50 days of the much-promised demonetisation target has passed, close to 200 people have lost their lives due to stress related to the note ban and millions continue to remain with no access to their hard-earned money. And yet there’s no anger on the streets or serious debates on TV channels.
Do you find it odd or it is a simple case of Indians being a passive lot? We will hear from veteran journalist, Rajdeep Sardesai and sociologists including Professor Anand Kumar later, but let’s first compare the noise and media coverage over another phenomenon called Odd-Even, initiated by Delhi chief minister, around the same time a year ago.
The “greater good” –
Odd-Even: In 2014, Delhi was ranked as the most polluted city in the world by the World Health Organisation. The levels of pollution were life threatening then. One senior judge had described Delhi as a gas chamber. The adverse affects of pollution, especially on the children and foetuses were reported to be extremely hazardous. It’s no surprise that the greater good that odd-even claimed to be catering to was a life in itself.
With a serious threat lurking at the residents of Delhi, a scheme like Odd-Even was just a baby step, which ideally should have been built upon, and not left at a mere test drive of 15 days.
Demonetisation: Modi sarkar originally claimed that a step like demonetisation was very much required to halt the compilation and circulation of black money. The aim of the policy was to curb the potential terrorist activities and corruption that posed serious threats to India as a nation and in her progress.
The question of urgency though, as to how desperately it was needed to implement a policy as abrupt, risky and rather amateur as a permanent note-ban on such a large scale remains unanswered.
Odd-Even: This scheme was implemented on a very small group of people, since only 25% of the commuters in Delhi travel by private vehicles. Moreover, women drivers, vehicles of VVIPs, emergency transports and two wheelers were exempt from the scheme. The stakes of inconvenience were reduced all the more since the scheme was temporary and pre- planned. This had given adequate time for preparation to both the public and the government, to arrange for alternatives well in advance.
Demonetisation: The note-ban was enforced on the entire country at once with no time for making necessary arrangements. The policy made no exemption for people below poverty line, those without awareness of banking systems, the socially oppressed, who are denied access to banks and those living on a daily income system. And not to forget that the note ban announcement has claimed approximately 200 lives till date. No one had died due to Odd-Even scheme.
Since the announcement of demonetisation, the RBI has changed its rules several times, damaging the global reputation of the Indian economy in addition to all the pains undergone by the public.
According to a study conducted by All India Manufacturer’s Organisation (AIMO), by March 2017, the micro-small scale industries would have experienced a 60% drop in employment and 55% loss of revenue. Medium and large scale industries engaged in infrastructure projects, such as big-ticket road construction are likely to face a drop of 40% in both jobs and revenue. Medium and large scale industries, including foreign companies, engaged in export-oriented activities will have a loss of 35% and 45% in the number of jobs and revenue respectively. The least job-losses, however, will be seen by the medium and large scale industries of about 15%.
Modi government’s idea of a cashless society is romantic and rickety since it is designed in favour of only a fraction of the Indian population. Before forcing this idea on the people, the government should have first resolved issues like the genuine lack of infrastructure, availability of internet and weak cyber laws that are required for a cashless society to survive. By virtue of being sudden and permanent, neither the people nor the government were prepared to effectively arrange for alternatives to prevent the casualties that were bound to take place.
Response of the Judiciary
Odd-Even: On 7 January 2016, which was the sixth day of the Odd-Even scheme, Delhi High Court condemned Arvind Kejriwal government for causing “public inconvenience” during the hearing of 12 petitions against the scheme. The Bench had asked the senior standing counsel, Rahul Mehra, appearing on behalf of the Delhi government, if it was really necessary to stretch the trial for 15 days. According to them, a week was enough to test the scheme since it was causing a practical difficulty to people.
Mehra had told the court, “During the trial the pollution levels have dropped, roads have decongested. Can the inconvenience caused be equated to the health of the children?”
He also shed light on how the public supported the cause and also submitted a status report highlighting the impact of the scheme and the reasons for certain exemptions granted. It also focused on the government’s plans to augment the public transport and indulge in effective traffic management with the help traffic police, crowd source complaints and also highlighted other non-vehicular pollution sources.
On the status report, Justice Jayanth said, “The report submitted by Delhi government is vague” adding that “We had decided not to interfere but now with the feedbacks and opinions placed before the court, we want Delhi government to file day wise report from January 1-January 7. Collect the data and report how much pollution level has reduced?”
Demonetisation: On 25 November 2016, the Supreme Court had asked the government to spell out the steps taken to minimise public inconvenience. During the hearing, the Chief Justice said the objective seems to be laudable “but there is some inconvenience also to the public at large”.
The Centre had filed a caveat in the matter seeking dismissal of the petitions challenging demonetisation on grounds like it was “misconceived”. The Attorney General, Mukul Rohatgi, appearing on behalf of the Centre, stated that while some inconvenience to common citizens occurs as this kind of “surgical strike” is bound to have “some kind of collateral damage”.
On 2 December 2016, Rohatgi said, “Several cases are filed each passing day in various high courts on various aspects post demonetisation and it is not possible to deal with cases simultaneously in Kerala, Kolkata, Jaipur and Mumbai… All these matter should be clubbed together and be referred to any one high court or the apex court should hear them.” While it is possible for the Indian Judiciary to hold several hearings to deal with the contempt case on Justice Markandey Katju over a legal opinion he published on a personal blog.
On 22 December 2016, the Delhi high court adjourned indefinitely all hearings of the pleas challenging demonetisation. The bench further said since the petitioners were not withdrawing their petitions as per Supreme Court directive, the “case is adjourned sine die”. Sine die refers to business or proceedings that have been adjourned with no appointed date for resumption. The apex court had on December 16, said no other courts in the country shall entertain any writ petitions relating to the demonetisation issues. However, the petitioners from other courts are free to intervene during the Supreme Court proceedings.
Plausible social passiveness on demonetisation
Vivek Kumar, sociologist and professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, thinks that it is the media that plays the biggest role in framing the reactions of the people. According to him, the media is under the control of the State.
“The government puts words into the thinking process. The highest functionaries of the government and the spokespersons of the ruling party have been creating vocabulary for the masses.”
He added, “The vocabulary is of abstract nature and people think that the nation is a sacrosanct entity. But the nation is made of people and their rights. The rights have been snatched away, the nation has been disrespected and undermined. The media is not writing the real problem. The newly born babies have been deprived of their milk and the dead have been deprived of their coffins.”
He said, “the channels are bearing false news. The media has suppressed the anger of the people.” He also states, that during the Odd-Even trial, people were supportive of the cause but this was not highlighted because the vocabulary of “the nation” was not present.
Answering the allegations against media for being under the government control, veteran journalist, Rajdeep Sardesai, says, “I cannot speak for the rest of the media, I can only speak for myself. I can claim that in the two months of demonetisation, I have reported from the ground both positive and negative. And this is our job as journalists, to report the positive and negative. For Odd-Even as well, both the positive and negative reactions were reported.”
On the question of lack of protests by the people on demonetisation, Sardesai says, “It is wrong to say that people are not inconvenienced or that they are not complaining. The Prime Minister asked for 50 days. Because of the credibility he still enjoys, a number of people were willing to give him the benefit of doubt for these 50 days. He won the first round by being able to convince people that despite the pain they will get a greater gain in return.”
However, he also also adds that while the first 50 days were in the favour of PM Modi, after the end of these 50 days, people are beginning to ask the question of what “greater gain” have they received. According to Sardesai, pollution is not treated as big a problem in India as corruption.
Sociologist and Ex-AAP member, Professor Anand Kumar of JNU, agrees with the senior journalist adding that people in India don’t understand the urgency for environment conservation.
“This is due to the lack of awareness and interest in the issues of environment. Whereas demonetisation claims to target the same issue that the media, politicians and economists have been trying to appeal to the masses for the past many years, which is corruption,” Professor Kumar continues.
He adds, “Radical inconvenience is suffered in the form of slow pain which is not encouraging an aggressive reaction. The poor are suffering but they are happy that the rich are suffering as well.”
According to him, the reasons for no protest taking place against demonetisation as yet is, because the opposition is being led by those whose credibility is not trusted by people, for example the congress members or Arvind Kejriwal.
“Odd-even mostly affected the middle class, for whom protesting was a feasible option. The ones that are suffering the most due to demonetisation don’t have the capacity to protest.”
It’s been more than a week since the expiry of 50-day deadline promised by PM Modi. Several agencies have come out with negative growth forecasts for Indian economy, which has truly been a success story even amidst global meltdown in the last few years.
Five states are set to go for polls in the next few weeks. It remains to be seen if the silent victims of Modi’s note ban decision had saved their anger for ballot boxes.