On November 9, Jagdish Sharma, a carpenter from Mumbai, rushed his wife and newborn baby to a hospital in Govandi. Kiran Sharma had given birth prematurely and lost a lot of blood – both son and mother needed immediate medical attention. At the hospital, however, the couple was refused admission, allegedly because they did not have enough valid currency to pay the deposit amount. For, just the previous day, the Narendra Modi government at the Centre had made a surprise announcement invalidating high-currency notes starting midnight. In one clean sweep, 86% of the currency in circulation had been demonetised.
The weeks to follow would see millions of Indians queuing up outside banks and ATMs daily to exchange or deposit their now-invalid currency but on November 9, neither were functioning, and Jagdish and Kiran Sharma had no choice but to go home. On November 11, as the infant’s condition worsened, the couple took him to a doctor in Chembur, but he died even as they were waiting for their turn. A police case has been filed against the doctor at the nursing home who allegedly turned the couple away.
In the days to come, there were several more reports about infants and children dying after they were allegedly denied treatment or because their parents could not buy them medicines for lack of adequate legal tender, as the country dealt with a massive liquidity crunch – on November 21, the Reserve Bank of India had replaced a value equivalent to just 10% of the notes that had been pulled out of circulation – brought on by the sudden move. There have also been at least six reported case of suicide – among them a farmer and a 24-year-old woman who killed themselves after they had to come home without valid currency despite repeated visits to banks, which were rapidly running out of new notes.
Several instances of senior citizens dying after queuing up for long hours and bankers dying of overwork and stress have also been reported. While it is difficult to establish an infallible link between the government’s decision to ban high-currency notes and these deaths, in at least some of these cases, the family has squarely blamed the demonetisation. For instance, the family of a 70-year-old daily wager who died on November 17 has alleged that he had been standing in queue to exchange notes – unsuccessfully – for three days and died of a brain haemorrhage. The family has moved the Supreme Court seeking compensation.
Countless other stories of heartbreak – weddings disrupted, savings in jeopardy, businesses at a standstill and days spent without food and money – have poured in from across the country.
And yet, every day, millions of Indians patiently line up to access their own money, in the hope that all of this will pay off in the future.
The Bharatiya Janata Party on its part claims that this is the most important step towards curbing the parallel black money economy in the country, estimated to be equivalent to 26% of the country’s gross domestic product. Another stated aim of the move is to cripple counterfeiting and choke terror funds. Some analysts have argued that demonetisation will also lower land prices, bring down interest rates and, if backed by other tax reforms, could be the big-bang economic measure that the country was waiting for. The advantages of taking a step closer to a cash-less economy are another purported bonus.
An equal number of experts, if not more, have argued that the move will not do much to stifle the black-money economy and may even hurt the country, as only about 6% of the unaccounted-for wealth in India may be in the form of cash even as 90% of the country’s transactions are dependent on it.
While the long-term benefits are up for debate, then, it is evident that in the short-term, the sudden devaluation of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes has caused a massive cash crunch, slowed down the economy, and hit small businesses hard.
Aware that bearing this silently may be asking for a lot from people, upon his return to India from Japan last week, Modi requested Indians to deal with the hardships for another 50 days, till December 30 in the interest of the country’s betterment.
Seventeen days on, however, it is clear that the “inconvenience” that the government has asked people to bear with is bordering on all-out disruption and leading to devastating consequences – of the kind from which there is possibly little scope of recovery.
Pain outweighs gain
For instance, can any amount of economic growth make up for the pain of those who have lost a loved one – a parent, a spouse, a child – to the shock announcement invalidating high-currency notes?
What about the street vendors – vegetable and fruit sellers, among others – for whom business has come to a virtual standstill and farmers, who got this news just ahead of the winter sowing season? Or, for that matter, daily-wage labourers and migrant workers, who are struggling to get work, facing massive layoffs, or being forced to return to their villages as they have run out money?
Why is it that the condition in rural areas that are cut off from banks – given that cooperative banks, which the rural economy leans on, have not been authorised to exchange notes – was addressed, partly at that, only on November 23, 15 days after demonetisation was announced? More worrying still is silence over unbanked Indians – the Centre in June said that 40% of the country is “outside the ambit of formal banking”. With the RBI allowing citizens to just exchange Rs 2,000 from banks until further notice, what are the many labourers, domestic help, housewives and millions of other Indians who have only known and saved money in cash supposed to do?
So far, the BJP’s response to reports of such suffering has been denial, ignorance, or hollow promises. As recently as Tuesday, the BJP Parliamentary Party hailed the demonetisation as a “historic, revolutionary and pro-poor measure” and claimed that “the common man and honest people…don’t mind putting up with short-term inconvenience for the larger good”. Modi said the move would help “achieve an honest economy and help improve the lots of the poor.”
But in the light of all the distress, if the BJP wants people’s continued cooperation, it needs to offer them something more concrete.
To begin with, it needs to give a detailed road map of the following: How exactly are the benefits of the black money move going to trickle down to the poor and how soon are they going to see the results of it? Will the resultant gains be enough to make up for the crippling losses and layoffs that daily-wage labourers and others in the informal sector, which runs on cash, have suffered? What about rural areas that do not have the infrastructure to support cashless transactions? Has a thought been spared for those who are not a part of the banking system?
Granted, any sweeping reform is likely to be disruptive, but any disruptive move must be planned as extensively as possible and followed up by some concrete steps. That the government has changed the rules multiple times since the demonetisation was announced, in a seemingly ad-hoc manner, is not a strong indicator of this.
Instead, by linking the action on black money to war, and the act of standing in queues to patriotism, the government has shut off all avenues for sensible discussion. Maharasthra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis went to the extent of saying that those who do not support demonetisation are “anti-national”. This either-or rhetoric sweeps under the carpet the real stories of suffering, paints pain at best as a heroic sacrifice and at the very least, a minor inconvenience for the greater good, and prevents those worst-affected from asking and demanding an answer.
More than two weeks later, with several people dead, laid-off, or without money, the government owes a clear response to its citizens – one that takes all their anxieties into account and explains how every section of society stands to benefit, especially those who have lost the most.