I Took A Trip To My Village And Talked About Demonetisation With People; It Is Clear That. . .
Demonetisation is affecting different classes differently, but, at a macro level, people appear to be stoically bearing the hardship in the hope of a better future
The 8th of November 2016, was a day like any other for our patrakaars and mediawallahs. The English language news channels were preparing for breathless coverage of the American Presidential elections that had been scheduled to take place over the next four hours. The news cycle over the past week or so had been quite slow.
I was sitting in a conference and since the conference was boring, intermittently gazing at my twitter feed. Around 7.30 PM or so, the Times of India ticker told me that the Prime Minister was going to address the nation at 8 PM. There were other reports that suggested that the Prime Minister had spent the past one hour or so meeting the three service chiefs. I, for one, thought that there would be an announcement or a big decision about something to do with Pakistan. Little did I know that I, and the rest of the country, were in for a big surprise.
Demonetisation is not something that is being done for the first time. The first time was in 1946 when this move was initiated by a British Government on its last legs so as to prevent blackmarketeers who had made huge profits during the Second World War from evading tax. The second time demonetisation was tried was in the year 1978, a few months after the Janata Party government led by Morarji Desai swept to power in the post-Emergency era. This time the target was again the blackmarketeers who had bled the economy and the public dry during the Indira Gandhi-led Congress government. The demonetisation, which extended to 500, 1000 as well as 10,000 rupee notes then had an ephemeral positive impact.
However, the problem of black money has only grown since then. It is estimated that the black economy today is almost 50 per cent of the size of the official economy. My own experience as a lawyer is that the problem is particularly serious in the real estate sector, as builders and property developers insist upon almost fifty per cent payment in cash. What this effectively means is that the real estate market is virtually impossible to invest in for someone from the middle or even upper middle class. By and large, the middle class seems to have reconciled themselves to the fact that they would be facing a few problems over the next one to two months. However, a consumer of ‘liberal news’ cannot possibly be blamed for thinking that the country is now a post-apocalyptic wasteland with poor people queuing outside ATMs just so they can withdraw their daily cash quota. On the other hand, some news channels seem to be telling us that our country is full of selfless patriots who think nothing of queuing up outside ATMs and banks all day for the welfare of their motherland.
The truth, in this case, I am afraid, does not lie anywhere in between as both narratives merely seek to paint contrasting pictures of urban India while completely ignoring what is happening in the rural hinterland. It is important to keep in mind here that close to seventy per cent of India’s population still lives in villages and almost sixty per cent of the population is still engaged in agriculture and hence, not liable to pay any income tax at all. In order to find out what the truth was and how rural India was coping with the ‘demonetisation’, I took advantage of the long weekend and paid a visit to my ancestral village. After the construction of the Agra Expressway, I can get there in less than five hours. This village is located on the banks of the Ganga and looks not a bit like the clichéd image of the village that Hindi cinema has made us familiar with.
I had a great time over the next couple of days in the village playing cricket, kabaddi and also bathing in the river with assorted cousins and country-cousins but that need not detain us for the moment. I also had three separate conversations with villagers from different economic strata in order to get some idea of how the demonetisation was affecting them. The three people were my great uncle-a fairly prosperous farmer; a farmhand and sharecropper-Bissen Singh Pal; and finally, a Dalit woman named Ramvati. I gained quite a bit of insight from the aforementioned interactions. At some level, I also realised that the supposedly uneducated and backward rural folk are way smarter than what the op-ed writers give them credit for.
Predictably, my great-uncle and his children told me that they were not facing much of a problem. The local post office is not all that far from where they live. Furthermore, since their entire income, as agriculturists, is tax exempt, all that they had to do was to exchange the old banknotes for new ones. One of my cousins had been tasked with making the exchange everyday and he and his friends used to make an occasion out of it. It seemed that he was not facing much of a problem. As a matter of fact, he even told me that a lot of his relatives and friends living in urban areas were repeatedly asking him to convert some of their banknotes. It did not seem as if the demonetisation was having much of an effect on him. Although he had always been an unabashed Modi supporter, if anything, the government’s latest step had only served to make him even more of a fan of the Modi regime. To my mind, his views were more or less in sync with those of most middle and upper middle class supporters of Narendra Modi in urban areas. If anything, for the simple reason that he was not being compelled to go through the daily grind of standing outside ATMs or bank branches, he was suffering no inconvenience whatsoever.
When I spoke to Bissen Singh Pal, his reaction was slightly more guarded but nonetheless undoubtedly optimistic. When I asked him if he was facing any major problem in converting his cash savings into money that he could use, he smiled. He had been one of the early bird beneficiaries of the Jan Dhan Yojana and had opened a bank account with a public sector bank. The sowing season had arrived and apart from working on the fields of the big landlords as a sharecropper, he was also engaged in tending to his own fields that were unfortunately not large enough to provide for his family of four. Unsurprisingly, he told me that he was not facing too many serious issues. One aspect of rural Indian life that has unfortunately not been covered as much in the media, is that even today quite a few shopkeepers, in rural areas, sell a lot of goods on credit unlike in urban areas. I was informed that although he was facing some distress given the fact that he had to defer defraying of some slightly larger expenses, his everyday needs were being easily met through trips to the post office and also through the aforementioned network of credit.
When I asked him as to what he felt about the scheme per se, he was initially nonplussed. However, when pressed further, he told me that he would be really happy if the ‘kaaladhansampanna udyogpatis’ in Delhi and Bombay would feel the pinch too. I assured him that this was indeed the case and that holders of black money were going to extraordinary lengths to conceal their ill-gotten wealth. He laughed aloud and told me that given a choice he would be happy to vote Modi again during the Vidhan Sabha polls although he had voted Samajwadi Party before this and the Bahujan Samaj Party before that. I also tried explaining to him that because of the demonetisation, the supply of black unaccounted money was likely to go down and that it was going to lead to a further drop in prices of essential food items. As a relatively simple man, he expressed optimism that this would indeed happen once the demonetisation were taken to its culmination. His monthly earning was not more than Rs 12000-15000/- a month and although he was paid in cash, he had little unaccounted wealth or savings stashed away anywhere. The brutal truth was that he just did not earn enough to save and hardly ever carried out any transactions using five hundred let alone thousand rupee notes. I thought about the povertarian politics of the Congress party and the Gandhi family that had kept this man as poor and thereby betraying the promise of prosperity and progress made by the Founding Fathers of our nation.
My last interview on the trip was with Ramwati Devi. Unlike Bissen Pal—who was almost a yeomen farmer and was sure to become a Thekedar once my uncle’s sons made the inevitable migration to the nearest big city in search of white collar jobs—she was quite literally a representative of the poorest of the poor and needless to say even more disenfranchised than a man in similar circumstances. It did not help matters that her husband was mentally handicapped and hence, quite unable to provide or look out for her and their three children. She was a daily wage rural worker who eked out a decidedly humble living labouring in the fields of landowners as well as sharecroppers. The poor woman earned barely five to six thousand a month. A thin soupy dal and two dry chapattis a day was what kept her going throughout the day. I felt ashamed and guilty of my privilege.
When I asked her about demonetisation, she told me that she had heard something similar at the post-office but that it did not affect her much for her savings amounted to a little over Rs. 25,000, and also because she received her meagre payment in 100 rupee notes. Most shopkeepers in the village held forth on the importance of having a Jan Dhan account at the bank and despite the fact that she was younger than I was, she smiled indulgently as if she were looking at a precocious child. She offered me some of her food as it was time for supper. I had some of it. She managed to unearth an old rusting tin of ghee lying in some corner of her house and poured a spoonful of it into my dal despite my vehement protestations. My eyes welled up as I tucked into my meal and bade her goodbye. As I walked back to my uncle’s place, I cast one last wistful glance towards her little thatched ‘kachchaa’ hut and realised that for this woman and for millions of others like her, life had not changed in hundreds of years and that it was about time that it did.
There are many who belong to the middle and upper-middle classes who keep cribbing about the fact that they have to queue up outside their banks and ATMs every day and that as a result they are missing out on quite a few things that they would otherwise be doing (although most of them employ their drivers for this purpose). I am not going to judge them and nor am I going to judge the daily wage labourer in Delhi or Mumbai who is cursing Modi for not being able to send money back home to his village.
Instead, I would ask the former to consider just for a moment the possibility that if he co-operates with the demonetisation process, a few billion rupees (a small fraction of the entire corpus of black money in the system) would be brought back into it. This money can then be used to uplift the poorest of the poor from the morass of poverty and deprivation that they have been unsuccessfully labouring to escape for the better part of their lives. The tax receipts may even be used up in order to build smarter cities where her kids could grow up. I am not going to tell her that all the tax receipts would be expended fruitfully. I cannot lie. However, what I can say with certitude that even if only ten paisa or even twenty paisa of every rupee, which goes into the exchequer, reaches its intended recipient, her sacrifice would not be in vain.
I do not know what I am going to say to the latter though. Full confession-I sent my ‘chaalakbhayya’ to stand in a queue outside the ATM a few days back. I cannot tell him that I know what it is to forego one day’s earnings because as a privileged member of India’s upper middle classes, I do not know what it feels like to starve for a day. I quaff protein supplements with every meal, so I do not know how it feels to be malnourished. I do not have much of a locus standi to say anything to him in this regard. However, I intend to go to the PNB ATM closest to my place tomorrow with some hot samosas and chai and implore my friend to bear the inconvenience for just a little bit longer. I would tell him that when historians of this era write their histories down they will record the sacrifices of millions of stoic men and women, young and old, just like him, who endured the ineffable pain of even more deprivation than their birth and circumstances had condemned them to, just so they could create a marginally better future for their children. What I can decidedly guarantee is that the future generations of this country would be really grateful to each and every one of them.
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