Friday, January 6, 2012

Kanaran’s Message- Learn to Respect Capital

Cheriyerikkandi Kanaran is no more. This New Year arrived with the news of Kanaran’s death.

No...Don’t bother to search your memories. In all likelihood you haven’t heard of Kanaran, unless you are from Thachankunnu area of Payyoli, in Kozhikkode (Calicut) district of Kerala. As far as I know, the only person from Payyoli to be known outside Kerala is the Payyoli Express, Ms PT Usha.

Kanaran was the biggest capitalist known to me in my childhood.  Fed on an overdose of Communism, I was very much conscious about the evil called bourgeoisie, even in my primary school days.  For me, capitalism and capitalists were suckers of human blood and their hard work and therefore supposed to be hated by every ‘progressive’ human being.

Kanaran being owner of the largest grocery shop in our area was the only bourgeois known to my eyes; Tatas and Birlas being mere names that I kept hearing. 

Kanaran wore impeccable white dhoti (Mundu) and white shirt made of Khadi cloth.  His shop did not only retail trade but also wholesale supplies to the smaller traders in and around our place.  Some of the items that we used less frequently were available only in his shop and therefore I had to visit his shop occasionally (mostly during the festival days when my family prepared feasts).

It was during one of those visits, that I overheard Kanaran speaking some basic truths about Kerala’s political and economic scene of those days (not much different even today).  He, in his beaming voice said to some customer, “You speak of tyranny of capitalists (Muthalitham), But I say it is all about tyranny of labourers (Tozhilaitham).  Go to Valiangadi at Kozhikode (the famous of wholesale market of Calicut) and see for yourself. If you have money and a room you can, any day, go and set up a shop there and start trading. There is no monopoly in trade at all.  But if you have to start working as a Head Load Worker (coolie) in that market, you have to pay tens of thousands as fees to the labour unions functioning there, just to get you the permission”.

I was shocked to hear that.  Even to work as a labourer, one needs to pay bribes? That too, to trade unions who are supposed to protect the workers? While I was still sceptic about the truthfulness of those words and wanted to believe that they were mere allegations of a class enemy, the thoughts refused go out of my mind and made me more alert to the hard realities of life and society.  It made me reconsider the stereotypes that are deliberately injected into our thought process.

Later, I had a firsthand experience when one of my schoolmates ended up being a Head Load Worker in the very same Valiangadi of Calicut by paying Rs 40,000 to a Trade Union controlled by a Left Party. Rs 40,000 was still a huge sum in 1980s! He confirmed to me the monopoly over the labour market and how Trade Unions made huge money by merely selling the right to work!

Time changed. I moved out of Kerala. More exposure to life and a pair of open eyes and an open mind taught me much more realities of life.  Perestroika and Glasnost in Russia destroyed the last standing ‘Promised Land’. 
I realised Man, Machine and Money have equal importance in any human endeavour. The more I worked, with start-ups and small & medium sized enterprises, the more I learned that behind the success of any human endeavour are Man in the form of labour, Machine in the form of technology/ideas/tools and Money in the form of capital.  Many a great idea could be merely wasted in the absence of any of these three factors.

Can we discriminate among these factors of human endeavour and hold one as evil and other as godly? I do not think so.  Each of them has its own role to play and the interdependence is complete.  In fact, my experience shows that, if at all, the primacy is for the capital, as capital is inevitable for attracting and retaining the other factors. 

Our society has a peculiar relationship with capital.  Deep inside we seem to be jealous of those who are controlling capital and wanting to acquire the same control, yet in public we only have disdain towards them.  Most of our social leaders and politicians do not miss any chance to hold the controllers of capital as the reason for all the ills of the society, and therefore to be kept under tight leash.  The whole philosophy of our license raj stemmed from this and we all know how that retarded the economic well being of this country for so long.

I don’t know if Kanaran was a capitalist; but I know I am not one.  I believe in the welfare role of the State and the efficacy of measures like state funding, subsidiary etc in development of the society.  I also believe that unbridled free enterprise will not be suitable for a society with unequal inhabitants and therefore there is a need of a role, as an umpire or regulator, for the State.

But I do strongly believe, that like most other matters in life, this aspect is also not in black or white but in some shade of the grey.  The interest of the human beings as a whole will not be served, either by surrendering to the absolute control of Money (thereby neglecting the other factors- Man and Machine) or by vilifying the Money as evil.

We must learn to respect Money as an essential ingredient in the development.  While checks and balances are welcome to ensure its proper use, we must ensure that impediments, in the name of narrow political or ideological preferences, are not placed in the way of genuine capital flowing into or within our society.

I don’t think Kanaran would have minded if another trader set up a new shop in the vicinity or increased investments in an existing shop. He was not seeking any monopoly in his trade.  But our collective fear of capital, for whatever reasons or agendas, is preventing our endeavours reaching their full potential; be it in retail, airlines or insurance, to name a few sectors.

Hope our leaders would show enough wisdom to throw away their ideological baggage and accord the Money, a respect that it deserves.  Capital should be welcome so long as its use is not detrimental to the objectives of our nation. State’s role should be that of a facilitator and an umpire than mere gate keeper.

Kanaran is dead. But his words will keep reverberating in my mind whenever I hear of anyone talking about the inter se primacy of labour and capital or anyone vilifying capital.

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