The year 2017 began with a whimper caused by demonetisation, and is ending with collective sniveling; and that's not because of the cold.
The year started with reports of cashless ATMs and reverse labour migration from cities to villages. Even now most of the informal sector is suffering the long-terms effects of demonetisation and Goods and Services Tax (GST).
You and I may not feel the pain of these shocks to the economy, but the average man and woman on the street is yet to recover from them. Despite tall claims of a booming economy, the government is about to borrow Rs 50,000 crore, because, contrary to its claims, tax collection has suffered massively after the introduction of the GST. In November, revenue collection dropped to Rs 80,808 crore, the lowest since the GST was implemented.
All of this points at the poor health of the Indian economy and that of the various schemes launched by the government, prominent among them “Make in India”, which was touted as India’s answer to China’s manufacturing prowess. A recent example of the government’s policy incoherence when it comes to promoting the domestic manufacturing sector was the reversal of the railway ministry’s decision to buy 1,000 diesel-electric engines from GE, the US-based conglomerate.
Alarmed by reports of the change in policy regarding the $2.5-billion deal, GE issued a stern statement underscoring the wider implications of such a change, it said, “If ministry of railways moves forward with changes to the joint venture between Indian Railways and GE, they will undermine one of the most-promising infrastructure projects in the country and put future foreign investment at risk.”
Having come under severe criticism, Piyush Goyal, the minister of railways, later clarified that the GE deal is on track. But even the 6,000-odd jobs that the GE factory in Bihar is going to create constitute nothing but the proverbial drop in the ocean of unemployed people in the country.
Every year, 12 million Indians enter the workforce and most of them remain unemployed. According to a Bloomberg report, job outlook is at a 12-year low.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had promised the creation of 10 million jobs every year, but it is now widely accepted that he has failed to deliver.
According to Teamlease Services Ltd, a leading recruitment firm, we are going to witness a nearly 40 per cent fall in jobs in the manufacturing sector alone. The real estate and construction sector, a major marker of economic soundness has been sluggish for so long that we don’t even talk about it anymore.
India’s IT industry too executed massive job cuts in 2017 with as many as 56,000 employees laid off. It might be true that the nature of jobs is changing and compared to the past more people are self-employed, but this still doesn’t provide succour to the Indians who are make a living in the conventional labour markets such as construction, agriculture, and heavy industry.
The state of the economy is so bad that even the likes of Subramanian Swamy, have started speaking out. In September, the firebrand politician who enjoys massive following among educated Hindus in India was quoted saying that the economy is in a tailspin, and that we are heading towards a major depression.
More recently, Swamy also called the government’s own GDP figures “bogus” and admitted that demonetisation has virtually tanked economic growth. Speaking to chartered accountants in Ahmedabad, he said, “I am feeling nervous because I know there is an impact.”
Afrzul, starvation death
A country’s peace and prosperity is under threat when its economic health is poor, but it isn’t just the economy that should make us all nervous. Today, criticism of the government is one of the most high-risk acts one could indulge in. If you are unhappy with the Modi government or the RSS and its offshoots like the BJP and other fringe groups, then it is generally advised that it is better to shut up and withhold your criticism.
Put a few words like love jihad, cow slaughter, beef eating, anti-national, and Muslim together, and a Shambhulal Raigar can be transformed from a drug-addict to a Jihadi John of Hindutva make. He will kill, and burn as well as propagate his actions in the belief that he acts in true righteousness. His faith in his belief has been vindicated by the nearly Rs 3 lakh that are supposed to have been donated by other Hindus towards the well-being of his wife now that he himself is in jail.
Here a comparison with Pakistan is worth mentioning. In 2011, Pakistani Punjab’s liberal governor, Salman Taseer, was killed by his own bodyguard for his views on Pakistan’s medieval-era blasphemy laws which allows people to be punished with death for insulting Islam.
Mumtaz Qadri, the guard who killed Salman Taseer, has been executed for the killing, but with a shrine in his name, he remains an inspiration for the supporters of a new hardline “Islamic” political party called Tehreek-e-Labaik. Afrazul hadn’t even insulted Hinduism and his butcher has been turned into a Hindutva martyr, this makes us Indians a bit more like our neighbours, doesn’t it?
The tragic death of party-goers in a Mumbai club is shameful for it could easily have been averted if only the local civic authorities had not looked the other way. But, and this is neither to offend or to console the grieving families, at least those people died with their bellies full. For Santoshi, an 11-year-student in Jharkhand, death came in a slow and painful way. On September 28, she died after starving for four days because her single mother, Koili Devi, did not receive subsidised ration for being struck off the welfare rolls. Koili Devi, a Dalit, had her ration card cancelled because of a technical glitch in linking her Aadhaar card to the government’s list of people eligible for rations.
But what outraged "new India" more than a hungry child’s death was the “shame” that she brought by blaming the death on starvation. As a matter of unofficial policy, no state government in India acknowledges starvation as a cause of death, in Santoshi’s case too, the official reason has been recorded as malaria.
As we enter 2018, we carry with us the baggage of the past year: from the rioting over Padmavati (now Padmavat), hate campaigns against minorities, the spurt in communal violence, the silencing by death of critics, and the unquestionable will and wisdom of the Modi government. These issues cannot be wished away or slept off as we wake up to the New Year.
For those Indians who still adhere to our constitutional and civilisational values of tolerance, dissent, criticism, and democracy, the battle is going to only get tougher in the coming year. To submit to the fear of reprisal and silencing ourselves will only hasten our descent into social chaos and economic abyss.