How you could be helpless in Modi's cashless society

Between us and our money there will be only a plastic link.

 |  6-minute read |   08-12-2016
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I get confused these days. We are promised a new fangled thing, a mesmerising national wonder - a cashless society.

We listen to it with our mouths wide open. We nod at, and congratulate, each other, though wondering how this cashless society is going to be a boon, especially for those who are already cashless.

My generation grew up in a different sort of cashless society. So, when a cashless society is promised as an ultra-modern UFO, I cannot help being nostalgic.

I remember going, at the age of 7 or 8, to a local provision store and buying things on credit, not on credit cards. Since everyone in the village had credit, and cheats were a rarity, there was no need for credit cards.

I remember looking with wonder at the head and tail of a coin that came into my hands. What was it made of? How does anyone know what it is worth? Who decides? What is the guarantee that the shopkeeper would take it? And give me what?

I remember going to the local vegetable market one day, clutching a rupee coin, walking proudly like a man who got his daughter married off at Rs 500 crore. I saw a heap of shining red things in a basket.

I concluded that it was some exotic fruit. I asked for the price and was stunned to be told that for a rupee I could have five of them!

I grabbed the spectacularly florid "fruits", and readily parted with my cash. I became cashless, but I had five of the exotic fruits in my hands.

There was no short-term pain. It was all full-term gain.

I couldn’t wait to know how this never-before-seen fruit tasted. A little away from the shop, I dug my teeth deep into the reddest of the lot. The darned thing burst on my face and soiled much of my shirt. For a fruit, it tasted curious, though not altogether unpleasant.

At home I was told they were tomatoes.

Being cashless, we grew our own vegetables, cereals and tube roots. I do not recall fruits being bought. I do remember a lot of it being given away. 

We grew our own fruits: mangoes, jackfruits, bananas, plantains of all kinds, pineapples, papayas, custard apples, and guavas. Artificial fertilisers and pesticides were unheard of. 

rupee-embed_120816054039.jpg In a cashless world of today, you will have little control on what is yours. 

Our cow, which I’d have the privilege, in due course, to look after, yielded the milk we needed. And freshly churned butter tasted heavenly. A little piping hot rice, a pinch of salt and a spoonful of dreamy white butter! You had a right royal meal! And on days, sautéed dhal curry was added to the menu, you were happy enough to draw a hundred buckets of water from the deep well near the kitchen.

Our meals, our laughter, our tears, our deaths, were all cashless. 

I used to go, accompanying an uncle of mine, to the local river and catch fish. It combined nourishment with adventure. There were ups and downs. Days when the river was generous.  Days when she was stingy. But our dealings with the river were cashless. 

How can I tell you how the fish tasted in those days! Fresh from the river and straight into the earthen pot, cooking under slow fire. I grew up without the slightest association between fish and cash.

Come monsoons, the sky would flare up and roar. Thunder and lightning. But, upon the earth, something wonderfully benign would begin. Mushrooms would sprout. Oh, how fast, in what loving haste, they surfaced and unfolded! Overnight wonders in a cashless society. 

I would run around, basket in hand, and pick mushrooms straight from the bosom of Mother Earth. I could not resist the thought, in those unsophisticated days, that mushrooms were Mother Earth's milk. Like mother's milk, it was cashless.

Since there was no cash, there was no adulteration! We did not have to eat poison in those days. We knew what we were eating. 

Now, when people talk of food security, I get confused. What security are they talking about? That a certain minimum quantity of food should be available to all citizens, lest they succumb to malnutrition and premature death? Or, that we should be secure vis-a-vis the food we eat?

I am afraid there’d be at least one huge difference between my cashless society 60 years ago and the cashless society to which we are being dragged to by the scruff of our necks.

We were in control of our lives in those days. Whether the vegetables we grew, the crops we harvested, the milk we drank, the fruits we ate, should be ours or not, or in what quantity or quality we were to eat them, were all entirely in our control. What was ours belonged to us.

That will be, henceforth, a thing of the past. You will have little control on what is yours. Why so?

We were in total control of our lives in the old cashless society, when we ate mostly what we produced. Then we fell into the cash economy. We were still free to buy what we needed, and as much as we could afford.

We sailed along, not knowing that we were walking on thin ice. In one fell swoop, our cash ceased to be ours. Imagine our cash being doled out using measures unrelated to our will! This is the stuff that nightmares are made of.

We have lost control of our lives all of a sudden. For a month, we belonged more to queues than to homes. All for our own money!

In the old cashless society, we were free to be at home!

The real thing is not yet. In the proffered version of the cashless society we reach the next level of losing control of our lives. Till now we could keep at least a bit of our money in cash. It was there with us. Here on, we will be left with a piece of plastic. Between us and our money there will be only a plastic link.

This also means that our money will no longer be ours. We can use it, but not keep it. Should anything go wrong with banks or ATMs, the possibility of which is scarily palpable, in a flash you will be back in the cashless society in which I grew up, without the vegetables, cereals, fruits that were always there to keep the wolves from your door. 

In the emerging cashless society you could be utterly helpless. You are free to dance on the edge.

Give me back my cashless society of yore, please, and I will vote for you for the next 20 births.

Also read: 5 reasons why India is not ready to give up cash

Also read: Asking Indians to go cashless by forcing tech on them is dangerous


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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