The positive [fallout] of this is that Chiya has been forced to come clean about her hidden stash of money given to her by relatives, rakhi etc. I have told her, she will have to hand over all 100s and 50s as well, if she wants her 500s exchanged”.
This update from a friend about her daughter on WhatsApp is probably the only bit of piece which brings a faint smile to our faces, still trying to grapple with the possible impact of the ‘demonitization’ move on the second day after Prime Minister Modi announced this in a sudden televised address to the nation. But then, the larger nature of the current public conversation has been infantilised to such an extent that even this small note from the friend comes as a comic relief.
The withdrawal of notes of 500 and 1000 rupees denominations in India, which incidentally consisted of about 85 per cent of the total money circulating in the market has been at once held as a ‘masterstroke’ by the PM’s bhakts (devotees, as they are generally called these days) and ‘disastrous’ by his critics.
The intent of this piece is not to go into the pros and cons of this debate which has already been covered ad nauseum. Just to summarise the same though, it is ostensibly to stop ‘fake currency’ being imported from Pakistan to finance terror (it has been pointed out already that the fake currency in circulation is just about .0002 per cent for thousand rupee notes and .0009 per cent for 500 rupee notes according to one report); to counter black money (it has been again pointed out that just about 6 per cent of the total cash in circulation consists of black money as the latter is largely in gold, real estate, foreign currency and moves through share markets and cooking of accounts).
On the contrary, it has been pointed out that about 80 per cent of the population consisting of the informal economy is dependent upon the small cash transactions of every day. It has also been pointed out that over 70 per cent of the population is dependent on agriculture and over 60 per cent of the population has no access to banking services in this country of 1.3 billion population.
While there are over 2 lakh ATMs in the country (which incidentally are unable to dispense the new notes due to technical glitches and which according to the Finance Minister of this country will take about 2-3 weeks to fix), just over 2000 are in the rural areas.
Lastly, just about 1 per cent of the population has access to some kind of credit or debit cards, whereas the present government wants to convert the entire economy into a ‘çash-less’ economy overnight. Even the pun has grown old!
All of this is theoretical.
The real impact of this move one sees, is through hysterical televised debates, newspaper headlines, long threads of stories coming from tier 3 towns, stories being written in the regional/vernacular media. Even in Delhi the unending long queues since 6am in front of the numerous bank branches when the winter is knocking at the doorstep forces you to imagine what it must be like just outside the city where bank penetration is so low.
When I went last Saturday to get some money out (while government norms limit certain amount per day, its orders are being localised by the local banks so that maximum people can get some cash in their hands), people sounded still uncertain. Many of them seemed to have bought the propaganda that ‘a few days’ inconvenience was worth flushing out terror and black money’.
Within two hours of wait, the patience had begun to grow thin, people had begun to heckle each other for trying to break the queue and so on. The story seemed to be part of the larger narrative everywhere that the ‘rich are going to get screwed’ and poor anyway get it all the time. This was the only thin dividing line between the middle class and the poor people’s narrative.
And then gradually another narrative begins to emerge — the deaths caused by this demonetisation move.
According to Huffington Post India, 25 deaths had been caused till the 14th of this month due to various reasons, including deaths of elderly standing in the bank queue, a baby dying due to want of new money to be paid to the hospital, heart attacks due to shock of the news, multiple suicides not by the rich but largely by poor women who had saved some cash for emergencies and in one case even a shooting, where a husband shot his wife because she returned empty-handed after standing in the queue for long.
News abound about women being forced (and not just the poor, as a recent article in Scroll.in about the Mumbai middle class women’s frantic attempts to address this unforeseen crisis underlined) to come out shamefacedly with their years of savings before their hungry eyed, abusive or not so abusive husbands, sons etc.
A friend reporting from the hinterlands of Bihar writes, how a micro credit organisation which holds small savings of about ten million people is unable to dispense money back to people during these extraordinary times. Vegetables are not being picked from the fields to be supplied to the market and markets are at a standstill as vegetable vendors, small fruit sellers, small shops are largely shut. A curfew like situation prevails.
A student living in Delhi away from home informs that she and her friends have gone without food for two days, as the local dhabas are all dependent on cash and their initial generosity has run dry in the light of their own drying supplies.
The death toll has increased to 32 as per some reports as I write this update. I look at today’s [Nov 17] Indian Express inner pages and on one page I see following news headlines: “Business in red in red-light district”, “Despite govt hospitals accepting scrapped notes, struggle still on”, “Day after woman’s suicide: She wanted to exchange Rs4,000 but couldn’t”, a photograph of daily wage labourers waiting for work and lastly, “Man hit with brick for using 2 ATM cards”, all this on one page.
So this is what this move has done to us socially. It has converted us into mobs, shown us how we are all potentially ruffians on the street. There are reports of ration shops being looted as people have no cash to buy essential items and jokes abound about BJP’s vision of returning us to Vedic Age through the restoration of barter system. This is another aspect of what this move has done. We have all become schizophrenic. The prime minster addressing the proud NRI crowd in Japan spoke laughingly about how he had made rich fall in line for Rs4000 being dispensed by the banks and the next day he was crying before the nation listing the sacrifices he had made for the country.
A dalit farmer without a single rupee in hand says that while he has no money to buy seeds, fertilizers etc for the Rabi season, in the same breath he also says that if only Modi had waited for a month, only the rich would had been hit.
The current dispensation has encashed upon the popularly held beliefs about cash=black money=rich.
I drop my son early mornings each day to his school wading through a traffic jam caused by long line of people at every nook and corner while listening to the government adverts on the radio. It airs supposed interviews from a school teacher in Bihar and a small shop-keeper at regular intervals, all denying there’s any hardship or cause to worry. I once again look out wistfully at the crowds, men in their wafer thin mufflers and sweaters, women half asleep sitting in front of the downed shutters of the banks and think of the dystopian world we have converted ourselves into.