A warning to fellow Indians: On dangers of plastic money and demonetisation

It takes no time for your credit or debit cards to be compromised.

 |  7-minute read |   11-12-2016
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Dear sisters and brothers,

This is our dhan ki baat. It is my duty as a fellow citizen to tell you what I believe to be true, with the caveat that I am not an economist.

I endorse no party. Some parties hate me. The rest regard me to be too insignificant to notice, which is altogether true. Either way it matters little. What matters is the duty to think.

Through this letter I seek to draw your attention to a current concern about which it is dangerous to be confused. I won’t be able to forgive myself if I, for fear of risks, hold back the following facts from you.

What is the problem with moving into the jazzy, mystical world of plastic money? To understand this we need to have a bird’s eye view of the way humankind has traversed so far in the mohalla of money.

Think of the barter system. The scope for deceit, treachery and corruption was virtually zero. The margin for external control, or your life being manipulated from a distance, simply did not exist. You were safe.

Then we entered the brave new world of money: coins and currencies. The result?

- External control over us, and extortion, increased many fold. We did not have any role in determining the value of the coins or notes we handled. Somebody else dictated it, and we simply followed.

- The danger of our wealth being stolen or taken away from us in a variety of ways increased several fold.

- The cat of corruption sprang out of the bag and, having become a tiger, has been mauling us ever since.

- Human degradation aggravated. Under the cash system, prostitution and bribing reached unprecedented levels. Imagine prostitution under the barter system? Prostitution did exist, but it was localised and limited. Humankind was safe, for that reason, from crippling infections. (Globalisation, you’d have noticed, globalised both epidemics and terror).

- Extortion increased. Historically, the tax system, as we know it, came into being only in the wake of the invention of money. Taxing in material terms has its limits, whereas taxing via money has no limits. What will a king do with a billion bottles of milk or a million kilos of meat?

- Prior to the invention of money, national wealth could not have been taken out of the country in humungous quantities to overseas tax-free destinations. Imagine the affluent thieves of our country running away with a billion cows, a trillion chickens, a million camels and so on! And the ships reaching London, Geneva etc. laden with animal excreta! And the VVIPs of Panama Papers fame emerging from that Everest of stink looking pretty prehistoric!

Instances can be multiplied, but is not necessary. The point to note, dear friends, is that with increasing rarefication of wealth, the scope for corruption, exploitation and manipulation increased exponentially. It has never been the other way. There is absolutely no reason to believe the present instance to be an exception.

moniesreuters-embed_121116040620.jpg More corruption has happened in the last one month of demonetisation than in the whole year preceding it. (Photo: Reuters)

The invention of money is a development that - economists will damn me for saying this - worked quite against the grain of our humanity. (The episode of Judas Iscariot selling his master, Jesus Christ, for 30 silver coins is a case in point. Could he have struck a deal under the barter system?) I would refer you to Tolstoy’s classic work on the subject titled What Shall We Do? (Readily available, free, on the internet).

Now we are on the brink of a worse change. We are told that plastic and virtual avatars of money - an innovation that further rarefies our wealth a hundred fold - is the one-shot remedy for all economic ills.

Really?

Going by the logic we have traced in the shift from the barter system to cash economy, this change should aggravate our problems further.

Consider this one thing. Nothing is a problem for the economic and ruling elite. They know how to circumvent everything. The entire system is at their beck and call. Do you really think black money hoarders and bandits of corruption have been even marginally inconvenienced, much less bridled, through demonetisation?

Already they are back at work. Black money is back with a bang. Corruption has returned with a vengeance. More corruption has happened in the last one month of demonetisation than in the whole year preceding it.

Oh no, we must get this right. We have to be excessively stupid to imagine that any measure that is likely to undermine the interests of the elite will even be thought of, much less implemented with shock and awe as the present demonetisation "surgical strike" has been.

The metaphor used by the BJP, my friends, is an honest one. The military "surgical strike" that preceded this economic "surgical strike" is a lesson not only for Pakistan but also for all of us, though in a different sense. The "surgical strike" across LoC involved soldiers drawn from the poorest sections of our society attacking the soldiers drawn, again, from the poorest sections of the Pakistani society.

Both sides appear to have too many poor lives to sacrifice.

The military or political elite on neither side suffered. The case of the ensuing economic "surgical strike" is similar. Mind you, I am not the one who called it a surgical strike! I am only unpacking the claim made by those who authored this script.

Even as this nation - 35 per cent citizens still illiterate, vast majority of our people still in unbanked rural and tribal areas - is decoyed into the world of plastic and virtual money, the vulnerability of our financial predicament will increase many fold.

It takes no time for your credit or debit cards to be compromised. Lakhs of credit/debit cards have been compromised in quick time in the recent past. Banks in developed countries make up for the losses their customers suffer, in case of any cybercrime and misuse. Our banks will not; for they are already bled to death by our NPA leeches. 

It is difficult to assume that the ingenuity of the corrupt and the venal will not improvise a thousand means to blow holes in the plastic system and enlarge the scale of their present economic crimes with greater ease and immunity.

And corruption? Why would plastic money eradicate corruption? Do you think corruption sleeps in the metal or paper that is turned into money? No! It lurks in human character, in the covetousness that drives life today. You think plastic is a panacea for depravity in character? Surely, you know better than that!

Black money overseas? If anything, it will continue unabated. It was not because of the cash economy that money fled abroad. It was because of ruthlessness in bleeding this country on the part of our easygoing patriots. Plastic will not change that. It will make it, if anything, easier and less scent-free.

Remember the general principle: with each step we take away from the concrete and the tangible, our helplessness increases. We end up exploited, manipulated, pushed about and rendered more and more helpless.

It is not a cashless economy that we need. What we need is:

- An honest society and a healthy nation.

- A national character free from hypocrisy and venality.

- A culture of governance that cares for the people. Wealth without welfare is evil.

- A sense of reverence for life and relationships and, in particular, a healthy work culture.

- A way of life free from violence. Ahimsa must become our national creed. Even monetisation was implemented with violence.

Plastic money and digital wallet have nothing to do with any of these.

I have told you what’s what. My duty ends here. My conscience is clear. Don’t say a few months from now, well no one told me! Now you have no excuse.

Yours sincerely,

Valson

Also read: What demonetisation can teach you about killing a rat

Writer

Valson Thampu Valson Thampu

The writer is former principal of St Stephen's College, Delhi and former member of the National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions (NCMEI).

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