Ranjona Banerji: You have only the right to remain silent
Note ban and GST have affected liquidity, investments and payments. But we are deemed stupid or anti-national if we complain
It's the economy, stupid! Whichever way you phrase it, you can't hide from it. Surveys done by the Reserve Bank of India say that "current situation index... that measures overall consumer sentiments... slipped further into the pessimistic zone, reflecting deterioration in sentiments on the employment scenario, the price level and income".
I'm no economist and nor can I pretend to be one. But this is a fairly straightforward finding from the central bank: People are not hopeful about their future prospects, taking into account lack of jobs, rising prices and falling or stagnant income levels. One could argue that "sentiment" is not reality, that the economy is doing fabulously well and only pessimists are out to defile the government, and then slap a R100-crore defamation suit on public sentiments.
Truck operators leave their vehicles parked at the Vashi APMC in Navi Mumbai during their strike against GST (Goods and Services Tax) on Monday. Pic/PTI
Or, one could take a look at some ground realities. After 85 per cent of all Indian currency was made illegal last year, there was panic everywhere, especially in the small city close to the rural area where I live. Many big city people pompously informed me that they paid their vegetable and grocery bills through their debit cards, so why was I complaining about small matters like no cash. The other day, a senior government functionary announced during an election rally of sorts in Gujarat, that India was on its way towards being digitised but 80 per cent of India was not, and the government was working to fix that.
Hello? Last year, we were told that India was all digitised and only thieves and black marketeers were not willing to be digitised. Today we are told that 80 per cent of India is not digitised — and, in fact, this admission is close to the truth. Sometimes, election rallies give us false promises and sometimes we get the truth in order to be sold another false promise.
Anyway, between November 2016 and today, not a single vegetable seller that I patronise, big or small, accepts anything but cash, still doesn't have change for a R2,000 note and looks far more miserable than he or she did last year.
As for the Goods and Services Tax, the promised "good and simple" tax has become bad and impossible. Strikes by truckers, demanding diesel be brought under GST, to fight the current high rates of state and central taxes. Impending strikes by petrol pumps for similar reasons.
Illogically high rates for sanitary napkins and medical prosthetics. Illogically low rates for gold and jewellery. Though now, of course, the tax on khakra has been reduced from 12 per cent to 5 per cent and you no longer need to inform the income tax department when you buy jewellery worth over Rs 50,000.
Happy days for some, eh?
The cashier at the neighbourhood grocer laughs his head off whenever you discuss GST. They are all computerised and digitised but they cannot make sense of the system. Khakra, he says, was never taxed in Uttarakhand at all and now it's at 5 per cent. Locally made snacks are not taxed, so there's a good clue on what you should buy and how you should eat. Nuts confuse everyone. Most are taxed at 12 per cent. Except cashews, which are at 5 per cent. Salted cashews are 12 per cent, although salt itself is tax-free. Pistachios are 28 per cent. If you mix all the nuts into one packet, then the highest rate applies. Pretty taxing, no? (Sorry, couldn't resist that.)
In less humorous conditions, small businesses, daily labourers, handicraft artisans, leather workers are all gasping for breath. The real estate industry is practically at a standstill. Both demonetisation and GST have affected liquidity, investments and payments.
And yet, we continue to be treated like we are either stupid or are anti-nationals if we feel affected by an economy in a pessimistic zone, to quote the Reserve Bank of India.
Luckily for us, everyone is quite happy to rake up and make up non-issues to keep our tiny little minds occupied. For instance, some film stars locked in a battle which is maybe not related to publicity for a new film release. Or how to attack the Supreme Court for banning fire crackers during Diwali in New Delhi and the National Capital Region because pollution itself is horrifically pessimistic. Or the grand announcement of one more gigantic statue that India really needs in order to make us all feel happier and more optimistic. Though perhaps not any less stupid?
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on Twitter @ranjona. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
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