Modi Government Can’t Get Away With Demonetisation by Claiming ‘Good Intent’

Demonetisation has crushed all the government’s previous pet projects, from the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan to Make in India, while still using patriotic emotions to advertise their importance.

Insects and birds fly in a dump yard as a waste collector collects scraps in New Delhi June 27, 2013. Credit: Reuters/Anindito Mukherjee

Insects and birds fly in a dump yard as a waste collector collects scraps in New Delhi. Credit. File photo. Reuters/Anindito Mukherjee

Through all that has been said about demonetisation over the past two months, the one near constant has been the acknowledgement of the ‘good intent’ of the exercise. This intent is supposed to include the elimination of black money, the curbing of counterfeiting, controlling terrorism and moving the nation to a cashless age. Such is the aura of intent that even the harshest critics of the government have to preface their criticism with a disclaimer acknowledging the laudable motivations of the exercise. This armour shields the prime minister and the government so that any scrutiny is limited only to how they approach their stated intent without ever questioning their character or the true nature of the intent.

So at worst, demonetisation can be presented as a goofed-up implementation by those seeking to do good. That is quite a generous free pass to the most powerful people in the land. But what role does the stated intent actually play in the government’s scheme of things? The manner in which demonetisation treats the intent of crusades past is instructive in this regard.

Crushing existing projects

Demonetisation has actively subverted and trampled many of the declared objectives of previous drives. The most tragic demonstration of this is in the effect of demonetisation on the Swachha Bharat Abhiyan. The waste-workers of Delhi, also called ragpickers, constitute the bedrock of the Swachha Bharat Abhiyan. They undertake the most difficult tasks needed to keep a city clean. They go door-to-door to collect garbage and then manually segregate the often toxic and hazardous waste to make a living by selling the recyclable paper, plastic and metal. They live and raise their children in rented plots that combine as a home and a warehouse for the garbage they sell. Their colonies are infested with refuse and vermin. Their economic position is perennially precarious. They have no guaranteed source of income, little in terms of savings and are exploited in all their dealings. In short, this is a community that struggles through a sub-human existence to provide the services that make the Swachha Bharat dream possible. The prime minister himself declared their work to be divine at the launch of the abhiyan.

Seen from the eyes of this community, demonetisation was less ‘monumental mismanagement’ as Manmohan Singh put it and more premeditated punishment. One day the prime minister pronounced their lives savings to be equivalent to the raddi they collect and sell. Then they were told that they would have to trade their notes at a bank, an institution that has always treated them with systematic contempt. Then a few days later, they were told that the deadline to convert old notes was not the end of the year but within a few hours. The promise to the bearer of the Indian currency was the only aspect of the Indian state they have thus far had reason to trust. Now that trust too stands broken.

Unavailability of liquidity has dried up demand for recyclables. By mid-December, desperation had set in as feeding the family became a daily challenge. Most abandoned hope and headed back to ancestral homes in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. There are estimated to be 1.5 lakh waste-pickers in Delhi. That’s tens of thousands of families hungry, pauperised and uprooted, with kids pulled out of school and taken back to the first step of the ladder of poverty they have been climbing all their lives. Apart from the inhumanity of this outcome, large parts of Delhi’s waste collection and segregation ecosystem lie in tatters. Demonetisation has wrecked both the process by which our cities are kept clean and the lives of those who clean them.

If the government and the prime minister held the stated objectives of the Swachha Bharat Abhiyan to be sacred, it certainly did not show in the manner in which demonetisation destroyed the people and the value-chain that keeps India clean. Nor is this an isolated example. If the prime minister attached any value to the stated intent of attracting foreign investment, it certainly did not show in the manner in which demonetisation has shredded the independence of the RBI and destroyed its credibility in the eyes of the global investor community. If the prime minister attached any value to Startup India, Make in India and the stated intent of creating jobs by the millions, it certainly did not show in the manner in which demonetisation has wrecked small businesses. A study quoted by the Indian Express indicates that nearly three lakh micro and small enterprises have shed 35% of their workforce and expect to shed 60% by March 2017. If the prime minister was at all serious about the stated intent behind renaming the agriculture ministry as the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, it did not show in the way demonetisation sucked liquidity out of agricultural markets just when farmers needed it the most. The list can go on.

Could it be that the intent was genuine but the previous campaigns were simply dwarfed and forgotten in the wake of the monumental revolution to be unleashed by demonetisation? Again, the Swachha Bharat Abhiyan has lessons for us. The abhiyan was not forgotten and figures prominently in the implementation of demonetisation. With careful forethought, the logo of the abhiyan now appears upon every new note. So demonetisation preserved the evocation and the hope that India could be clean while crushing the livelihood of those needed to get there.

Hijacking conversations with emotional ‘nationalism’

The stated intent does not reflect the direction in which the government seeks to, or in fact can, take the country. It is but one of the instruments the government employs in its strategy to hijack the national conversation by imprisoning large sections of the population in a prison of their own emotions. The stated intent is thus designed primarily to stoke passions. Several aspects of the government’s campaigns become clear when viewed from this perspective. The stated intent of the campaigns are less substantiated and thought through objectives, and more ideas loaded with deep emotional appeal. Thus the target of demonetisation is neither the land and gold where untaxed wealth is stored nor the processes that encourages corruption; it is ‘bistar mein chhupa kala dhan (black money stored under a bed)’ which is a mere 5% of all black assets, but thanks to Hindi cinema, fires the popular imagination like no other motif can.

The intent is crafted and the campaign is led by those capable of making exaggerated and emotional claims without the handicap of deep understanding of the underlying subject. We therefore have an impassioned phalanx of chartered accountants, bureaucrats, pracharaks, celebrities and politicians exhorting us to discover the patriot inside while macroeconomists, central bankers and monetary policy experts sit aghast on the sidelines. The desired reaction to the intent is not a rational conversation but an emotional embrace and unquestioning rapture. The intent is therefore cloaked in a quasi-religious and nationalistic narrative with invocations of patriotism, divinity and purity. Logical discussion is foreclosed because let alone disagreeing with the intent, even questioning it becomes blasphemous, anti-national or downright criminal. The few who still insist on questioning the stated intent are shamed with quivering lips, quavering voices and invocations of personal sacrifice.

No one, least of all the government, seems to know where this emotion-fueled crusade is leading the nation. But what is certain is that in its wake lies a trail of crushed lives, subverted institutions and a trampled constitution. The armour of stridently-proclaimed righteous intent is wearing thin. The Emperor, notwithstanding his expensive clothes, is looking increasingly exposed.

Sachin Rao is a political activist with the Rajiv Gandhi Panchayati Raj Sangathan.