I could even reach home.

So I said, okay, let me take this to a watch repair store on my way and see if this watch can find a longer life. The man at the shop, mentioning the Chinese make said, the internal rotor has to be changed completely and that was Rs. 120 and the watch since then is working perfectly, an ideal watch for my morning walk!

This way, I believe, I have done a ‘wee bit’ to turn the economic engine through four different businesses and its peripherals. I believe these are discretionary purchases. Even the coconut paste is a trial and error, not an essential so to speak.

So if I make a little math lesson out of this to get some perspective...

According to US based Company Pew Research Centre, the middle class segment in India has been reduced to 66 million. Prior to the pandemic the middle class population was estimated to be 99 million. The report says that a third of this figure has slipped into the poverty line as a result of the ravaging pandemic.

So if 66 million people make discretionary purchases worth Rs. 900 (US$ 12) then that would flush in about Rs. 54,000 crores into the market through a single purchase occasion. That is three per cent of the annual Rs. 27,000 per man/woman/child allocated in the 2021, Rs. 35 lakh crore budget. Now, this is just a number which economists or financial experts might dispute, counter, whatever.

The reason I am narrating this inner feeling is that demand can be created only through increase in discretionary purchase. A discretionary purchase that is "discretionarily" humane because demand has to happen at the bottom of the pyramid!

And to add to merry people, like me, the Chinese watch with an Indian ‘replaced’ rotor still works, my daughter, who otherwise is anti-jewellery adorns the bracelet, and my wife who experimented with a new product form of coconut oil, did not really complain!

The author is co-founder, Sensibly Weird Company, a multi-disciplinary creative solutions company, in Kochi.