A Time of Need and a Time for Greed

The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.’ – Mahatma Gandhi

Neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of a great fear.’ – Bertrand Russell, Unpopular Essays

As the rains receded on December 3rd, I and my brother in law ventured out to buy essential household items. It was around 11.30 AM and we had to go from one shop to another as there was stock out situation for some of the essential items. I had walk the entire Kottur area in search of Milk and Candles. Not a single candle was available in any of the stores. A solitary vendor was selling milk outside a big vegetable store in Kottur market. But instead of the usual Rs. 40 per liter he was charging Rs. 100 per liter, a full 150% mark-up to the usual price. Most people were buying multiple packets of milk from him and yet after walking a few feet from the shop complained that it was wrong on the part of the vendor to hike the price in that hour of distress.

After an extended period of incessant rains, the prices of some of the vegetables had reached the stratosphere. On this particular day these darlings of every household’s kitchen were not even available at even these extremely inflated prices. Bread and Rice were running out of stock too. A couple of days later as I was standing in line to buy milk at another milk depot, a woman was hoarding about hundreds of packets of milk in her tricycle. When one of the customers asked why the woman was siphoning off milk meant to be distributed through regular channel, she hurled abuses at the customer. The irony was that within a few minutes she was selling the same milk packets in a nearby street with a fat markup.

Though most of us complain about the greediness of opportunistic vendors, we are opportunistic and greedy too. A case in point was a trip a petrol pump on the same day. My brother in law’s two wheeler was almost at the verge of running out of petrol. By this time most petrol pumps were closing down as they had no more petrol or diesel to sell. The unending lines of people outside petrol pumps rivaled the queues outside places of worship on auspicious days. I went along with my nephew to one of the petrol pumps near Royapettah. Among the crowd to my disappointment and chagrin, there were a bunch of guys who had come with multiple 30 to 40 liter cans. Why would anybody need so much petrol or diesel? Clearly they were greedy arbitrageur who was planning to sell the fuel at much higher prices in suburban localities. Even people who were buying for their own use too were buying more than necessary.

Around the same time, another irrational phenomenon was unfolding across the city. There was a run on the banks, no actually there was a run on ATMs. With most of the bank branches in Chennai on leave due to rains, the cash balance in ATMs was already low. The situation was made even worse by a lot of anxious people (foreseeing more rain and bank holiday) each withdrawing up to their daily permissible limit. The anxious withdrawal pattern resulted in most ATMs going out of cash by afternoon that day and as result the entire city was indulging a real life treasure-hunt, running from one ATM to another. Only after bank branches opened the following day and some of the banks started operating mobile ATMs the situation limped back to normalcy.

While it is understandable that there were long queues at grocery stores, milk vending booths, ATMs and petrol pumps to everyone’s surprise there was queue in wine shops too. And contrary to ATMs and petrol pumps that ran out of stock, these wine shops were fully stocked and was buzzing with so much activity and life that one could have easily mistaken them for an ant colony or a beehive. It is billion dollar puzzle that how in a democratic country there is stock out for essential commodities but wine shops are fully stocked.

No amount of technology can serve as replacement for irrationality of human beings. No amount of rules and processes can check human greed. As I think back on the events that unfolded during the recent rainy spell, I get reminded of a dialogue from a recent movie: ‘By eating even a single mouthful of food after our hunger has been quenched, we are ensuring that another person remains hungry.’ This principle is very apt in situations of natural or man-made calamities like the recent rainy spell.

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