note demonetisation

Yes, the move on black money was like the surgical strike – but not in the way the BJP thinks it was

Both measures seem to lack in depth and may have little impact on the real problem they claim to fix.

A business acquaintance asked me two days ago whether a demonitisation was on the cards. What made him think so, I asked? That was the buzz in the bazaar, he told me.

My considered opinion was that it was very unlikely that this would happen, as the immediate costs would far outweigh the long-term benefits and that he could therefore go on his planned pilgrimage.

So when I heard Prime Minister Narendra Modi announce on Tuesday night that the existing Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes would be demonitised starting midnight, in an effort to curb the black money economy, I recalled an anecdote from the life of Dr Paul Samuelson, the great economist and Nobel laureate.

At the end of a talk on economic forecasting, when asked if he had anticipating the Great Depression of the 1930s, Samuelson said: “Not a single economist in the star-studded Harvard economics faculty predicted it. Only the janitor of the building did!”

Samuelson said the janitor, who used to collect salary cheques from the faculty on Fridays and encash them for weekend expenditures, asked them one evening to withdraw more as he felt the banks would not open on the following Monday. His advice went unheeded and the following week, the faculty had to borrow money from the janitor.

Ear to the ground

The moral of the story is that the word on the street is often close to the truth. For several days now, I had been hearing of an imminent demonetisation and the introduction of Rs 2,000 notes.

But I take pride in being rational and hence, I have to wonder: How did this come to pass?

For a start, about 86% of the value of notes in circulation is in Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 denominations. The two respectively account for 7% and 17.4% of our currency in circulation. These are significant numbers and the sudden withdrawal of these notes would make an already gloomy economy even more anaemic.

The move has hung lower-, middle- and upper-middle-income households out to dry. This morning, my wife and I took stock and found that we have Rs 600 in usable cash.

Fortunately, my wife and I do not rely much on paper money and can manage with credit and debit cards. But the vast majority of citizens still function with cash. My driver, for instance, told me he has a few Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 notes and needed some smaller denominations.

The prime minister, however, has assured citizens that they deposit or exchange their existing Rs 1000 and Rs 500 notes exchanged in banks starting Thursday, after submitting identity proof in the form of Aadhaar cards and PAN cards, and with certain restrictions on the amount, so this will solve the cash crunch. This is only fair and most of us have little to worry about, except maybe the long queues in banks.

The most competent extra-governmental authorities on these matters, such as yoga guru Baba Ramdev and BJP President Amit Shah, have with predictable hyperbole compared this to the “surgical strikes” on September 28. The comparison might even be apt. For, like the “surgical strikes” which were in reality a series of cross-border raids just about 0.5 km-1.5 km into Pakistan territory, this move too is lacking in depth. Like the Lashkar-e-Taiba leadership, the black money enemies lie deeper inland and making a thrust here and there does not amount to a surgical strike.

The leaders of our nation and the ruling elite understand the gravity and depth of the black-money problem in India, which functions as a thriving parallel economy, but the baying hounds of public opinions too have to be addressed. We are being fobbed off with a few bones.

Bringing black back

“Black money” is an all-encompassing term for income on which no taxes have been paid to the state. This income may come from legitimate sources, such as real estate, or patently illegal activities such as smuggling, counterfeiting, corruption and narcotics.

The estimates of how much black money is generated each year vary. However a widely cited, though supposedly confidential study by the National Institute for Public Finance and Policy, commissioned by the government, estimates the black economy in 2013 to be equal to about 75% of the GDP.

The previous National Institute for Public Finance and Policy official study commissioned by the government in 1985 estimated it be equal to about 21% of the GDP in 1984 – which would have amounted to Rs 36,418 crores, given that the GDP then was about Rs 1,73,420 crores.

In 2014, India’s GDP was about $ 2.047 trillion. The government was expecting to collect taxes and duties amounting to Rs 13.64 lakh crores – this means that there was another 75% of this, about Rs 10.4 lakh crores, that it missed out on because it was being transacted in black. This is huge sum and any government would drool at the thought of all it could do with that money. If this amount were realised, we could contemplate an investment-to-GDP ratio higher than that of China’s. One can only imagine what this will do for the country’s growth and prosperity.

India has only 35 million taxpayers – roughly 3% of its population – of which 89% fall within the under-Rs 5 lakh income slab. This means only 11% Indians declare incomes of above Rs 5 lakh a year – an absurd figure given that Indians purchased over 2.2 million new passenger vehicles and SUVs in 2015, which was by all accounts a slow year.

Clearly, most people who should be paying their taxes are not. Because the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government failed to address this, the people booted them out, with the expectation that the Modi government would restore what rightfully belongs to the public. The National Democratic Alliance failed to do this for almost 30 months. The now-evident public restiveness and the protracted sluggishness of the economy has apparently persuaded them that a “surgical strike” was needed. So, we are being thrown a few bones.

Last year, Indians illicitly exported $83 billion, making us the second-largest stashers of money abroad after the Chinese. This money is out of the purview of Tuesday’s demonetisation.

The government has so far demonstrated its inability to coerce or cajole the return of the more than $500 billion stashed away in the last decade, as the economy expanded exponentially.

A lot of other tax-evaded incomes are locked in property, jewellery and other fungible assets. The value of black money hoarded in rupees is trivial by comparison. It’s mostly the small businessmen, traders, artisans and peasant proprietors who keep stashes of hard- earned cash at home or buried under mattresses. And these will be the people you and I will meet on Thursday morning when we queue up at the banks to get our money back.

The rooting out of black money cannot be done with such pinpricks. That calls for the revamp of our system through real and deep reforms.

Look at what Finance Minister Arun Jaitely and company did with the Goods and Services Tax. We now have four slabs and plenty of exemptions for the merry-making band to sell with discretion.

A good first step in curbing the black money economy would be to make tax evasion a criminal offence attracting a mandatory jail sentence. We need dedicated courts to try and expeditiously dispose of economic offences. The government needs to put its money where its mouth is – and not the other way around, as is increasingly the case.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.