Through the Looking-Glass

The Readers’ Editor writes: How has Scroll covered demonetisation?

Scroll.in has covered many important aspects of the surprise move but its reporters need cash to travel in the interiors and file stories.

If it was the ouster of Cyrus Mistry from Tata and Sons the week before, it is demonetisation and its fallout that has been the event of the past week. In India, the demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes on the evening of November 8 even swamped the surprise outcome in the US presidential elections.

Readers of Scroll.in should be pleased with what they have been reading in the past week – comprehensive reporting and good commentary, especially on how it has affected the everyday lives of people. I would venture to say that Scroll.in has been quicker on its feet than others, and more sensitive as well to livelihood concerns.

In marked contrast to much of the print, television and digital media that seemed to be temporarily blinded by the Narendra Modi announcement, within 36 hours of the announcement, Scroll.in’s reporters had filed articles on how demonetisation was affecting the daily lives of working people. On November 10 there was one report on workers in the informal sectors in Chennai and Mumbai, and another early report on the impact in a couple of areas in rural Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

The first commentaries that appeared around the same time, such as the ones by Devangshu Dutta and Sanjay Reddy, offered a different perspective from that which the government’s official spokespersons and uncritical media were dumping on readers and viewers. The article by Sanjay Reddy, an academic economist, was not easy reading, but if readers made the effort they would have learnt about the problems with demonetisation.

Capturing several perspectives

Over the next few days, the reporters and contributors of Scroll.in were able to cover many important aspects of the fallout of demonetisation. There were more articles by Aarefa Johari (Mumbai) and Vinita Govindarajan (Chennai) on how the working poor were struggling in the post-demonetisation setting. There was one article by Nishita Jha focussing on the plight of the unbanked working women for whom cash savings are crucial when they have to deal with abusive husbands. (There was this other article on women, savings and cash which many readers may not have made sense of. Nor could I.). Then there was the piece describing the difficulties of the overworked banking staff, again one that Scroll.in presented well in advance of most other publications.

There were pieces from the periphery as well. An early article from Kashmir made the point that even if the residents of the Valley tried to go digital, they could not because of the frequent bans on the internet. Earlier this week, there was this piece from Nagaland showing how much more difficult it was in regions remote from the metropolitan centres of New Delhi and Mumbai.

As the days went by, there were some more good commentaries as well. There was MS Sriram on the digital divide, though readers would have appreciated this particular piece more if it had appeared within the first couple of days of the announcement.

Many would have enjoyed Sanjay Srivastava’s excellent comment on the middle class for whom demonetisation has become “a moral project”, as Srivastava describes it.

It was not as if Scroll.in had only one kind of story to tell. There were at least two articles giving the perspective of common folk who felt that a little bit of pain had to be borne for a lot of gain. There was this piece compiled by Scroll.in staff of such reports from across the country and this interesting one of traders in Shirdi in Maharashtra willing to accept a loss of business since they felt holders of large amounts of black money were going to be punished.

There have been many others articles on a variety of issues, from the legal validity of the restrictions on cash withdrawal to the (im)possibility of moving to a cashless society.

Some gaps in coverage

The one gap has been in coverage and analysis of the politics and political fallout of demonetisation. There have been scattered reports, and Scroll.in staff have also compiled wire stories on politics and demonetisation, but in the weeks ahead it is the political fallout that will become as important as the economic fallout.

As the first week after demonetisation came to close, it would seem that the reporting and the analysis had to move to the next level. Like that in Ajaz Ashraf’s article on the sari-fabric industry in Varanasi and the wholesale industry in Chandini Chowk in Delhi, which offered a fascinating account of the interweaving roles of cash, post-dated cheques and promissory notes in small businesses, and how this had been completely dislocated by demonetisation.

What next?

We now need to know more about how and where the disruptions (and adaptations) are taking place. For example, journalists need to track the transactions and the movement of money from start to end in agriculture and the urban informal sector, both areas where cash is universal and digital non-existent.

Can we take one crop in one district and understand what is happening? What happens when the farmer tries to buy seed and fertiliser, when the seller of such inputs has to settle his credit with his suppliers, when the farmer has to hire daily labourers, when the labourers have to make ends meet, when the farmer takes his harvest to the mandi, then from the mandi to the urban market. What kind of disruption has been caused? What more can be expected? How are agents at each stage adapting to the disruption?

With a shortage of legal tender, scattered reports are coming in from across the country of buyers, sellers and consumers continuing to use the old Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 among themselves. This is especially so in the poorly banked rural areas, for the alternative is for everything to grind to a halt. Readers would like to know how this new parallel economy is building up. They would also like to know if this new economy is likely to remain in place even after the new currencies have filtered through the system.

Can Scroll.in take up these new topics?

As Naresh Fernandes, editor of Scroll.in says, for this the reporters need cash to travel in the interiors and file stories. And cash as we all know remains in short supply.

Readers can contact the Readers’ Editor at readerseditor@scroll.in.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
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