Dr. Navniit Gandhi
Sunday, December 18, 2016
One decision of our government was announced one fine evening. PM Narendra Modi sent shockwaves through the country by announcing on November 8, 2016 that all Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes—some 85% of all notes in circulation-would cease to be legal tender within hours.
The reactions to the decision were varied, though. Nearly all of us were shocked; some despaired; some applauded; some groaned and some frowned; some were sceptical and some were deeply stressed.
‘Cash-coolies’ were deployed; the poor people were hired by the rich to stand in the serpentine queues for exchanging the unaccounted-for millions…
Several luxury retailers stocking brands sent e-mails to clients stating that their stores would be open until midnight that crucial day, on November 8. Dior and Rolex watches worth millions were bought...
Women in general, and housewives in particular—all across India faced the excruciating dilemma of whether to disclose to their husbands the hidden savings in boxes or containers and other secret places, and invite persistent queries and face trust issues in the future or risk losing all of it, as the old notes became mere scraps of paper by December 31st.
A leading global fashion brand store in Delhi opened all night immediately after the move was announced, selling merchandise worth more than Rs 1 crore in less than three hours.
There were reports of 250 kg of gold being sold in those crucial three hours, in one city—Mumbai alone.
Cigarette consumption dropped by about 40%, according to an estimate based on surveys across cities by The Times of India. A feat accomplished by the prevailing shortage of change, and which apparently the warnings on the cigarette packs failed to achieve.
Not many would have thought that our country would resemble a chess-board. It all turned out to be a matter of black or white. We did not initially visualise that our dreams; our intentions and all our moves were going to be about being black or white.
The resources needed to resolve many of the challenges faced by India were all there in our country. Crores of rupees were there in our country.
If we were a citizenry with a conscience, we could have saved millions of infant deaths due to malnutrition; if we so wished, we could have spent the crores on scientific and technological research; we could have had sanitation, education and water for more of us; if we so wished we could have been another bright and beautiful country—with more people literate and happier; healthier and well-nourished. We wished it otherwise, though… Not one or two of us; not just the common man-- but the ruling elite and the business magnates; the professionals and the semi-skilled- wished it otherwise. We chose to stash away the cash in cupboards, mattresses and lockers.
We chose to look the other way, as the world mocked at the state of affairs in our country, even after nearly 70 years of Independence.
It is sad but true that a typical common man of our country—rich or poor, would choose to spend the cash he has on his family or himself or give away in the places of worship or spend on weddings or simply hide it away, but not assume responsibility of feeding or educating an impoverished child.
Of course, there is a section that has all the right intentions and is an exception too. To them and their intentions, that we owe the few bright streaks in our social and national life.
Following the PM’s announcement at about 9pm, we were ok with spending Rs 52,000 for hoarding further every 10 gms of the yellow metal. So much so was the desperation, that there was a massive spike seen in the number of railway ticket bookings after the government announced that the old notes could be used until the midnight on November 11 to make reservations.
Disappointment fills the mind, while recollecting the sight of those thousands of farmers who hanged themselves or consumed pesticide, while crores of rupees were just lying idle in our homes; our lockers; our places of worship and in the benami accounts. Only SIX people earning over Rs 50 crore filed returns in 2012-2013, despite there being an estimated 2,100 ultra-wealthy Indians whose net worth exceeds Rs 340 crore. Our own people were dying, but our millions were kept coldly hidden. We chose to be spectators rather than to save or support lives.
Even after that announcement which left everybody thunder-struck, and the appeals of the PM that followed, we chose to buy gold, luxury brand watches, and to misuse the jan dhan accounts of the poor to dodge the law. The country got busy in how best to do the setting of the unaccounted for cash.
A lot of lessons were learnt as a result of the demonetisation move. On the one hand, the common man learnt to survive despite the cash crunch.
Mindless consumerism was definitely curtailed, even if for a short duration. There was prudent management of the limited cash at disposal, in millions of middle-class families.
And, on the other hand—out-of-the-box and lateral thinking came to the fore in the most unimaginable ways, as the rich heavy-weights devised ways to dodge the strike of demonetisation. There were allegations of even Bank Managers colluding with the rich clientele and allowing backdoor note exchanges and charging a commission while at it.
It was all a drama of intentions. The majority displayed an intention to suffer inconvenience, in the hope that we shall have a future which is not dark and black. For the nefarious ultra-rich, the intentions were to play truant and dodge the impact.
For some, the suffering was a bit too harsh… the farmers who could not harvest on time, or those who were exploited further by the middle-men and the traders, using the cash crunch as the pretext or those who could not buy the seeds despite the government issuing the notification that the old notes could be used for the same.
Farmers were compelled to sell their paddy at rates lower than even the government’s minimum support price (MSP), because they had to pay the labourers and meet other cash expenses, and could not afford to wait till the end of the season and avail the MSP.
Those of us, who did not have anything to declare or worry about, co-operated with the government—some did with gusto and some with a bit of whining.
However, we stood in the queues and expressed our solidarity silently. Some of our political elite, chose to do neither—they did not stand up with the government and nor did anything to ease the inconvenience of the common man.
They spent the crucial days thereafter, to instigate; to provoke; to malign the rationale behind the step; to hurl allegations of the most absurd kind. They claimed to have been concerned for the common man.
However, they did not come or send their workers to offer water or shade or assistance to the people standing in the queues. The leaders who shouted hoarse, were not concerned for the common man. They saw in this step—neither the need of the hour; nor the future of the country; nor the protection against counterfeiting and nor our temporary discomfort. They saw the political potential for grabbing power in the next election.
The sad paradox is that we, the common citizenry; the tax-paying middle class continues to bear the brunt of the consequences of the heinous intentions of the minority that hides cash; that manipulates the system; that dodges the rules; that bends the rules; and that makes billions through shameful and wicked ways.
We stand in queues meekly, despite paying taxes diligently; we adjust with the cash-crunch; we tighten our belts when another new tax or surcharge is imposed; and not only are our transactions white, but intentions too. Will we, the honest citizens or they, the villains have the last laugh this time?
Black or White, checkmate!!!
is an academician, and a freelance writer/columnist. She has been writing extensively for several newspapers, magazines, web-portals and academic publications and has authored five Books, till date.
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