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Subir Roy: A new development index

A good tracker of the change in the level of development of an emerging economy is the change in the quality and value of its biscuits

Subir Roy  |  New Delhi 

The Economist has made much of its Big Mac index which compares the price of the burger across the world in different currencies to see if particular currencies are over or undervalued. Tongue planted firmly in cheek, in the space left after accommodating a mouthful of the stuff which is more than a handful (better to hold it in both hands so you don’t ruin your shirt), it claims with becoming immodesty that the concoction (that is, the index) “is arguably the world’s most accurate financial indicator to be based on a fast-food item”.

Well, here is a competitor. For those who do not lay much store by GDP and nominal exchange rates and like to look at quality of life, here is the first outline of an index that can become arguably the world’s most accurate development indicator to be based on a popular food that does not move fast at all but melts slowly in your mouth as you contemplate the course of the country’s development. Behold the humble biscuit that has known and surprisingly accurately reflected all the ups and downs that the country has been through in the last half century or so.

Much fine-tuning needs to be done before the new development index can be applied usefully across countries but the candidate has great potential. A key decision will be to determine whether the index is to be based on a particular biscuit or biscuits in general. While one biscuit will have all the virtues of specificity, the genre scores in comprehensiveness. My earliest memories, going back to the fifties, is of biscuits being a tremendous treat, the excitement over the prospects of being able to consume a couple of them being akin to the excitement over developing the country rapidly, five years at a time, that was then widespread.

Then came a long interregnum, from the sixties through to the eighties, when developmental progress floundered and with it the quality of biscuits. Things began to change in the nineties and if you want a measure of the country picking itself up and going places, all you have to do is to look at the sea change that has been taking place in last 10 years or so in biscuits. Not only has quality improved, increasing competition has kept prices low and the sharp rise in real per capita incomes in the last several years is accurately reflected in the higher value that biscuits have been delivering.

But if I were to opt for the specific, right now I can find no better biscuit to focus on than the Digestive, my all-time favourite. It was great when I was a kid, became virtually tasteless thereafter and, lo and behold!, come liberalistion and then 9 per cent growth, there has been such a fabulous return of taste and flavour. And a small pack is available for no more than Rs 15 (after a price rise). If that is not value for money, what is?

Equally fascinatingly, the sub-plots that have been developing in the Digestive segment flag other changes that have been taking place in India. Marie is the blandest biscuit that man ever made and should really be excommunicated from the fraternity of biscuits. But hold on, the Digestive Marie has beautifully arrived in the middle to give you a bit of both value and taste and hold up aloft the banner of Indian innovativeness.

That is not all. The Indian opening-up and the phenomenon of major firms and brands in the world coming to India to be a part of one of the two foremost growth stories in the world are traceable in Digestives too. Even as the Indian Digestive became better in recent years, the international packs appeared on shelves here too and the difference was telling. The two were not the same, in terms of both taste and price. Then the big global name was available both at global prices (the packs that were imported) and in small packs bearing the Indian price tag, the latter produced by a taken-over factory in India. But here comes the clincher: the now-improved Indian Digestive, my taste buds developed over decades tell me, beats the newly arrived price competitor. If you were seeking a measure of that great aspect of current Indian development — that none can beat the value created in India for the bottom of the pyramid, and that Indian competitiveness is not just in terms of price but quality too — then all you need to do is to taste the two different made-in-India Digestives.

While Digestives are a good benchmark for biscuits in general, there have been other developments too. My other great favourite, the Cream Cracker, with or without cheese, has undergone a similar decline and rise over the decades. And today there is a newcomer challenging established players. The recently arrived sugar-free Cream Cracker takes the cake, and I don’t turn to it because it is healthy. Pleasure and health do not mix, I have found out over the years, and it is idle to try to achieve both with the same item.

So, what should the development index be based on, biscuits or the Digestive? And what is the applicability of such an index across countries, particularly in those where they call biscuits cookies? A newcomer strongly asserts that the two are not the same, though the dictionary says they are. The foodies among economists, I call them gastronomists, have to make up their minds. But there is no doubt that a good tracker of the change in the level of development of an emerging economy is the change in the quality and value of its biscuits.  

First Published: Sat, September 11 2010. 00:49 IST