Ranjona Banerji: An economy beyond 'help'

Demonetisation has just been one more opportunity for the parallel system to ‘help’, but at a price. The casualty? The nation’s integrity

Mumbai Congress workers during the morcha to protest the ban on Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes. Pic/AFP
Mumbai Congress workers during the morcha to protest the ban on Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes. Pic/AFP

No question, the demonetisation exercise has been a major success. After all, it has energised the great Indian system of ‘adjust and compromise to find a sol­­ution’, otherwise known as ‘jugaad’. This amazing and age-old Indian knack of finding an instant way out of a difficult problem is the stuff of legend, textbooks and management studies. It is innovative and entrepreneurial. It can get around laws, copyright issues, rules, regulations and official apathy to provide joy, solace, reprieve, relief, comfort. At a small price of course, but anything is worth it to avoid the discomfort.

There are ‘agents’, therefore, at every level of society, who will exchange demonetised currency at a price. The rate started at roughly 10 per cent per note, at least in little old Dehradun, but has now gone up to between 30 and 40 percent. At the lower level, a good place to start for this exchange was with petrol pump employees because they were allowed to legitimately accept old currency notes.

At the upper levels, bank managers are your best bet, especially in the smaller branches. The stories range from bank managers taking all the available cash themselves to helping important customers withdraw lakhs of rupees to all the news reports of bank employees ‘caught’ with vast amounts of cash in new currency notes. Better not be judgmental about corruption in the light of all the long hours bank employees are putting in across India. In all likelihood, they must be going crazy with extra work, ever-changing rules and handling irate customers when there’s a shortage of cash. Instead, let’s just view them as individuals helping out those they care about.

Such help is available everywhere now. Postal employees have been detained for engaging in ‘illicit’ exchange of lakhs of rupees. Policemen have been caught with their hands in various ‘new for old’ schemes. And politicians have
reportedly deposited cash and bought land, days before the secret scheme was announced. But, the less said about that the better, unless you want to be tagged as an anti-national, which you must be, because even from here I can see the thoughts taking shape in your mind.

I don’t want to imply that humans are essentially dishonest and corrupt. But, in India, we have worked out ways of avoiding ‘the system’ because we know it works against us. For every government process meant for ordinary citizens, there are touts and agents to ‘help’ you. If there has been any improvement in some department, it has always come with a change in the systems and certainly not overnight.

Demonetisation has just been one more opportunity for the parallel system to ‘help’. And its appearance now emphasises why corruption is not easily destroyed, if indeed corruption was the real target of this move. A reality check on a digitised society would lead any sensible person to the human angle. Take literacy levels. They average out at about 75 per cent. That means 25 per cent of Indians are illiterate. In terms of numbers, that’s about 250 million
Indians who cannot read and write — they are also likely to be India’s most disadvantaged lot.

In which ridiculous fantasy would these people be able to shift over­night from a cash-based economy to a digitis­ed one? I am wary of using the word ‘cashless’ because, frankly, what we are now in is a ‘cashless’ economy where few have cash and everything is in short supply.

I truly admire our strategists and analysts who have applauded this move and its implementation because they live in some wonderful world where everyone is happy and no one suffers. Or if people suffer, our analysts get philosophical and claim that suffering is part of human existence and so on. Or they tell us people are happy to suffer because the end result will be perfect.

However, the result of demonetisation seems to be that digitisation is not all-India and all-pervasive. ‘Cashless’ means no money. The poor are scrambling to make do. There are still lines outside banks and ATMs. Those who live far from banks are barely managing. Businesses are in the red. Farmers are desperate.

And corruption, in either its most ‘helpful’ or its most rapacious form, is flourishing and doing very well, thank you.

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on Twitter @ranjona.Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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