Are pakoda jokes your cup of tea? Jokes have been doing the round on WhatsApp and Twitter about Prime Minister Narendra Modi's words that even selling the deep-fried pan-Indian delicacy for a living is employment enough.
"If someone opens a 'pakoda' shop in front of your office, does that not count as employment? The person's daily earning of Rs 200 will never come into any books or accounts. The truth is massive (numbers of) people are being employed," Modi said in an interview to Zee, triggering plenty of humour, some derision, and even outrage.
India's official national dish is the dal-rice mix, khichdi, but for the moment, pakoda seems to be it.
Modi was actually speaking the truth about India, but to a mindset weaned on 8-hour-working days with 5-day weeks, provident fund dues and company loans, this was a disconnect. It is this mindset that led to even a protest by students wearing graduate robes in Karnataka to sell pakodas at the venue of a Modi rally.
For those who believe in the dignity of labour, the outrage would seem outrageous. But we even have the opposition making it a rallying point in Parliament to ask tough questions on joblessness, in spite of BJP president Amit Shah making a sprightly debut speech in which he underlined that pakoda-selling is not shameful but likening it to begging is.
We may say in jest, and with deep insight, that the French fries sold in McDonald's is nothing but aloo-chaat that went abroad for higher studies, or that the multinational chain's McNuggets is just a cool-sounding variant of the pakoda. With a market capitalisation of 133 billion US dollars (Rs 8.5 lakh crore), McDonald's is a global pakoda-seller on steroids.
All that humour and outrage apart, it is about time we took Pakodanomics seriously because in the age of robotics and automation, imagining jobs by the millions in manufacturing assembly lines of the kind Henry Ford set up a century ago may not be a wise idea.
In the West, the term 'gig economy' is now a fashionable one to discuss self-employed people like web designers, copywriters and software engineers who work independently for several companies or clients at once. I would say pakoda-sellers, plumbers, carpenters and even snake-charmers have been part of India's gig economy long before the term became fashionable. Nearly half of India's labour-force is estimated to be self-employed.
It is time for us to recognise their worth and raising their stature so that they enjoy some deserved benefits. In the UK, the government is seriously considering benefits like sick leave and holiday benefits for gig-workers, amid charges that they are being exploited.
This, of course, applies mainly to people like cab drivers tied to giant tech-platform companies like Uber, but there is no reason India should not learn from Britain to step up benefits for the self-employed as a larger class. The Mudra loans and the recently-announced Ayushman Bharat health insurance scheme for the masses cover these to some extent but it would make more sense to frame a real, elaborate policy.
India does have schemes to help the self-employed, and this is not really new for NDA or Modi. The government portal has a special section for this. However, speculative reports which said the budget this year would announce an employment policy have not come true yet. A self-employment policy seems even more elusive.
What India needs is to go one step further from Britain and look at framing a self-employment framework that would provide benefits including home loans, infrastructure, pensions, healthcare and holidays to the self-employed including pakoda-sellers who are part of India's uncelebrated gig economy. If only the Niti Aayog could take its eyes off high technology and look at low-brow employment with long-term benefits for hundreds of millions of people, Modi may have reasons to smile rather than be laughed at. Else, they will accuse him of making a khichdi out of Pakodanomics!
(Madhavan Narayanan is a senior journalist who has covered politics, diplomacy, business, technology and other subjects in a long career that has spanned organisations including Reuters, Business Standard and Hindustan Times. He is currently an independent columnist, editor and commentator. He is listed among the top 200 Indian influencers on Twitter. He tweets as @madversity)
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)