More than a month after demonetisation, support for the policy remains. Despite the hardships, many city dwellers – particularly the working poor – say it is a good thing for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to have done.
Despite a substantial drop in their earnings in the month since high-value Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes were invalidated overnight, autorickshaw drivers outside a Delhi mall said they still backed the government’s move.
“It is a good decision,” said Raghuveer, who is from Badaun in western Uttar Pradesh, and has been driving an autorickshaw in the national capital for 15 years. “If it works, well and good, and maybe something will be done for the poor. If it doesn’t work, it makes no difference to me.”
Others in the scrum around him agreed.
Said an auto driver, to chuckles from the rest: “People are complaining about bank queues. But we have nothing to put in the bank so where is the inconvenience? What we make in the day, we eat at night.”
These men were not stirred by high ideals of nationalism and nation building. What Raghuveer expressed was a mixture of hope, anger and helplessness.
“It makes no difference to our lives,” said another auto driver. “It will only make a difference to people who have money. Maybe people don’t say it openly, but there is also pleasure in seeing the rich made uncomfortable, for once.”
Going by the long trail of top-of-the-line imported cars parked just ahead of the autos, the rich do not show visible signs of being made uncomfortable. But the drivers of these cars were in absolute agreement with the auto drivers.
Manoj had driven the son of an ITC executive in a company car for a Rs 200-shave at the mall. The son, he said, was “planning a start-up with Modiji’s Make in India”.
Manoj said he had been a driver in Delhi for 15 years, and his salary had remained at Rs 15,000 over this entire period. People like him, he said, hoped that if the government had more money, there would be more subsidies for the poor.
Ram Charan Tiwari, originally from Muzaffarpur in eastern Uttar Pradesh, said that he had been driving other people’s cars for 22 years. His salary was also Rs 15,000 a month. He was not sure if the car he was driving cost Rs 6.4 crores or Rs 64 crores – it was a sum so large that he could not get his head around it. It was also one of four similar cars that his employers’ family used, he said. They were politically connected distillery owners.
Tiwari said that despite the inconvenience and the uncertainty following demonetisation, he supported the move because this was the first time people were talking about the rich and the poor. “Everyone talks about Hindu and Muslim,” he said. “But [for] the first time, someone is talking about the differences between the rich and the poor…about people like us getting a chance to have a different life...do different work. At present, we dare not even ask our malik [employer] for more money, he will just tell us to quit the job.”
Tiwari had no illusions about black money vanishing – one of the purported reasons for demonetisation. But he said that he hoped that the government would place curbs on the lifestyle of the rich. “For example, if the government said that no one can buy more than half a kg of gold,” he said. “[Or said that no one could] own more than two cars”.
With monthly salaries of Rs 15,000 each, Manoj and Tiwari make in one year a little less than what the prime minister of India makes in a month, and less than half of what top corporate executives like, say, the managing director of ITC, the company that employs Manoj, makes in a day.
Yet, Manoj and Tiwari earn more than what 99% of Indians earn.
Not just schadenfreude
Many argue that what keeps the poor in thrall to demonetisation is the expectation that their lot will change, that at least some of the black money that the government expects to reel in following demonetisation will come to them. That there is something in it for them.
There have been rumours that the government intends to redistribute any gains it makes from the demonetisation exercise by putting cash into “zero-balance” or Jan Dhan Yojna accounts. There will undoubtedly be some whose support for the policy is contingent on this direct transfer, ostensibly from rich to poor. But it is facile to assume that this is what animates the poor, and that they will turn against demonetisation once they discover there is no money in it for them.
The German word schadenfreude – pleasure derived from another person’s misfortune – has also been thrown around as an explanation for why there is so much support for demonetisation, despite the drop in incomes, job losses and everyone’s hard-earned cash being rationed out at banks and Automated Teller Machines.
The poor, this explanation goes, support demonetisation because they think it will make the rich less rich.
It is true that for a few days people felt gleeful that the rich, with their bags of ill-gotten cash would be done in. That feeling melted away quickly enough. But what remained was a sense that their troubles were nothing as compared to the discomfort of those with black money. But schadenfreude does not describe that feeling.
A person paid Rs 15,000 a month to drive a car that costs what he would earn in 400 years does not expect there to be a sudden reversal in his employer’s fortune. What he feels about his employer’s discomfort is perhaps more akin to what college students once referred to as CTs or cheap thrills – momentary pleasure.
Economic growth has allowed bankers and other top corporate executives to earn six-figure amounts in a day, and for some people to buy cars that cost what the average Indian would need over 1,000 years to earn. But it has not created enough decently-paying work for the majority of people in the country.
Average incomes in India are so low that drivers like Manoj and Ram Charan, who earn Rs 15,000 a month, are in the top 10% of earning Indians, along with their employers and the prime minister, as well as most people likely to be reading this article. The majority of the rest of India subsists on between Rs 3,500 and Rs 7,500 a month.
Uncertainty about getting work, being short of cash, being in debt, standing in queues or making several trips to get their government-provided entitlements, being treated badly in banks and other public institutions are all part of the everyday experience of most working class Indians. The fallout of demonetisation is only one more such experience.
This might go some way to explain why the frustration and anger of the middle and upper middle class at having their financial freedoms curtailed is not exactly shared by their cooks and cleaners.
The poor and demonetisation
Sunita, who earns Rs 8,000 a month as a toilet cleaner and attendant at a Central Delhi social club, said that she did not understand why people needed Rs 24,000 a week (the current limit on cash withdrawals from banks set by the Reserve Bank of India).
“What do they eat?” she said. “Even if they eat chicken, mutton they can’t be spending Rs 20,000 a week running their kitchen!”
With a monthly family income of Rs 16,000, she said, after rent, her family eats one vegetable a day. She can buy milk for her children, but the family does not eat dahi more than perhaps once or twice a month.
Clearly the choices her family has to make are not the choices that the middle class makes.
Explanations like Tiwari’s that the prime minister is talking about “the difference between the rich and the poor” have been likened by some to the political rhetoric that made the magnificently rich and famously uncaring Donald Trump the candidate of America’s marginalised people. But India’s poor are quite different from America’s marginalised – they have never been anything other than poor. They are not the detritus of deindustrialisation, but the survivors of persistent intergenerational and historical inequalities.
They do not see their current circumstances as those shared by all Indians in a bank queue. They see it as something shared by Indians, who are poor like them.
Distrust runs deep
There is bewilderment too at the common man’s gullibility, at their willingness to believe, for example, that there is insufficient cash for ordinary people because of collusion between corrupt bankers and the rich (as seen in the crores worth of new currency notes found in police and Income-Tax Department raids). The truth is that a sufficient number of new currency notes have not yet been printed.
But as the historian Isabel Huacuja Alonso, writing in Scroll.in, reminds us, those who roll their eyes at the seeming naiveté of the poor, ignore the social conditions that make people receptive to fake news or false propaganda. Distrust is an important factor in this. For those who work their bones off to make Rs 7,500 a month, distrust of institutions that constantly fail them is endemic and corruption is a large and capacious concept.
Corruption is what gets some people secure jobs, it is what brings the local rich lucrative contracts, it lets some people grab land, it is why the public health centre doctor is in private practice, it is how city landlords earn tax-free incomes from airless warrens, it is what makes someone politically influential, it is what makes employers pay wages in demonetised notes and dump their ill-gotten cash in the Jan Dhan accounts of their employees.
In such a world it is not so hard to believe that it is corrupt bank officials, rather than poor policy planning and implementation, that is impeding cash getting to Automated Teller Machines and to ordinary people.
There is empathy for the hardships suffered by those worse off. But there is rarely a full acknowledgement of the obscene and constantly widening gap between the tiny numbers of the rich (including almost anyone who is reading this) and the rest who are poor. This is at the root of the bewilderment about why those who have suffered the most through demonetisation remain devoted to the prime minister or at least to the idea that this is a fight against corruption. The prime minister, however, whom we can fault for his poor decision-making style and lack of policy acumen, has an unerring sense of where the social fault lines lie.