The absconding mali… and the impacted GDP

Last week I had another fight with my wife because although we have been married since 1981, neither understands how the other’s brain works. This time we fought over the mali, or gardener. Her view is that as long as our flower pots look ok, it’s all right if he comes to work only 15 days, even though he is paid for the full month. My view is that he must come at least on 22–24 days. So we had a fight over those missing 7–9 days. I tried to explain to her that if he comes only on half the days, it means he is effectively doubling his salary. She said don’t make a fuss over a paltry 50 rupees per day. I said it had nothing to do with the amount but the fact he was doubling his productivity, as measured by value addition, without working. This was totally unacceptable from the GDP measurement point of view. She told me exactly what I could do with my “idiotic obsession with economics”.

This was not a thrust to be ignored and the battle escalated. I will not bore you with the details. Suffice it to say that I lost. The mali continues as before while I seethe with rage. What’s worse, I think the rascal understands what’s happened. So not only has he had the last laugh, he has also fooled the Indian statistical system and the government too. The Indian economy is ­growing while its output is falling. All because of our mali.

You have to admire these mali chaps. They are better than even bureaucrats who add no value but at least have to turn up to the office.

Smarting after my loss of face, I exchanged notes with a friend who has an absolutely marvellous garden. Not just any old garden, but a splendid one on her terrace. It’s got at least 50 varieties of plants which need very careful tending. That means she needs a good mali. I phoned her and asked her how her mali was. She laughed. He comes only when he feels he can no longer avoid coming, she said. That’s for 10–12 days a month. On the remaining days, she said, she herself attends to the plants. Thus, her mali had gone one better. He had tripled his productivity and fooled the Central Statistical Organisation even more comprehensively than mine had. You have to admire these mali chaps. They are better than even bureaucrats who add no value but at least have to turn up to the office. The malis of India don’t even do that.

When I mentioned this to a highly pedantic friend of mine, he said two malis was too small a sample. So I set about collecting more data and what better place to do so than the university where my wife teaches? It sprawls over a few thousand acres. That means it needs a lot of malis. It quickly became apparent that these guys were on a different level altogether. They were collecting their salaries but working mostly in a very affluent neighbourhood, located close to the campus. The university salary was counted in the GDP numbers but the cash income from moonlighting was not.

However, output at the university was nearly zero. So once again it was the same story: high salary, no output. But while output in the private residential neighbourhood was very high, the income from it was not counted.

I asked my cousin who is a top flight econometrician. And he came back with an even bigger conundrum: soldiers during peacetime earn a salary but don’t kill enemies. That is high salary, no output.

The logic is the same for malis and soldiers. They should be there when needed. As long as plants look ok and the country doesn’t lose a war, who cares about a few rupees? As always, my wife had won not just the battle but the war as well.

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