Nero’s guests


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‘(they) were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle.’

Tacitus (Roman historian and official,

c.58 to 115 C.E.)

The Annals, Book XV, C.E. 62-65


IT was talking to Lewis Lapham that sent me back to Tacitus. We had looked at the mindset that extreme inequality breeds. The editor of Harpers pointed to Nero’s garden parties, the lighting for which he provided by setting aflame human beings.

Now we do know that Nero was mad. (Unlike some of his saner predecessors who routinely fed thousands of human beings to animals at the Coliseum.) So this sort of conduct, while shocking, was not surprising. Much later, the Nazis did worse. History has many contenders for cruelty’s crown.

More interesting was the conduct of Nero’s guests. Rome’s elite prominent amongst them. What sort of sensibility did it require to pop another fig into your mouth as one more human being went up in flames nearby to serve as ‘a nightly illumination?’ For the party to go on, singing and dancing, as the spectacle unfolded?

Tacitus doesn’t say.

Many big events crowded October 2002. The Kashmir elections, more farmers’ suicides, hunger deaths. It was the month of a nearly-happened debate on CEO excesses, in India and worldwide. The month when a mob lynched five dalits accused of cow slaughter in Haryana. A mob egged on in its efforts by the police.

Future historians might not get to see this period that way. Not if they use the media of our time as a major source. They would find an event more momentous than any of these and outstripping all of them in importance, in the second week of October. Whether in column space in the print media or in broadcast time on countless channels, the occurrence hogging the first rough drafts of history was Amitabh Bachchan’s birthday.

The Times of India had an eight-page colour supplement to commemorate the happy occasion. Bachchanalia stormed huge swathes of media territory. A party the costs of which are yet unknown. But which drew anybody who has ever inhabited Page 3. (To its credit, The Indian Express had a supplement on Jayaprakash Narayan’s 100th birth anniversary on the same day, October 11. Few, of course, had anything at all on October 2, the anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand who said, among other things: Live simply, that others might simply live.) Some channels forgot everything else. ‘Nation celebrates Amitabh’s birthday,’ said one beaming anchor while giving us the headlines.



October saw at least an attempt at a debate on CEO earnings and growing disparities. That was natural. After years of unrestrained corporate loot, Enron, WorldCom, Global Crossing et al had hit the fan. There were serious efforts to link these issues to the problem of soaring inequality. In a powerful piece in The New York Times, Princeton Professor Paul Krugman presented devastating data and raised hard questions on CEO incomes.

Management Guru Tom Peters entered the debate the same month from a different angle. He suggested that ‘Good CEOs’ should re-designate themselves CDOs. That is, as chief destruction officers. Because ‘you essentially get paid for blowing up your own business before the com petition does.’ Even our own Economic Times, while celebrating their culture in every respect, found space for this one line. ‘The CEOs of India Inc. are raking it in, recession or no recession.’

And then Narayana Murthy, founder of Infosys, spoke up. And took his corporate brethren by surprise. Murthy said that the events had discredited CEOs. That the gaps between them and ordinary workers were too wide. That in India, in his view, the salary of the top officer of a company should not be more than 15-20 times that of the lowest-paid one. Murthy draws a low salary by corporate norms, despite having been one of India’s most successful CEOs, and possibly the most admired. He felt that the social and moral dimensions of this issue in our country lent it some urgency.



Almost a corporate October Revolution? Not quite. Under a cacophony of protesting bleats from scared CEOs – and newspapers defending the majesty of The Market – Murthy clarified that he was not suggesting any mandatory limits. The Indian Express blasted his heresies with an editorial ‘Pay Peanuts, Get Monkeys.’ (A few of our newspapers have sometimes paid gold and got gorillas for editors, but that’s another story.) Hacks from the ‘Greed is Good’ school of thought and televangelists of the Marie Antoinette School of Economics quickly educated their audiences on the absurdity of such ideas.

The insurrection squashed, it was time to get back to Amitabh’s 60th birthday bash.

Well, at least the idea had been raised and by no less a man than Murthy. Both television and newspapers did carry tables and graphics on CEO salaries. One showed that Dhirubhai Ambani’s last earnings totalled Rs 8.85 crore. Anil Ambani’s take the same year was Rs 7.13 crore. One graphic even claimed a package of Rs 9.54 crore for a single individual.

Fascinating. But something was missing in this stirring tale of possible ‘ceilings’ on CEO earnings. And that was any discussion of ‘the floor’ in the pickings of the lesser classes. To see just how serious those social and moral dimensions are in this country, Narayana Murthy might want to extend his comparisons outside the confines of individual companies. He would see the gaps are far worse than he had imagined.

Professor Krugman rightly finds the idea of a CEO earning a thousand times what an ordinary worker does in his country somewhat obscene. But what is the gap between the top Indian CEOs and, say, an agricultural labourer in rural India scraping together Rs 3,000 a year with some luck? If we take that Rs 9 crore figure as a guide, that executive earns 30,000 times what a poor Indian does. What millions of poor Indians earn each year. Even more, if we take the earnings of a woman landless labourer. If we use for comparison someone midway in the top ten CEO list, you’d still find gaps of 1:15,000 and over.



In the year before his salary edged towards the Rs 9 crore figure, Dhirubhai Ambani gave himself a modest raise of 346 per cent. Tens of millions of landless labourers, alas, can’t remember when they last saw ‘a raise’. They are mostly unable to enforce their rights to even the pathetic minimum wage in their states. Except where their unions are strong, rural workers due to get, say, Rs 45 a day, might get Rs 15 less or worse. And through the 1990s, large numbers of them have faced a decline in days on which they find work. For many, real wages have stagnated or declined.

And CEO packages do not always tell the full story. (One of Murthy’s critics was unkind in his remarks. He said he found the Infosys chief’s modesty unbecoming of a CEO who took a low salary ‘but gave himself countless crores in stock options.’)



All in all, we’re looking at gaps of anywhere from 20,000 to 35,000 times between the earnings of richest and poorest Indians. And yet, how can we leave out global comparisons in an era where these so fascinate us?

Krugman writes that in his last full year at General Electric (GE), Jack Welch was paid $ 123 million (including stock and stock options). That’s only 1.2 million times the Rs 4,500 a landless labourer near Enron’s Dabhol Power Project in Maharashtra might earn in a good year. They’re connected. GE had a role in Enron’s project from day one.

And still the party goes on.

When Dhirubhai took ill and was hospitalised, TV crews and hordes of newspaper hacks struck root at the place. From close by, they monitored his every heartbeat. What remained of India’s poor public health system eroded swiftly through the 1990s. Few reports appeared, though, on what that meant for the health of hundreds of millions.

When Dhirubhai died, major newspapers said – without a hint of criticism – that 450 kilograms of pure sandalwood adorned the funeral pyre. This had been flown in from Karnataka. Doubtless to ensure him a fragrant journey as he made his way to heaven (well, to somewhere). If true, even in death, Dhirubhai still gladdened the hearts of entrepreneurs like Veerappan. (Surely one of very few people who can produce so much sandalwood at short notice).

Some time ago, I came across another kind of funeral in Karnataka. Bandiappa, husband of Sushilabai, had died in a village in Gulbarga. This in a region where more people bury rather than burn their dead. (Only those at the top of the caste ladder practice cremation.) But Bandiappa, a dalit, ended up undergoing a bit of both. The dominant castes would not allow an untouchable to be laid to rest near their village. He was being buried when they forcibly stopped it. Then Sushilabai tried cremating him, but the firewood and oil the family could afford was not enough. And so Bandiappa lay, outside his village for a day, half-buried, half-burnt.

I thought of Sushilabai the day the Polyester Prince died. But since Dhirubhai earned 32,000 times what she did, we can understand these as differences in their levels of efficiency.



Last year, Mumbai’s elite vied to be seen at another party. That celebrating Sharad Pawar’s 60th birthday – the man who gave us the Enron deal. Tens of millions of rupees were spent on this bash. Since hordes of editors and journalists were also present, you’d have expected some sharp coverage. The more so since the lavish do in honour of the ‘farmers’ leader’ unfolded amongst mounting suicides by debt-ridden cultivators in the same state. But the media were there as guests, and proud to be. The following day’s editorials poured praise on Pawar. There was not even a suggestion that what had happened was vulgar and insensitive.

For some years now, the rich in the metros have been into ‘theme weddings’. Huge canvas replicas of the Sistine Chapel or the Palace of Udaipur built at a cost of crores of rupees. To last just one night. This, in a nation where hundreds of millions face sharpening distress. You’d think that would draw some critical comment in the media. It doesn’t. Sometimes, it gets celebrated in cover stories that link it to the ‘prosperity ushered in by the reforms.’ Or as a ‘refreshing break’ from the ‘tired old days of state socialism.’ The sad past when the rich had ‘to be apologetic about spending on the good things in life.’

What is the stage at which a society decides that inequality has gone far enough? That it dehumanises both its victims and those who produce it? That no one can sustain a society building gaps of 1:30,000. Of inequities so sharp and so cruel?

There is certainly a point, a boundary beyond which insensitivity is no longer wrong. When obscene levels of inequality are seen as normal. When the Greed is Good gang asserts that inequality is not bad, it is even desirable. And when this claims gains legitimacy. Much of the Indian elite have stepped past that boundary. This is the moral matrix of our present levels of inequality.



Sure, there has been some reporting of hunger-related deaths in recent years. From Rajasthan and Orissa, for instance. But it has been marginal to the scale – and more importantly the nature – of the problem. In the 1990s such deaths resurfaced in a big way for the first since independence. But they are not seen as policy-driven. Much more as the result of natural calamity. And of those catch-all clichés ‘official neglect’. Or ‘faulty implementation’.

It has yet to dawn on many that perhaps the largest number of such deaths since 1992 have taken place in the very rich state of Maharashtra. (In Melghat, in Mokhada, Dhule and other places.) Not in Bihar or Orissa. Some of these have occurred no further than 90 kilometres from the city of Mumbai where so much wealth is concentrated.

In five months in 2002, 22 children aged three or less died in Maharashtra. In just a single taluk of Thane district. As Frontline reports: ‘Severe malnutrition had left the children vulnerable to diseases. Investigations reveal that many more deaths remain unreported.’

Then the Commissioner of the Tribal Research and Training Institute, Arun Bhatia, went public. One of the state’s senior-most IAS officers, he highlighted hunger-linked deaths on a much larger scale in the state’s tribal belt. The government’s response was to try and ‘discipline’ him. (He has since retired.) The interest shown in this problem by the national press in this period ranged from low to nil.



In Rajasthan, adivasi families are ‘rotating hunger’ as they have been doing for three years or more now. This means each day one family member goes without food – because there is so little at home. The member who does get to eat is the one who goes out looking for work. With work so hard to find, these families are crushed. Unsurprisingly, more and more hunger linked deaths are taking place in the state.

In Andhra Pradesh the previous year, hungry people were forced to buy rice at Rs 6.40 a kilogram. This, in drought-hit regions, while we exported rice at Rs 5.45 a kg. But Chandrababu Naidu remained the media’s darling. And that of Bill Gates. Which meant that only a few dedicated reporters in the state tried to tell people about what was happening.

Andhra led the trend in hunger deaths right from the early 1990s. The weavers of Pochampally were among the first to succumb to that trend – and to suicide.

In Orissa, such deaths have occurred often since 1996. People in adivasi pockets of the state say officials are bullying them. There are commissions of inquiry coming by. And they must be told that the deaths had nothing to do with hunger.

Who would have ever have thought to see hunger-related deaths in Tamil Nadu? Yet, at least eight weavers there went that way this year.

The list is long. In state after state, the policies of the 1990s are claiming human lives in large numbers. Most establishment economists do not refer to this at all. The very few who do, have a cute term for it. It’s all about ‘managing the problems of transition.’ (Transition to what, we are never told.)These were sad, but not structural. Aberrations, not endemic.

Sure, some of the deaths do get covered. The problem is that the processes leading to them usually don’t. The hunger deaths are only an extreme symptom of what has gone wrong. To disconnect them from the process is to distort the story.



And then there are the suicides. In early December, Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh confirmed that 26 farmers had ended their lives in the past few months. These are not to be confused with the suicides that took place while Mumbai’s elite blew out the candles at the Great Maratha’s birthday bash last year. Nor do they include the rash of suicides in the region in 1998. Nor the ones that occurred in year 2000.

Uttar Pradesh has got in on the act, with sugarcane farmers in Sitapur taking their own lives. And suicides have been on in Gujarat for a while now.

In Karnataka, the rise in farmer suicides was worrying. So the government set up a committee to study the problem. It drew flak this year when people realised there was not a single farmer on that committee.

In Rajasthan, close to 500 farmers committed suicide in 2001. The Hindustan Times puts the toll for five years from 1997 to 2001 at around 3,000.

In March 2002, Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh spoke to the New Indian Express. He said: ‘Six hundred farmers have killed themselves in the last one year in my state.’ That disclosure was buried in the seventh paragraph of the interview. It found no mention in the headline.

Take just one district of Andhra Pradesh – Anantapur. As many as 1,826 people there, mostly farmers, took their lives between 1997 and the end of 2000. As many as 45 per cent of these were women. (There are a lot of women-headed households in this high-migration region.) Year 2000 alone saw 577 people end their lives. The figure for 2001 crossed 600.

Some – far from all – of the farmers’ suicides have been reported. Again, with a focus on drought and other calamities. The collapse of investment in agriculture is rarely mentioned. The crash in rural employment, the gutting of rural credit, the rise of input prices – these do sometimes pop up. But they are seldom emphasized. Anything that calls into question the nature of ‘the reforms’ is played down.



In August, as lakhs of peasants left their homes in a desperate search for work, the media did look in on them. This, after all, was drought. A few papers and channels actually sent out a handful of reporters to the countryside. But even drought at its blistering best couldn’t match the pull of Lakme India Fashion Week. That had some 400 journalists covering it the same month.

With thousands of farmers taking their own lives, the party still goes on. The Times of India has announced, at the top of its national page, that the Femina Miss India Contest would be made ‘more relevant’ to our country. How, remains a closely guarded secret. The same month, farmers suicides got a fraction of the space the more relevant Miss India contest did in the same paper.



Besides, as Krugman writes of his own country, there is another aspect to this. Denial of growing inequality ‘is a sizeable, well-financed industry. Conservative think-tanks have produced scores of studies that try to discredit the data, the methodology and, not least, the motives of those who report the obvious. Studies that appear to refute claims of increasing inequality receive prominent endorsements on editorial pages and are eagerly cited by right-leaning government officials.’

Sounds so much like home. Where some economists are fascinated by the fall in poverty they see. At least one of them has claimed a decline so rapid that we’d best build a museum to house poverty. We’ve got to preserve that heritage some place before we lose it altogether. Inequality? How is that a problem?

Nothing spoils the party. Not even the Supreme Court pulling up state governments on the rise in starvation deaths. This October, the court said state chief secretaries would be held responsible for any further hunger deaths. Still, the deaths have continued to mount.

Never mind too that the Planning Commission has fiddled with poverty data. It concedes that some of the data might not be ‘strictly comparable’ to earlier figures. And more blather on those lines.

Never mind that the Union Minister for Food has also conceded some hard truths. As 2001 set in, he spoke of high levels of hunger in the country. But there is always that ‘well-financed’ industry to assert the opposite.

The farce of denial, though, was kept up even as K.R. Narayanan felt forced to say things no President ever has. That too, in a Republic Day speech. He spoke in anguish of an India where ‘some kind of a counter revolution is taking place.’ Of a society ‘increasingly insensitive and callous.’ Of ‘vulgar indulgence in conspicuous consumption.’ And of a ‘sullen resentment among the masses against their condition, erupting often in violent forms.’

The Times of India dismissed the speech in less than six inches. The Express blasted it as full of ‘the usual lamentations’ in an editorial calling for ‘Iron in the Soul.’ Most others didn’t cover it at all.



Two years on, the crisis is much worse. The collapse of small farms unfolds with a sickening brutality. Acute distress in rural India stares us in the face. But too many in the elite don’t want to see, let alone understand it. Record piles of foodgrain – close to 60 million tons – rot in this country. A nation where the largest number of those in hunger and absolute poverty in the world reside. That too, can be explained away by those whose heads are crowded by the principles of their brand of economics. Whose hearts are bereft of any principles of humanity.

And the party goes on.

Tacitus despised Nero. His writings on the Emperor show us that. However, he wrote very little about his guests. Those who could pop that fig while human torches burned around them.

But then, come to think of it, the media of our time – the first-drafters-of history – are remarkably silent about this side of our own elite. Too many of whom are today just that. Nero’s Guests.