Through the Looking-Glass

The Readers’ Editor writes: With demonetisation, Indian press shows what journalism ought to be

The press captured in great detail the suffering of millions after the surprise move and the government’s shifting goal posts.

The demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 currency notes announced on November 8 last year was easily the most controversial economic policy decision taken in India in two decades. As India marks the first anniversary of the note ban on Wednesday, expect a stream of analysis pieces on the decision and its impact in the past year (disclosure: I have contributed mine to The Tribune).

Useful as it is to look at the economic, social and political fallout of demonetisation and where we stand today, it is equally interesting to look at the press coverage of this major event. Some relevant questions are: How did the media report on the demonetisation exercise? What, in retrospect, did it get right and what did it get wrong? What are the missing pieces?

Demonetisation 2016 evoked strong opinions in private and public conversations and this was reflected in the intense media coverage in the weeks and months that followed the move.

Growing in strength

There was an evolution in the depth of media reporting and analysis after the announcement on November 8. In the first couple of days, the press – print, TV and online – struggled to get on top of demonetisation. This was not surprising because no event of this scale had till then taken place in India or elsewhere in the world. The previous instances of demonetisation in India, in 1946 and 1978, were minor as compared to the 2016 move, where 86% of the currency in circulation was invalidated overnight.

This was also the time when the government had just pulled off the surgical strikes across the Line of Control on September 29, 2016, which received near-unanimous praise in the media. So in the afterglow of this success, demonetisation too was initially seen positively by the press and many journalists described this as one more “surgical strike” – this time against corruption and black money. In one of the more absurd examples of the jubilant coverage at the time, some mainstream media outlets such as Zee and social media accounts went to town with talk that each new currency note contained a GPS tracking chip that could help detect its use in the fight against black money. This piece of news was not sourced to any government official, but who cared?

Within days, however, two rich strands of media coverage developed, at least, in the English language media. One was the reporting of the many aspects of demonetisation 2016 and its fall-out. The other was the analysis in the opinion pages.

No one, from any walk of life, had been spared the impact of Demonetisation 2016 and this was extensively reported in the media. People struggled to manage without cash, small and large establishments hit by a liquidity crunch, patients seeking medical help at private hospitals being made to suffer because they did not have valid notes to make payments, farmers resorting to barter arrangements, women with abusive husbands finding themselves robbed of their safety nets when much of their cash savings had turned useless, and many more issues.

The media coverage was especially rich with regard to job losses and delayed wage payments in the informal sector. There was also no geographical area left uncovered. From the periphery in Kashmir in the North to Nagaland in the East, to the rural hinterland in central India, reporters went everywhere. (A small sample of the coverage can be seen here, here, here and here.)

Then, there was the reporting on the scarcity of cash in the economy and the serpentine lines in front of banks and ATMs. The most disturbing reports were on the deaths of people who died in line while waiting for hours to draw money that was theirs.

Sometimes, words were not necessary to describe people’s difficulties. A striking photograph that appeared in Hindustan Times (buried inside though) of an elderly man crying after waiting in line for hours to get money at the bank conveyed the message clearly and was widely shared.

Another strand was the reporting of how the Reserve Bank of India was changing its regulations day after day. Yet another was India’s experience with making digital payments which had became the new purported objective of Demonetisation 2016 in the days after the move was implemented. The press reported in some detail about how people were managing (or having trouble managing) with unfamiliar forms of transactions in a country with low literacy rates and patchy internet connectivity.

All in all, looking at the coverage the first two-three months after Demonetisation 2016, I would say that this was one of the better episodes in the recent history of the English language press in India. There was a hunger for news and the media satiated it. Reporters were out in the field digging up all manner of experiences of men, women and children. Caught off guard in the initial days, the press quickly recovered to do the job it was supposed to do.

Keeping at it was one of those publications that went the extra mile in its reporting and analysis, with its sustained coverage of demonetisation for months. The good stories are too many to mention here. A sample of its coverage can be seen here, here and here.

There was a difference in the spread of coverage between the general newspapers and the business press. The business newspapers tended to be more careful in their reporting, tuned as they are to uncritically welcoming any measure that they think looks like reform. But they too did not hold back their punches, such as in carrying out surveys of how small business was affected or in pointing out the frequency of changes in RBI regulations.

The opinion pages of the papers – both the general and financial dailies – saw a more divided set of views, as should be the case. The financial papers by and large had more op-eds justifying demonetisation, while the general mainstream newspapers put out more critical pieces. On the whole, the critical op-eds seemed more convincing. There was some analysis, but not much, about the motivation for demonetisation and the politics behind it. Reflecting the closed nature of the Bharataiya Janata Party and the Narendra Modi Government, this analysis tended to be more of speculation.

The most intense coverage was seen in November-December 2016, the first two months after demonetisation. Then as cash returned to the system and as the deadline for returning old notes passed, the reporting and the analysis tapered off.

But it never died out.

Revisiting demonetisation

In keeping with the enormity of the decision on demonetisation and the negative impact it had on people, there were many occasions on which the press revisited the event.

First there were the surprising GDP numbers announced in March, for the third quarter of financial year 2016-’17. which showed that Demonetisation 2016 had no impact on growth in October-December 2016. This brought out a small number of commentators saying “I told you so”. Then there were the eruption of farmer protests in central and western India in April and May, which again were linked to the collapse of prices and markets because of the shortage of cash and forced digitalisation. In end August, the futility of demonetisation as an instrument to destroy black money became apparent when the RBI announced that 98.6% of the demonetised currency had returned to the banking system.

The same week, new GDP numbers showed that growth had plunged in the first quarter (April-June) of 2017-’18 indicating that the full impact of demonetisation was yet to play itself out. This led to another burst of intense reporting and analysis of what much of the media finally seemed to agree was an unravelling of Demonetisation 2016. used the occasion to run a series aptly titled Revisiting Demonetisation.

The story continues. Both the fallout of demonetisation 2016 and the government’s ever-changing justification are regularly reported on and analysed in the press, usually more critically than in approval. The disruption caused by the hurried implementation of the Goods and Services Tax that came on top of the lingering effect of demonetisation has further complicated the story.

Yet, there is one thing that continues to be missing in the reporting and the analysis. If indeed demonetisation has had such a negative impact on the lives of people, why is it that they never came out on the streets or punished the ruling party at the Centre when elections were held to various states in February and March, most of which were won by the BJP?

The early signs were in the statements made by people who were interviewed by journalists as they stood in lines through much of November. The reigning sentiment was: “It has caused us problems but this is all for the good if black money is rooted out” or “The rich too are paying for it; it is not just the poor who are suffering” and the like. There was the rare piece of interesting analysis in this regard but no concrete follow up.

Yet, a year later, the citizen still seems to give the government the benefit of doubt. Why? In one of my earlier columns I had pointed out this gap in our understanding of the public response to demonetisation and suggested that this was an important area for to take up in its next round of reporting. However, the media in general has skirted this subject, preferring sometimes to dismiss it as a case of the poor deriving pleasure from the troubles of the rich, a sort of Schadenfreude. I think there is something more there that we have not tried to comprehend.

This is an important but small gap in what I still think was an example of a time when the Indian press (as usual with some exceptions) stepped up to the plate. For once, they did not swallow official handouts and were rightly sceptical of grand claims. This was what journalism was supposed to be.

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