Anything that moves

The viral video by BSF Constable Tej Bahadur Yadav demonstrates the futility of the note ban

The soldier's Facebook posts backing demonetisation expose what he, like millions, failed to understand – black money and the cash economy are red herrings.

Border Security Force Constable Tej Bahadur Yadav, who on Sunday uploaded videos on social media complaining about the poor quality and quantity of food provided to soldiers at border outposts, is no opponent of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, judging by his Facebook feed. He appears to have joined the social network three years ago, but produced no public posts before a burst of activity beginning on November 6, 2016. It consisted mainly of political and patriotic forwards, including a number of images targeting Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. On November 7, he posted an image of Sonia Gandhi lamenting that she would have to return to being a bar dancer in Italy since Modi had destroyed her India plans. The next post, dated November 10, is a little ironic in retrospect. It is an image of two jawans making chapatis with the legend, “People eat butter chicken and betray the nation; it takes a jawan to eat scorched rotis and die for the country.”

Next come cartoons and news items favouring the note ban, forwards from organisations such as PM Modi Fan Club, satirical images directed at Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and his West Bengal counterpart Mamata Banerjee, Haryanvi jokes, recipes for home remedies, celebrations of cows and (separately) jaggery, and pictures of Yadav himself, first holidaying with his wife and son, and then back on duty. Finally, out of the blue, we have his filmed protest against ration pilferage and, as I write this, an appeal from his wife saying she hasn’t been able to contact him since his videos went viral.

Yadav’s post exposes what he, like millions of others, failed to understand about the note swap plan: Black money and the cash economy, targets of the currency ban, are red herrings. The real damage to the country’s health is caused by corruption. The generation of unaccounted wealth is just one symptom of that disease. The note swap made a marginal, temporary difference to the symptom, and none at all to the underlying condition.

I have acquaintances whose business plans are stuck because officials will not clear files until liquidity returns to the system and they receive their cut in new currency. At the other end of the spectrum, a youth I know who received an apprentice’s job in a shipyard was denied a caste certificate by the tehsildar of his village till the boy managed to draw enough money to pay him off. No doubt, millions of such stories can be told about the eight weeks since the government’s demonetisation announcement, given how the machinery of the state has evolved to maximise the short-term gains of government officials who have power over the public, or even, as in the case of Tej Bahadur Yadav, over fellow government employees.

Transparency needs

The note ban, far from stamping out networks of malfeasance, has only spurred the creation of new ones. The government makes a show of raids on those holding inordinate amounts of new notes, but since the organisations responsible for cracking down on such crimes are as corrupt as any other government department, it is unlikely that they will accomplish anything substantial beyond the generation of a few headlines.

The government’s attempt to make all transactions amenable to scrutiny involves not just a push towards banking and digital mediation but an effort to put the state itself at the centre of such transactions. The greatest exemplar of this is the BHIM (Bharat Interface for Money) app linked to Aadhaar numbers that Modi’s blue-eyed boy Amitabh Kant, the chief executive officer of Niti Aayog, believes will make credit cards and digital wallets redundant. I have a feeling, based on initial reports, that BHIM will be about as successful as former Congress minister Kapil Sibal’s pet project, the Aakash tablet, which was supposed to revolutionise low-cost computing in India.

The reputation of the Reserve Bank of India has never been so low, its independence seemingly compromised, its credibility damaged by the numerous U-turns taken during the process of demonetisation and remonetisation. Unsurprisingly, a rumour is doing the rounds that the new Rs 2,000 notes are only a stopgap, shortly to be eradicated in a new purge. A belief in the temporariness of the new currency might lead people to avoid hoarding the notes, but that doesn’t mean they will gravitate to the government’s solution. More likely, they will take further recourse to precisely those shadow networks the state wants to eliminate, buying hard currency in the grey market, and further eroding the value of the rupee.

Hawala has become a bad word in our time, but is a trust-based system that for centuries has transferred money efficiently across vast distances in South and West Asia, helping commerce through the largest continent and in parts of Africa. It remains the cheapest way for workers in the Gulf to send their hard-earned money home. If the government wants trusty systems like hawala eliminated, it needs to first demonstrate its own trustworthiness. To begin with, it must take legislative and executive measures to make its employees more accountable. If the government desires complete transparency in private transactions, it must first become more transparent itself. It ought to build on the progress engendered by the Right to Information Act instead of stymying queries and carving out exceptions.

Halfway through its term in office, the Central government has taken no steps towards either greater accountability or greater transparency. This fact will be driven home as the game of smearing the whistleblower jawan and passing the buck takes off in earnest within the Border Security Force.

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