I’m confused. Like many professionals, I was shocked and then delighted by the government’s decision on demonetisation. I’m not a Narendra Modi fan, but I must confess to being impressed by the audacity of a policy move against black money that demands the participation of all citizens even as it tosses hardship their way.
But then as someone who’s constantly rebuked by her accountant for buying even groceries by card (debit, at the beginning of the month; credit, at the end), I’m not personally affected. My mother lives with me, my brother overseas, and my sons believe Net banking was invented with them in mind. I checked with my domestic helps, who live with us, and they said they could wait for their salaries. My driver asked to be paid by cheque. I went to sleep happy.
And woke up to chaos. At the banks, the poor and middle-class stood in endless queues; panicked at the thought of losing their hard-earned, carefully-collected money. (It’s not the just the rich who squirrel away their cash in hard-to-find places.) There was mayhem on social media too, with people blasting Modi and ruing what the move would do to daily wage earners, whose only currency is cash. The rich, conscious of being under watch, praised the move in public and cussed in private, even as they made ‘arrangements’ to stay in the black.
The week went by. As ATMs limped back to life and cash lines began shortening, the noise outside banks dimmed; the one on social media didn’t. Justice for the poor was the demand of the hour. The demand was legit. Builders had already begun letting workers go, as had some designers, their karigars; knowing there’d be few takers for their overpriced lehengas this wedding season.
Economists, even those who usually support Modi, declared demonetisation a dud. It would have little impact on black money hoarders but would hit consumer demand, they said. Rural wage growth was already nil; this would further shrink income and create joblessness, and GDP growth could drop to 0.5 per cent. The song they sang was of gloom and doom.
And yet, the working poor—whose lives are in disarray—are not in despair. If anything, they are in stoic support of the move. A shopkeeper in Delhi’s Pallika Bazaar, a market that lives and breathes cash, says: “Yes, there’s hardship. But it’s hardship for the sake of the nation.” My vegetable seller, who votes CPI(M) and belongs to a farming family in Bengal, says: “Earlier, the rich would laugh at us poor. Now, we’re laughing at the rich. We can smell their fear.” Similar sentiments are being voiced by farmers in UP, vendors in Tamil Nadu. You could call it schadenfreude. But it’s more than that. The common man sees demonetisation as a message of hope. He believes it’s a move towards a more equitable India; that there’s gain after the pain and he’s willing to wait for it. What do the economists say to that?