note demonetisation

For India's middle classes, demonetisation has become a moral project

The Great Event has little to do with economic logic.

It is November 8, the night of the Great Event and I am watching NDTV. The clean-shaven presenter can barely contain his excitement. He prances around like a peacock. His pastel post-Nehru jacket is like an emblem of a new era of which he is the heart and soul.

He is catatonic with delight, the microphone jutting from his fingers like a symbol of self-righteousness. Tonight, he has nothing to fear, he exclaims into the mike, for he has no black money. Those with mountains of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes will now get no rest as the government has declared that starting midnight on November 9, these will no longer be legal tender. His moral apoplexy has reached a crescendo. He seems to be laughing on the inside as well. His being is equal parts pleasure and condemnation.


Delhi’s Valmiki Colony is tucked into a tiny corner behind the upscale Malviya Nagar in the city’s southern part. I am here to do some field work on a topic that has nothing to do with money, except that everyone here is poor and so, money-talk is a constant. It is the night after the Great Event and we are crammed into a tiny room where a family of five lives. The father is a vegetable vendor and the mother is part of a neighbourhood self-help initiative started by the Delhi government.

The lanes of Valmiki Colony are so narrow that if you stretch out your arms, you could nearly touch the walls on either side. Almost everyone in the room had Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes on the night of the Great Event. The room-owner tells me that he uses the proceeds from the day’s sales to buy vegetables to sell the next day. Like many street vendors in India, he too does not have a bank account.

According to a recent media release by the National Hawker Federation, around 50 % of such workers do not have a bank account. The number of workers in the wider informal sector of the economy who do not have any relationship with the financial sector is higher. Cash flows in to his one-room house every evening and then out the next morning. And, the others in the room? Would they go to the bank the next day to exchange their cash into legal tender? A woman who sells peanuts says that she fears entering one as banks “treat us like dogs”.

Higher moral ground

On Day three after the Great Event, I am at work and saunter across to the local branch of the bank where my salary is deposited. The clerk and I exchange pleasantries. He tells me that “new cash” should arrive sometime late afternoon and I would be able to withdraw my Rs 4,000 then.

I go my back to my office. There are emails to be attended to, work to be done, visitors to be greeted. And, of course, WhatsApp messages to be viewed. There’s been an unending flow of messages about the Great Event. The one I read over and over again says that all discussions regarding demonetisation should include representatives from the armed forces. “When these guys are struggling on the border, the aam junta can’t even face hardship for a few days,” the sender says. He concludes that all politicians who question the Great Event should be sent to spend time with soldiers at the border. This is met with a flurry of thumbs up responses from those within the border.

The Great Event is not just financial in nature. It gives vent to a new project within which the middle-classes seek to define their morality as a class. Accusations of obsessive consumerism, lack of interest in public and collective life and abandonment of even the pretense of the idea of distributive justice can now be countered through economic jingoism.

Economic logic suggests that since a significant majority of the Indian population is not part of the formal financial system, cash accounts for just about 6% of undisclosed income recovered in income tax raids, and the processes for generating black money remain in place, the Great Event might not be all that it seems. But, the moral project that surrounds the Great Event has little to do with economic logic.

War on finances  

Being middle-class in India has always been about moral claims to being certain kinds of people. In the current period, this has taken on new dimensions.

First, there is remarkable resurgence of anti-poor sentiment. As the idea of citizenship transforms from a political ideal to one defined by the market – the consumer-citizen, as some call it – there is great antipathy for the poor and their everyday lives. They are seen to be bad consumers: stealing electricity, encroaching upon valuable urban spaces with their slums and not allowing corporate conglomerates a free run over their lands for mining and industrial activity. The moral middle class, on the other hand, has achieved its success through sheer hard work and intrinsic merit.

Second, claims to morality are built around the idea that answers to complex social and economic problems lie in technology. The moral middle class defines itself through a deep attachment to the idea that we do not need to disturb the existing structures that make for social malfunction. All that is required is an overlay of technology. So, urban problems can be solved through Smart City programmes, better governance equals more computer kiosks, mobile apps can address the problem of women’s safety in public spaces and e-wallets (such as Paytm) will lead to a better financial infrastructure. Technology is clean. Morality is about adherence to cleanliness. Addressing social messiness is, frankly, far too threatening.

And finally, there is the new morality of violence that is seen as a purifying agent. The language of finance now builds upon that of war and matters of money are now part of the militarisation of the national sentiment. Casting nationalism in the language of violence is a moral enterprise as it rids us of the apparent cowardice of earlier eras. We are a new people and in this normalisation of violence, those who suffer are collateral damage.

Just as black money is only the symptom of a deeper process, the Great Event is an outward sign of a deeper, inner, malaise: the acts of defining the moral high ground through ever-narrowing ideas of the public good. So, the Great Event is not really all about money. The residents of Valmiki Colony and national spaces beyond them are now the contexts of a morality play that is the sign of a social neurosis. Individual neurosis can be identified by others in the community, but what happens when we are all afflicted?

Sanjay Srivastava is a sociologist and author of Slum, Gated Community and Shopping Mall in Delhi and Gurgaon.

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