"Give me 50 days to weed out ill-gotten wealth" - this was Prime Minister Narendra Modi on how short-term inconvenience of demonetisation should be borne by everyone for the larger, long-term benefit of the country. The "me" in this particular sentence is disquieting as it almost paints a picture of an authoritarian ruler, through demagoguery and paternalism, convincingly managing to enthrall the gullible masses.
The same was true in his recent speech in Goa where, among other things, he pompously expressed his bravery on taking miscreants head on. The 'I-Me-Myself' smug attitude invariably makes one feel that the rest of the government is hopelessly supine.
Apart from the self-centred machismo on display of the 56-inch variety, there are pressing questions which have emerged after the initial few days of the demonetisation effort which demand the most urgent attention.
Fifty days for removing black money, at least three weeks for recalibrating ATMs across India and countless days for new notes to replace the 86 per cent of cash in circulation that was made up of 500 and 1,000 rupee notes.
In this backdrop, a small group of suave, English-speaking literates suddenly realised that there is something called rural India that comprises 70 per cent of India's population, of which close to 50 per cent relies on agriculture.
Combing rural and urban, the size of the informal economy is close to 90 per cent, of which 45 per cent contributes directly to the GDP. By now, we have numerous reports telling us that about 90 per cent of this particular economy works on cash. Even those who are constantly harping on the "hardship" of standing in long queues have not bothered to think what impact the demonetisation drive will have on the informal sector.
Micro, small and medium enterprises are extensively labour-intensive, which sees workers employed on a weekly wage basis. Now that factory owners are themselves short of cash, the workers are left hanging.
The lack of demand from both sides is affecting other sectors like weekly baazars. Farmers are forced to sell their produce at knockdown prices. Perishable products have already taken a severe hit. Those who were getting ready with the kharif harvest have no money to buy seeds and fertilisers for their rabi season.
According to estimates of the Reserve Bank of India itself, the banking network does not cover more than 30 per cent of the population. In a society where formal credit has consistently failed the rural people, it is moments like these where the moneylender-middleman nexus is bound to get even more vicious.
|Narendra Modi's 'I-Me-Myself' smug attitude invariably makes one feel that the rest of the government is hopelessly supine. (Photo: Reuters)|
To talk of a cashless economy in a largely feudal economic framework, where the system that perpetuates this retrograde economy continues unabated, is a grand chimera. Following on, the ratio of population to ATM machines is hopelessly skewed and gives a deeply disconcerting picture of regional disparity.
At a time when banking facilities are miles away from your house, it is this very nexus that they will rely upon to avoid unnecessary hassles. Think about the remote, hilly regions where the nearest bank facility is easily 50-60 km away in the plains. Moreover, there is no guarantee of receiving money even if one covers that distance. The call for mobile money vending machines looks an ill-planned, desperate measure with no clarity yet on how it is going to work.
There are many reported cases of daily wage workers losing their wages for consecutive days because of spending hours in serpentine queues.
The cash economy has always been the mainstay for these people for generations. Plastic money, for instance, is not going to buy them the routinely used firewood and gobar for burning their daily chulha. This is not black money. This is how they barely manage to live, on the basis of an unsigned contract between them and nature.
The same goes for petty workers who, along with witnessing a decline in their small economic activities, have nowhere to go. Social security schemes have taken a massive hit. As Gautam Bhan argues: "It is not a case of inconvenience. It is a matter of welfare shock."
The rude, cultural shock to women all over the country who save money in hundis is incomprehensible. The gendered notion of our economy fails to debate the peculiarities of the problems this community faces. This drive does nothing but contribute to their age old misery.
According to a recent new piece, 22 people have lost their lives after the demonetisation news, with the recent being a debt-ridden farmer hanging himself for being unable to repay his loans. Who are we supposed to hold accountable for this "inconvenience"?
Even in urban areas, the small dhabas and thelas are run by indigent migrants coming from far flung areas. Their daily condition is so precarious that after having some food in the morning, they do not know what they will have for dinner.
Is the urban, well educated, formal sector job person really capable of understanding the ramifications of losing even one day of mazdoori? There have been umpteen cases reported in the media of how the rich having contacts with banks are getting special service in withdrawing money, while the ones who need it the most are losing precious time in chaotic queues.
The decision remains flawed on a number of levels, be it the overblown significance of counterfeit currency in terrorist activities, the huge ambiguity regarding the black money in circulation and the lack of measures to catch hold of habitual tax offenders, among others. However, amid all these debates, the support coming from the middle class reeks of crass elitism.
The media is no outlier in this as the majority share of new bulletins and debates in the first week focused on the move's impact on the realty sector and big businessmen dealers of gold and diamonds. The claims of slowing down of the economy because of this naturally belittles the significance of the informal force of our economy.
To say that a few days of inconvenience should be tolerated for the country is ridiculous trivialising of two separate issues which have no bearing on each other whatsoever. Along with the ignorance getting exposed, it also brings forth the hollow glorification of nation and nationalism.
The hegemony is so strong that it occludes the awareness of this reality happening away from our small, gated lifestyles.