He is a civil engineer who confesses to being a novice in economics. Yet, James Wilson has emerged as an expert commentator on the effects of Narendra Modi’s demonetisation decision, thanks largely to his prowess in mining and interpreting reliable data from various sources. His blog, Decipher the Demonetisation, and his Twitter handle, @jamewils, have become much sought-after resources for students, academicians and journalists.
The 47-year-old engineer, who works with the Kerala government’s special cell on the Mullaperiyar Dam water dispute, has taken the unexpected rise to stardom in his stride. “I didn’t write the blog to become famous,” he told Scroll.in. “My aim was to pursue an issue that affected millions of Indians. I am happy to get praise from eminent personalities.”
How it all started
An expert in resource management, Wilson culls data from the websites of the Reserve Bank of India and the National Payment Corporation of India, and from the journals of reputed institutions and credible news reports, and then interprets these. His first tweet on demonetisation appeared on November 8, the night Modi announced his decision on television to withdraw Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes as legal tender from midnight.
“Since then, I have received an overwhelming response from the twitterati,” he said. “Many of them even asked me to curate it and prevent it from going down the tweet storm. It sowed the seeds of writing a blog.”
Wilson launched his blog on December 17, five weeks after the announcement. His primary interest was to find out whether the exercise would affect the currency in circulation and if those notes could be replaced in 50 days, as promised. His first blog post spoke of the importance of the Rs 500 notes, supporting his argument with tables, graphs and pie charts.
On December 21, he published another hard-hitting piece – “A monumental disaster in the offing” – that analysed the capacity of printing presses and the possibility of outsourcing the work to foreign countries. It also provided scenarios in which the currency could come back into the system. “I examined documents available in the public domain to understand the currency crunch,” he said. “Being a trained professional in resource management, it was easy for me to analyse the data to arrive at a conclusion. Frankly, I don’t know much about economics and finance.”
Wilson said he began his work on demonetisation because of the lack of well-researched analytical pieces in the mainstream media. “From the beginning, I felt that the government wouldn’t have imposed restrictions on withdrawals if it had enough volume of new currency at its disposal,” he said. “However, I couldn’t find scholarly journalistic pieces about the situation. A majority of the media just reproduced the government’s assurances day after day.”
His posts forced the Reserve Bank of India to delete a statement issued by its deputy governor, R Gandhi, on the volume of new notes. “It showed lack of professionalism on the part of the apex bank,” Wilson said.
However, his followers on Twitter helped him retrieve the purged document. “The RBI officials forgot to remove the cache when it purged the document,” he said. “It is quite embarrassing to know that those who ask people to go cashless did not even know the basic lessons of digital literacy of how to purge a document from their system.”
Research and fact checks
Wilson believes that his blog is popular because people appreciate well-researched articles. “I researched for a month before writing the blog,” he said. “I used to read for two to three hours after coming back from work. Social media provided me a forum to put my thoughts in the public domain.”
This training to be as thorough as possible came from his work with the Kerala State Electricity Board, which he joined in 1994. In 2001, he was posted at its reservoir management cell before being moved to the Mullaperiyar special cell in 2006.
“Being a member of the Mullaperiyar special cell, my job is to provide information on water disputes to the government,” he said. “I have to verify my papers 10 times before presenting them to the government. I followed the same procedure in writing the blog.”
According to Wilson, journalists today are not interested in reading and researching issues. “There is an unhealthy competition between the print and electronic media, and I feel journalists enjoy less space, time and freedom than the older days,” he said. “A majority of them tend to believe whatever pieces of information the government provides them.”
The blog has provided an avenue for healthy discussion and debate. One Twitter user raised doubts about Wilson’s methodology. “The respondent said that I didn’t consider the increased capacity of printing presses in my piece,” he said. “But the truth is that printing capacity was not increased till now in any of the presses. It was the capacity to produce paper.”
Before getting into demonetisation, Wilson wrote extensively on the threat posed by the Mullaperiyar dam to the lives of people in Central Kerala. The state claims that the dam on the Periyar river will burst if neighbouring Tamil Nadu is allowed to raise the water level.
Drawing similarities between the two subjects, Wilson said, “Mullaperiyar is an emotional issue for Keralites while demonitisation is an issue that affects the whole of India.”
He added, “I will continue to write about issues that affect people.”