Even as the rest of the population continues to stagger and reel under the blow that demonetization has delivered to them, almost all Dalits and Adivasis in the country have been hit enormously in varying degrees, with the hardest HIT being the rural ones, reducing them to a worse state than they already were in, struggling to survive for want of livelihood, food and medical care, exasperated due to lack of any visible solutions on the horizon.
Driven by multiple motives under the garb of eliminating ‘black money’, with the end benefit being highly questioned by economist and layman alike, the stupidity of the manner in which demonetization has been indulged in is not lost on anyone. But one would in the least expect that the powers doing it, who have promised welfare of the subalterns while getting their votes, would have given a serious thought to the impact such extensive and pathetically implemented demonetization would have on the poorest of the poor – the SCs and STs -, who nationally account for close to 25.5 % of the population or approximately 300 million people. For a government to entirely disrupt and destroy the lives of any number of people is unacceptable by any standards, unjustified by any grand developmental claim that on the ground translates not only into pitiful short-term consequences but also far-reaching and damaging long ones.
Census records show that of all the Dalit families in India, just 7.3 % have a salaried job, of which 3.96 are employed by the government and 2.42% by the private sector. When it comes to tribals the figures are at 4.38% government employment and 1.48 private employments. The rest of the Dalits and STs work as farm laborers, casual laborers, menial workers, sanitary workers, helpers in all kinds of industries and domestic help in diverse segments of society, paid either on daily or weekly wage basis. Statistics also reveal that only 53% of the adult total population has bank accounts and it is anybody’s guess that the remaining 43% of the population without bank accounts would include an overwhelming majority of the Dalit and tribal population in India.
At the same time World Bank reports that 72% of the new accounts opened under Jan Dhan Yojana show a zero balance and this is either perhaps due lack of money to bank, inaccessibility to banking facilities or due to illiteracy which impedes the Dalits and tribals from tackling the paperwork that comes with doing a bank transaction. Having a bank account necessarily does not mean that the Dalits and tribals who got these accounts forced onto them through the Jan Dhan Yojana can use them. It is this overwhelming majority of Dalits and tribals without banking facilities or access to it or inability to use it, and those of them who depend on daily wages that are hit the hardest by the demonetization move of the government.
Sumitra, a Dalit maid who works in my house, for instance, runs a side vegetable business, but since the demonetization, she has stopped doing this because she has no money to buy vegetables to sell, nor does she have access to banking despite having a Jan Dhan account because she is illiterate and incapable of doing any paperwork. Her ‘real’ bank is a small cardboard box hidden under her broken bed into which she puts all her savings, most of it Rs 500 notes as that is the predominant currency in circulation. And all that she has managed to save after decades of works is Rs 22,000. She has so far not gone to exchange her notes, because of ankle pain, but when she does all that she will get is Rs 4500 and an indelible ink mark on her forefinger that disallows her to change her old currency for the new one. As of now, her remaining balance of Rs 17,500 appears to be useless come Dec 30. Added to that, I will have difficulty paying her salary in cash because I myself cannot get ready cash to give her and don’t have the time to go make daily withdrawals to run my daily life and my work. On the two days I tried, I visited 11 ATMs on one day and 13 on the other only to come back empty handed. I now buy my bare necessary retail product needs using the large jar of coins that I’ve been building for years. I can buy provisions through my debit card, pay my utility and fuel bills with it, but that’s about all I can do with the plastic money that the government wants me to use to get out of the monumental financial mess which it has created in the first place. For everything else I need hard cash to run my house and that includes paying Sumitra, which I can’t do right now, at least not in full. That is how bad her situation is.
Likewise, Lakappa, the tribal watchman of my building asked me for money for the menial work he does around the house and for the first time in the 15 years that I have been paying him, with a lot of pain in my heart, I had to tell him to hold off for a few days. What’s worse with him is that he is a construction worker with 4 kids and like Sumitra he had around Rs 15000 in cash as savings. But for the last week his daughter has not been able to go to school because he has no bank account to deposit and redeem his savings to buy her a schoolbag. Alternately, if he stands in line for a day to exchange his money at a bank, he loses his days wages of roughly Rs 600 which, by the way, he was receiving as a Rs 500 and 100 note. And in any case, he would be able to change only Rs 4500 – the remaining Rs 10,500 is a write-off. His boss too has also decided to decrease wages and the boss cannot be blamed because he too does not have ready cash to pay his workers.
Close to my residence is also an entire Dalit and tribal colony which largely does construction work, either as laborers, which goes for most of them male and female, while a hand few of them run construction related businesses such as renting and operating rock drilling and excavating machines. Since the day the demonetization was announced, I see most of the men folk and some of the women too sitting idle outside their homes, smoking bidis, cursing Prime Minister Modi, distraught, moneyless and jobless.
If this is the plight of Dalits and tribals eking out sustenance in a semi-urban city, I shudder to think of the plight of the Dalits and tribals in the rural areas where most of them live. I shudder to think of the plight of their kids having to go without food, medicine and basic necessities of which they had very little in the first place, of pregnant Dalit women who are due for delivery and need medical care that they now can’t pay for with saved 500 and 1000 notes, of the elderly among them who are totally dependent on their kids who now have neither money nor jobs.
Worse, in the midst of all this we have the government trying to hoodwink them all by telling them they are being true ‘patriots’ and ‘nationalists’ by putting up with their overnight worsened plight caused by governmental inefficiency and failure in governance. But the powers to be did not ask the Dalits and tribals if in the first place they want to exhibit their patriotism and nationalism by forcefully and involuntarily being shoved into the gutter of extreme impoverishment, possibly meaning death for some of them. Even the tiny numbers of the better off among them having agricultural land are distraught because they have no money to cultivate their fields or forest land, reportedly making themselves susceptible to exploitation by money-lenders, real estate wolves and other criminal elements looking to make a easy killing.
Not that even if they put up with hell in the name of eradicating black money, their condition is going to improve. For one, the black money eradicated is not going to make white money find its way into the hands of these people, just as the lakhs of crores of rupees mopped up by the banks is not going to land in their bank accounts, if they have any. In fact, the entire nation is still waiting for Rs 15 Lakh to be deposited into bank accounts of every citizen which the PM promised to do by way of promising to bring back the black money hoarded abroad – which accounts for a massive amount of the black money generated from the Indian economy by the rich and powerful. To date, not a rupee is reported to have been recovered from abroad. Rather, the money infused now into banks will again be lent to entities, a sizeable number of whom will end up as defaulters whose loans the government will write-off as bad debts.
Also, not that the entire exercise is either economically sound nor is it single minded in purpose. In the past, 7 countries including the Soviet Union, which incidentally were also largely ruled by authoritarian regimes, tried this kind of economy-crippling demonetization with disastrous consequences as economies and governments collapsed, there was violent civil-disorder and fake currency increased. The demise of the Soviet Union and the end of Gorbachev’s political carrier was the direct result of demonetization indulged in by the Soviet Union in 1991. Additionally, numerous economists in India and abroad have cited the poor economics of demonetization with regards to benefit and social impact versus the trauma forced on the people. Common sense says that to get rid of 6% black economy, you don’t put 86% of the liquidity in the economy out of play, crippling 94% of the remaining economy. To get rid of a limited number of people with black money you do not put an entire population into a ditch of unmet survival needs, cause untold hardships to them and cause deaths. That is a crime against humanity! At the time of writing this piece, the death toll at the government’s hands due to demonetization is fast heading towards 100 deaths.
Moreover, if the goal is to get rid of black money, the government has to attack its generation, rectify the system that enables creation of black money and most importantly go after all class-3 and above government employees, along with all politicians having even some sort of a political profile because it is a fact that most of the black money is generated by its enabling by these unscrupulous entities and they are also the direct recipients of black cash. Equally important is to get back the black money hoarded abroad, information about which lies with the government but it has failed to act on the information. A lot also has to be on the tax front- a measure which developed economies employ to discourage black money creation.
Something of this scale should never have been attempted by the government without taking the population and the opposition parties into confidence, without phasing it out to minimize disruption of people’s lives and the economy as well as has been done earlier. This government has done no great deed by going after black money, which it says is its single motive; other governments have done it too without the present chaos and harrowing experience for citizens.
The government keeps repeating that it did all of this in secrecy so that those hoarding black money do not have a chance to convert it into white, and that curtailing black money is the stated goal. The fact is, the claim of secrecy is a hoax that is fast becoming obvious as news reports backed by evidence have surfaced clearly indicating that the ruling government and its cronies had information about demonetization much in advance and have converted into white cash or into assets such as gold, jewelry, shares, debentures and so on. In fact, one report by a news portal states that the BJP President Amit Shah’s house itself has become a centre for changing black cash with white cash at a 37% premium!
Simultaneously, the government though it keeps changing its figures, has reiterated that it took this decision and started acting on it months ago. This would definitely have brought thousands of people into the loop, people including politicians, bureaucrats, other government officials and the employees of our mints. Even under oaths of secrecy, these kind of things are bound to be leaked. If confidential and classified government documents including those of the Defense, Home and Finance ministry are available as a leak as regularly revealed by media reports, much less can be said about thousands of people in the know maintaining secrecy when they all have relatives and friends whom they would not like to see in the lurch overnight due to them maintaining secrecy about monetization. The secrecy aspect is a total hoax!
Meanwhile, while the fact remains that a few privileged politicians from among the opposition parties too would have had advance notice and to a small extent been able to manage their black cash, going by the tongs and hammers being raised by the opposition parties, it is evident that besides concern for the plight of the affected population, their protest is also motivated by the common-sense fact that that they are hit with cash problems, especially since elections to 5 states are around the corner and our elections are largely about ‘votes for cash’, especially in rural areas. They have not said it in open, but back talk among politicians sees the opposition parties as visualizing the demonetization as a political assault on their finances to garner better political chances in the ensuing elections. Getting political dividend is clearly one of the expected dividends of the demonetization move by the BJP. One would have to be a total retard not to conclude this.
Perhaps, the most disturbing aspect about all of this is the almost total disregard for the rights of citizens and obligations of government to people in all its policies, the duty to enable people to lead normal and unnecessary-hassle free lives and have unrestricted access to their own money. Earlier, the countries that did such stupid demonetization with disastrous results were largely totalitarian regimes, but ours is not. We are supposed to be a democracy even in intra-government functioning. But here is a situation which has been forced upon us by the government, and as of now the government owns you and me. With its ever-changing and almost daily financial and banking diktats, the government controls what you eat, how much you eat, what you spend, how much medical care you get, whether marriages can take place in your family, whether the old lead comfortable days or not. If the demonetization done the way it has is not a totalitarian and dictatorial act what else is it?
Further, is this totalitarian campaign a portent of things to come, especially with the BJP’s dwindling political fortunes and the PM being increasingly considered a true ‘feku’- a fibber. When in political power, you need to fib to the masses only when you want to push a different agenda under the guise of a legitimate one, when you want to conceal a hidden agenda/ crime or if you are plain outright stupid and incompetent. Unfortunately, those facing the worst consequences of all the cross-agendas and incompetence that has gone into the demonetization of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes are the Dalits and tribals. For many of them, just a single 500 or 1000 rupee they held onto was all the wealth they had. Now they have been robbed of that too.
Thank God the Supreme Court is abreast of the chaos and is monitoring the situation. That appears to be the only place that the Dalits and tribals can rely on to save them from complete disaster.
Oliver D’Souza is a journalist and award winning author who can be contacted thus:firstname.lastname@example.org