Ranjona Banerji: Not a 'minor' inconvenience, this

Published: Nov 16, 2016, 08:12 IST | Ranjona Banerji

The Prime Minister resorts to theatrics, even as a scared, confused nation wonders why it has to suffer because of black-money hoarders

The roll-out of this currency withdrawal is being criticised and rightly so. If India was fully digitised, if India was fully literate, if everyone had medical insurance, there would have been no problem at all. Pic/PTI
The roll-out of this currency withdrawal is being criticised and rightly so. If India was fully digitised, if India was fully literate, if everyone had medical insurance, there would have been no problem at all. Pic/PTI

What a society we have become, where we are supposed to have more compassion for a prime minister petulant that people are complaining about the after-effects of his brilliant idea rather than for the people suffering because of this brilliant idea. All across India, there is panic and turmoil because people either have no money or their money has become worthless or because they feel that their own money is being denied to them.

These are very real problems and fears, regardless of the huge amount of black money and the large black money economy which exists and operates in and out of India. As any salaried person — still the largest, if tiny, group of Indians that actually pays income tax regularly — knows, trying to navigate demands for black money is terrifying and extremely difficult especially if you have ever tried to buy property. So yes, the dishonest and shady Indian is a scourge and yes, black money dealings and transactions have to be attacked.

But the implementation of this demonetisation scheme has been shoddy and ill-thought-out. There is no point in Prime Minister Narendra Modi weeping that he is being victimised. He is not. The roll-out of this idea is being criticised and rightly so. If India was fully digitised, if India was fully literate, if everyone had medical insurance, there would have been no problem at all. We would have easily negotiated our way through this ‘minor inconvenience’ and lived life on cards, e-wallets and phone apps.

Forget this fabulous future for a while. And take a look at the ground reality. It is all right perhaps for a 20-year-old to stand in line for three hours to try and withdraw some of her own money. It is not all right for an 80-year-old to stand in line for three hours to try and withdraw some of his own money. This is not a ‘minor inconvenience’. Because, given the rate at which banks and ATM machines are running out of cash there is no guarantee that standing in queue once will get you what you want. How many days is it okay for a senior citizen to stand in line, scared and worried, before the government starts to care?

A former boss of a biscuit company informed us on television yesterday that it is not fair to keep going on and on about the rural and agricultural poor, because they are used to suffering. They will just bear some more suffering and starvation for another 50 days. Fine. Let them die. It is also not fair to discuss the poor who are so stupid that they don’t have bank accounts and smartphones. Fine. Let them also die. India’s population is too large anyway, isn’t it?
It’s for the ‘greater good’, a fascist idea if there ever was one.

Instead, here’s a story about me. Last year, I had a little brush with cancer. The tests and the operation wiped out my insurance money for the year. So for the radiation therapy that was mandated after that, I had to pay cash. I opted to get this done at the only hospital in Uttarakhand which had linear accelerators. People come to this hospital from all over the state and from neighbouring states as well. At least 100 people a day from all walks of life and parts of North India wait for hours for their turn. If you do not have medical insurance, you have to pay cash.

The hospital was run by a trust, is kind and compassionate, offers discounts to those who needed them and it offers staggered payments. But it runs on cash. No cheques, no cards.

I don’t want to try and ask the former head of a biscuit company and his champagne buddies to feel sorry for the patients. But I can tell you that any potentially fatal illness fills your family and friends with desperation and fear.

And, financial worries come close to the top of the list. My six weeks of radiation therapy cost me R1 lakh. How many days would I or my father have to stand in line to withdraw that amount from an ATM, while travelling 70 km a day and waiting for three to four hours for my treatment?

I suppose one day we’re all going to die, right? For the greater good?

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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