On November 8, 2016, the Prime Minister’s impromptu announcement that 500-rupee and 1000-rupee notes would be invalidated in order to catch tax defaulters unawares was immediately greeted with either elation or misgiving.
As in most cases under the current regime – for to call it a government is a mockery of governance – those who voiced their misgivings were accused of being anti-nationals and tax defaulters, whom angry defenders of the regime ordered to “go to Pakistan”, a task that is now rendered even more difficult than before thanks to the cessation of bilateral talks.
But, unlike in most cases under the current regime, those who were elated were not just the trolls who trawl social media and news websites – they included naïve taxpayers who believed this move was actually a good one. After all, the Prime Minister had promised that the transition would be smooth, that this top-secret operation had been planned over six months, and that the machinery would work efficiently to cause the least inconvenience to the common man.
The trial through which the common man’s trust would be put began the very next day. Instead of issuing new notes to replace the ones that had already been rendered invalid, the banks remained closed. ATM machines were to be recalibrated, and there was a mad rush to get in line before they turned useless.
Essential services, including hospitals and pharmacies, refused to provide care for patients who did not have new notes – and they could not have new notes because they were not being issued yet.
The government had done a Marie Antoinette, asking those who did not have cash to use credit cards. What percentage of the populace has a credit card?
The promises of relief were to be betrayed soon enough. The exchange of notes was limited to 4500 rupees, and instead of increasing the limit, the government slashed the amount to 2000. Could its think tanks not come up with any way to streamline the queue other than speed it up through deprivation?
In the initial announcement, citizens were promised that they could deposit any amount of money until December 30, and deposits under Rs. 2.5 lakh would not be scrutinised. Now, the government has changed its mind. Farmers, pensioners, and small traders who had stocked up money at home will be among those who are investigated.
The “relief measures” which the government has drawn up are all reactive rather than preventive. There was no separate queue for senior citizens at most banks, and they waited in long lines along with everyone else. After reports of several cases of sunstroke, collapse, and cardiac arrest, sometimes leading to death, one day was dedicated to cater to senior citizens alone.
Similarly, larger withdrawals were sanctioned for weddings after reports of suicides by family members of brides.
In the last few days, there have been no reports of deaths caused directly or indirectly by demonetisation. Whether this is actually the case, or whether the media too has failed to play the role of opposition – a role the political opposition has not been able to play to much effect – is not known. Reportage becomes challenging in a country where no one in authority is allowed to speak. Even columns and comment that refuses to toe the government’s line must encounter the nasty ire of trolls, who spew vitriol for lack of sensible argument.
Despite the heavy investment from the nation’s exchequer that the issuing of new notes has mandated, and despite the trauma caused to the common man – for deaths cannot be dismissed as “inconvenience” – we are now told that there are no additional security features on the new notes to prevent counterfeiting. Worse, we don’t even know when the 500-rupee notes will roll out. With most shopkeepers either refusing change or having no change for 2000-rupee notes, people are in nearly as much trouble as they were between November 8 and 10.
And reports of 550-crore weddings conducted with old notes spill into our news feed, along with others of powerless labourers being paid in old notes and forced to change them for a commission of 150 rupees per 500-rupee note – because people who must work at construction sites every day can’t afford to wait in endless queues.
Of course, the first blow to people’s trust in the system came with the idea itself – a currency note is essentially a guarantee that this piece of paper will always be worth the number which is printed on it. Now, that number, that piece of paper, and the guarantee have been invalidated en masse. Notes of other denominations which went out of circulation aeons ago can be exchanged after December 30, but not 500-rupee and 1000-rupee notes.
And so, we must tell ourselves we live in a democracy, while not trusting it to be of us, for us, or by us.
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