Dr Feelsalot is a good man. He’s polite, generous, pays his taxes on time, is great with kids, drives in his lane and feels strongly about the plight of his fellow man. By all accounts, Dr Feelsalot is a real stand up guy. Turns out though, that no matter how much he cares about his patients, or how good his intentions, Dr Feelsalot just ends up killing folk. Would you let him operate on you? Remember, hes an awesome guy. And he really, really wants you to get better.
I’m guessing the answer to that question, assuming you have so much as a single working brain cell, is a resounding “No”. In matters of life and death, intent is ultimately of little consequence to the victim. One would hope, the same applies to matters of a nation’s economy. The real question then, is this: At what point does “intent” override “impact” ?
Depending on which side of the demonetization issue you stand on, the term is going to evoke a range of emotions. For the purposes of this post, I’m not going to debate the theoretical implications or the supposed long term view for the economy. I’m certainly not going to second guess the governments “intent”. What I will discuss, is whats actually happening to people. Right now, on the ground. That being said, I should first state my own biases here. I’ve gone on record on numerous occasions to say that India crossed a line in the sand with Modi’s election. Over the last two plus years the man and his veritable army of misguided fans have gone out of their way to confirm the worst of my fears. When it comes to the demonetization fiasco though, I am barely affected. To me and most of my peers, ie, a typical middle class couple with no kids, living in metros, this is little more than an annoyance. I rarely carry more than 3000 rs in cash on me at any given time and 95% of all my transactions involve a credit card. In real world terms, traffic affects me more than the issuance of new bills. As far as everyday life goes, I couldn’t care less. But this isn’t about me.
Behind all the rhetoric, the pontification of armchair economists, the condemnation by a morally bankrupt opposition and the delusions of a power mad government, lies the real story. It’s both a tragedy and a crime that it is this story that gets drowned out in the noise.
20-22% of India lives below the poverty line (depending on which sources one considers legit). And about 450 – 600 million do not hold bank accounts (again, varies by sources). It doesn’t take a genius to realize that they do not have credit cards either. Their whole existence revolves around cash, or the lack thereof. In fact, if you happen to be reading this, that makes you a tiny part of the population, i.e., educated, English speaking citizens with access to the internet. We are literally, the privileged ones. But as the privileged, we do come into frequent contact with the poor. We’ve just been conditioned to ignore them. Most of us have, at some point, hired domestic help, taken the occasional rickshaw ride and bought a snack from a roadside stall. We’ve rarely ever talked to the people providing these services though. I mean really “talk” beyond discussing the mundane. I urge you to do so now. Ask the unprivileged how demonetization has hit them. And then brace yourself for the sheer injustice of it. My wife and I live in a three bedroom apartment in Gurgaon and even though we don’t employ any domestic help, a lot of our neighbors and family members do. The conversations we’ve had with them are heartbreaking. Many of these unfortunates (in Gurgaon at least) are Bangladeshi refugees. As such, they do not have any IDs, no bank accounts etc. Not that it would matter, not one of them could afford to take multiple days off just to stand in line at banks and get their money changed. That’s assuming they wanted to be seen with their life’s savings tucked underarm on their way back to the most crime ridden parts of the city.
Add to this the cases of starvation and one cant help but wonder what sort of a “surgical strike” allows for such collateral damage. In a cruel twist of irony, a move against the corrupt super rich is killing the blameless super poor. The innocent are forced to stand out for hours, breathing poison that they pretend is air, just to get a fraction of the money they earned and paid taxes on.
And yet, a large section of the electorate heralds this as a masterstroke. A brilliant tactical move by the glorious leader against our version of the November criminals. Facts are of little consequence any more. In many ways this is typical BJP methodology. Step 1) Shoot arrow Step 2) Wait for brainwashed bhakts to paint bulls-eye around whatever the hell it hits.
Again, I’m willing to admit I’m biased when it comes to the BJP. But my criticisms here do not stem from economic theory or suspect stats from my media channels of choice. By all means please do not believe what I’m stating. But go out there and talk to the people we’ve been conditioned to not see. Ask them what it feels like to see their life’s savings being wiped out or at the very least, eroded by small time money launderers. And then put yourselves in their shoes. How surgical does it feel?
At some point, this debate spilled over from the arena of economic theory, straight into the quagmire of ideology. Good luck crawling out of that any time soon. But the question still remains:
How much longer are we going to let intent override impact?