Markets are already panicked and if supplies dry up, prices will soar.
This column is about vanishing acts. About things like currency, decency, value, dignity, understanding, logic, guarantees and beliefs, which are suddenly vanishing. Let me share some questions with you.
On November 8, at dinner time, the Prime Minister told us that at the stroke of midnight Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes would turn from high-value currency to useless paper. Unlike Cinderella, we had no fairy godmother warning us about this. In one fell swoop, 86 per cent of the country’s cash became illegal. Plunging the less privileged into a crisis, as cash is what most of India depends on, and most of India’s cash is in Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes.
The question is: did the PM have a right to do this? Does the government have the right to deny ordinary people access to their own money? To suddenly make their money vanish? Without access to money, one cannot access food, medical care, transport and other essentials. Doesn’t this impinge on our fundamental right to life and liberty?
In theory, those with bank accounts (and that is only half our population) could go and withdraw small amounts, but you would have to go yourself, with ID. Millions are doing so every day, standing in serpentine queues from dawn to dusk, as banks, blindsided by an inept government which didn’t know the new notes would not fit ATMs, fail to meet the massive demand for low-denomination cash. But what about the old, the infirm, the disabled? How many of our banks and ATMs are wheelchair-friendly? Does the government have the right to deny the sick and elderly access to their own money?
Meanwhile, hospitals are turning away hordes of underprivileged patients as they don’t have credit or debit cards or enough low value notes. Sure, state hospitals still accept the defunct notes. But shouldn’t we be free to choose our doctor? Is the government allowed to suspend our right to choose?
After five days of utter chaos, in which the elderly died of heart attacks and stress standing in snaking queues for their own hard-earned cash, and parents saw their children die as hospitals refused their cash, the PM returned to address us on the matter. Give me 50 days, he said in a dramatic speech, choking up as he talked about himself: “Even if you burn Modi alive, Modi is not scared.”
Who is he talking to? Who could possibly burn him alive? He, with his multi-layered security? Why does our PM, the lawfully-elected head of a respectable democracy, go on as if there was no rule of law in his own country? “Hang me in public!” he had said earlier, inviting us to the barbaric act if we could prove his involvement in the 2002 Gujarat riots.
Which country does our PM think he rules? This is not a land of savages where might is right. We are a well-run democracy with a great Constitution and a still respectable law and order mechanism.
But a hungry beast is an angry beast. Thousands of trucks are stranded across India as petrol pumps, toll plazas and eateries refuse the newly-outlawed cash. Markets are already panicked and if supplies dry up, prices will soar. How long can desperate people be quiet?
When most of the rural population and urban poor and much of the middle classes feel cheated of their legitimate money, law and order problems must be foreseen. India has a huge cash economy, run not by black money hoarders but by India’s most vulnerable. Small traders, petty contractors, farmers, vegetable vendors, dhabas, household help, plumbers, all operate on cash. Cash rules in small town and rural India, where banks are few, their services unreliable, and even hotels don’t accept cards.
Even in cities, most members of the unorganised sector do not have bank accounts. It’s not easy to open an account when your ration cards and voter IDs are left back home. Then there are wives and mothers. Women who scrimp and save from household expenses and secretly squirrel away some money for their children or the future. These are people who can’t go to the bank and exchange their notes. And they have been hit the hardest. Does Mr Modi have the right to make their legitimate money vanish?
In his speech, he seemed thrilled about it. He even wiggled his thumbs to mock the family that had a wedding coming up and no money at home. Does Mr Modi know the country he is ruling? How can he take away the fundamental right to life and liberty of Indian citizens? The PM must realise most Indians don’t carry plastic. The digital India he talks about is just a small part of the larger Indian reality. But one person can’t know everything. What was the finance ministry doing? And the Reserve Bank, which is supposed to be autonomous? Sadly, a compliant governor erodes the RBI’s credibility and makes these drastic steps seem completely arbitrary. Even the way the terms of cash deposit and withdrawal are being set and changed seem arbitrary.
Besides, the utter incompetence of the government in implementing this surprise demonetisation shatters the myth of the PM’s governance skills. Now he wants 50 days to sort things out. Can he imagine what 50 days of desperation, death and disaster could be? When salt can sell at Rs 300 a kilo based on a rumour, you know we have reached a state where the desperate will believe anything and stop at nothing.
It is widely believed that the BJP and its friends knew of this secret demonetisation beforehand and had liquidated cash holdings in the days leading up to it. State Assembly elections are coming up, and with poll expenditure being traditionally cash-dependent, this is bound to affect poll outcomes in crucial states like Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh.
Will the vanishing high-value notes affect the black economy? Maybe. But it is destroying the legitimate cash economy and the lives of the most vulnerable citizens. Also, it’s not quite clear how outlawing Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes and introducing new Rs 500 and Rs 2000 notes will stop either black money or terrorist cash.
What is clear, however, is that our basic rights and dignity guaranteed by the Constitution can suddenly vanish like the Rs 500 note. Unless we raise the most obvious questions. Since raising questions is now deemed to be unpatriotic in public discourse, let’s raise them at least in Parliament.