Sunday, December 18, 2016

DEMONETISATION - MUSINGS OF A SOLITARY WALKER - 2




It’s cold. There’s a nip in the air as I trace my path through the thick foliage of the Artists’ Village. It’s here that I spotted the king in all his glory, his hood up, his teeth ready to strike, the calm assurance that his poison will work. The birds and dogs make a great hullabaloo as the king exits the scene. Not to worry, by now I have whipped out my phone and captured his image.

I think of the events of the past month as it has unravelled till now. There has been a lot of grief cause due to the withdrawal of 500 and 1000 Rupee notes, called demonetisation. Middle class people like me are running around to get cash. My advantage was that I had familiarity with computers since I worked as a content and technical writer for computer start ups and therefore I had converted all my bill payments into transactions over the internet. Therefore I am not too much affected. In fact, I am already cashless.

What about the average person? Yesterday my friend dropped in. We were discussing the withdrawal of notes and I know a few things about him as we have been friends for a long time. He is a graduate, has a post-graduate qualification in management, and has worked in accounts almost all his life. But he still can’t operate a debit card or use the smart phone. When he makes a call to his wife, he used the old way of dialling, i.e., he touches each number on his dial pad from memory. Such are the people who are most affected by the demonetisation, those who have a phobia for computers, those who don’t know what to type in when the computer cursor blinks in the password box.

And, he is a graduate, and a post-graduate in management. What about the people in villages who aren’t educated, who don’t have a bank for miles around, who may not have the money to pay for transport? Telling them to go and learn computers is being cruel, insensitive, and apathetic to their misery. It’s the poor education and infrastructure system that made them illiterate, not themselves. To all those pontificators who defend the policy of the government are either people too far removed from the reality in Indian villages – such as NRIs and city-dweller having jobs – and need to be made to live in an Indian village forthwith.

Till the age of eight I grew up in a remote village in Kerala. The first bank in the village was opened in the nineteen-eighties, which was a mile away. Market days occurred on only two days in a week when most of the purchases were made. The affluence of the money from Persian Gulf was yet to flow into Kerala, and money was scarce. Farm labourers were paid Rupees five, and it seemed to meet their expenses, because a plate of rice and vegetable cost only eight annas or fifty paise. (For three paise [half anna, one-twentyfourth of a rupee] we could buy an ice candy.) Now, the new generation doesn’t know what an anna is and what is fifty paise. They don’t need to.

What people – especially leaders – ignore is that governance is a slow process, that change takes time, and there are not short cuts, or, as the new generation puts it, quick fixes. A chief executive who thinks technology can fix everything is harbouring an illusion. Furthermore, if this chief executive is also under-educated and under-informed, there’s greater danger of his plans failing. There are limitations to technology that only those who are intimately involved with technology know about. I worked in a team which was supposedly going to give a company its enterprise resource planning (ERP) software solution and know, at first hand, what can go wrong. Though the contractor was paid fully and had completed his work (according to him) the ERP software solution didn’t work. Being able to send a few emails, posting a few words on Twitter and Facebook doesn’t make one computer literate. It takes a lot more than that.

There is also an over-reliance in technology that I have witnessed of late. Government notifications, announcements, legislations, and rulings are being sent on Twitter and Whatsapp these days. Not only has it subverted the system of recording sending and receiving, but it is using a private network which can be hacked and opened by computer experts. (The United States’ [US’] candidate for President Clinton’s email hacking is an example of this.) Schools are receiving directives from education departments through Whatsapp, discussions about policies are being done on Twitter instead of the Parliament. Twitter and Whatsapp are private networks, which are, at best, informal media of communication. Government departments should have a written and replicable source of sending and receiving documents, complaints, and redresses. This is often done by maintaining an in-out register in government departments, which acts as proof of delivery and receipt. Ignoring this system of delivery and receipt should be seen as a subversion of the procedures established by our democratic institutions.

The 2008 collapse of banks in the United States following the sub-prime crisis has shown that banks can collapse and financial markets are prone to misbehave. To overcome the crisis the US Federal Reserves (The Reserve bank in the US) printed and circulated billions of dollars in the economy. Financial experts such as Bill Bonner (look him up and watch his video) has predicted an impending and sudden collapse of the US economy because of the dependence on credit in the country. He says credit cards won’t work, and debit cards will not ensure dispensing cash at ATM machines (Something which is happening in India now.). Such printing of currency and manipulating the economy is a dangerous thing. That great country is still unrepentant and continues to live on credit. This is something, which the planners of demonetisation ignored when they printed huge numbers of new currency. Since the loss to the nation in terms of lost small businesses, jobs, decreased goods flow has been humungous; it would be advisable to be very circumspect about printing currency to boost the economy, something which uninformed tin-pots regimes do.

In conclusion, in order to generate and sustain a vibrant democratic system, which India has been following till now, we need to strengthen the financial arms of the government like the Reserve Bank, not weaken their powers. India has so far withstood wild fluctuations in currency-related upheavals through a strong currency. We need to strengthen it to withstand further shocks and not manipulate it in anyway.

The sun is up over the valley, the birds are singing, and I must return to my computer to key in these thoughts.


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