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Friday, December 2, 2016

Black Men , White Money

The decision to demonetize the big denomination notes has shown the mirror to our society and the sooner we accept the fact that the hideous face staring ominously at us is US, the better would it be. The mirror does not lie, so we cannot seek comfort in denial which has been the standard mode of coping with uncomfortable truths. At heart we are a deeply, incorrigibly corrupt society made doubly worse by our ingrained hypocrisy.  The predisposition to be corrupt   is fixed like an attribute fixed in our genes. This masked trait unfolds given a favourable environment. 
People are ignorant and indifferent, people are resistant to mobilization and sustained activism and even though carpet baggers like Kejariwal have cheated them, they have shown a great appetite for radical measures to curb corruption and black money. So an attack on black money was on the national agenda. In fact, the tardiness of this government on this score so far  was a favourite taunt of those in the opposition, till  the government  went ahead  and  did  something and got itself nicely in tangles.
Now it is idle to talk about the mismanagement; it is written  all over . The government does not have at its command the kind of pool of talent required to execute a radical programme like this. (War mongers please take note!). But let us examine our own role in the in the developing crisis which, make no mistake, will leave no one untouched. Are we part of the solution or are  we aggravating the problem created by many logistical infirmities? Political parties have become so myopic that they are blind to anything beyond their selfish interest. Unashamedly all of them will, given the opportunity, make the national cause sub serve their own partisan interests. They are fishing in the troubled waters with great delight and anticipation. In another variation of the Chinese who burned down his house to roast a pig, they will pay any price to see Modi impaled.
Corruption has been a trapping of power throughout the ages. The rich and powerful generally live in a state of sin. The king and his courtiers have different rules of morality.  It is the poor and the middle class to whom traditionally the role of remaining honest has been assigned. The current crisis is that a large body of people have lost their purity. It is as if we have been hit by a moral blight. A corrosive cynicism has eroded not only our self belief, but our faith in the entire array of institutions.
  Consider the evidence: we hear that around one lac crores of rupees have found their way to the Jan Dhan accounts. At the rate of Rs 2- 2.5 lacs per account, between four and  five million of our poorest people have lent their names, either out of sheer altruism or for some commission, to hoarders to dissipate and disguise ownership of black money. Overnight a programme that was intended to unearth hoarders of black money has created 5 million amateur money launderers. The professional class, doctors, civil servants, salaried class in general petty bureaucrats whoever had illegal cash hoardings utilised every avenue to parcel and park their funds. Whatever remained was taken care of by professional money changers and C A’s etc. So along with the poor there goes the solid old middle class.
The government, thrown on the back foot, by its own unpreparedness was forced to make concessions. It adopted a slew of emergency measures to help those most in need. Every one of these arrangements was criminally misused by large numbers of people which again may run in millions. People clogged the ATMs and banks trying to drive the maximum advantage by cheating the system and cheating each other. How many ATMS are there in the country?  Most of them have been used to cheat the system.Many bankers have used IDs procured in wholesale to launder money. They are also said to have kept aside huge sums of money for their clients thereby affecting equitable distribution of scarcity. Railway officials,post office employees , utility companies, pharmacists in (their lacs), hospitals, nursing homes, petrol pumps, airline booking counters, dealers in fertilizers and seeds, and above all the real estate sector, wherever concessions were made to facilitate those in urgent need of service have been blatantly misused. The petty traders, blue collar workers, and others contributed their might which just about accounts for the society as a whole. Every measure that was meant to be amelioratory has been cynically exploited and given the venality at a societal level nothing will work. No wonder, as one estimate suggests, the government may receive about 13 lac crores of rupees out of an estimated 15 lac corers. The nation that had mobilized against black money quickly changed sides, without notice, and mobilized faster in favour of white washing black money; for a price of course!

At the end of the day we have everyone from the top most industrialists to those living below the poverty line partaking of the same black money broth. Each gets according to his digestive capacity. The drive to unearth black money has ended up painting all of us black and washed the tainted money white. Could George Louis Borges or Italo Calvino have improved upon this plot?      

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Modified Morality

    We are so averse to the Chinese and yet we just cannot quite do without Chinese merchandise. Not only this, the idea of demonetization, which has captivated the Indian imagination, has a Chinese flavour to it. It reminds one of Charles Lamb’s stories wherein the young Chinese burnt down his house (accidentally) to roast a pig. Demonetization brought the economic activities of the nation to a standstill; it stopped the lives of our countrymen in their tracks. But if the bang of demonetization had to end up in the whimper of 49.9% tax on undeclared income, the nation should have been spared the trauma of surgical intervention. The hoarders of black money had already promised to pay 45%; the government could have come up with another VDIS demanding 50%.  It could have then wheedled for some more and then some more, because there seems to be no other way, as it appears in hindsight. Or was it a grave miscalculation of the strength of the enemy?  Along with a major failure of organization, was it a failure of political imagination as well?
 It is useful to continue with the medical- military metaphor because there are pertinent lessons to be learnt here. The showing in our battle with the enemy in black has been less than underwhelming; it should be borne in mind, should it ever come to an engagement with the other enemy in olive green and khaki camouflage. After this capitulation, this abject surrender before the enemy, the ranting of our defence minister takes on an even more portentous and ominous hue. If our war aims are to be whittled down during the conduct of the war, like it has been done today, in the real war we will end up surrendering what we already hold rather than recover what we are sworn to recover.
Along with the great inconvenience it caused to the poor and the economically vulnerable, it ruptured the domestic safety net, secretly erected by frugal housewives out of their savings, beyond the prying eyes of husband .This money was whiter- than- white, because it bore the marks of selflessness and sacrifice  of many years . Unbeknown to their husbands, therefore, unbeknown to the state also, the kitty of the last resort has also come to light. The amount of money thus stigmatized has surprised not only governments but husbands as well, because the government outlawed all cash holdings indiscriminately, irrespective of their origin. House wives with honest cash savings become subject to double taxation. We chose to bear the pain with grace and equanimity as our share of the burden. And the poor, the worst victims of institutionalized deception by the political class were absolutely stoic; suffering yet silent.
But as it appears now the whole nation was thrown into a ferment for nothing. This demonetization scheme has turned out to be a huge moral launderette for the illegal cash hoarders (their identities are bound to be kept secret!), not to mention a benign scheme for money laundering. A fight that looked like a crusade for moral rearmament has ended up by blurring the moral categories themselves. The corrupt hoarder and the honest accumulator of modest sums of money are made to stand on the same footing. If illicit accumulation of wealth was to be repeatedly condoned for a certain fee, (this is the fourth amnesty scheme since independence, two in a row in course of a few months, which is a record anywhere) then this regime should be extended to the crimes of blood and gore as well. The corrupt rich must be accommodated, in every way; we owe it to them.
 Was the pressure of the political class too much to handle?  Did it threaten to signal the end of electoral politics as such, because it threatened to deprive it of its life blood – black money? Was the pressure from within, because ruling party is known to draw its sustenance from groups of people who habitually deal in cash rather than financial instruments that eroded the resolve? Was it   simply a failure of nerves?  We will never know.
How sad I have to conclude all my musings these days with the refrain: Hope is the enemy.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Demonetization and Homeopathic Remedies.

I was part of three marriage celebrations a couple of days back, even though I was not invited to any. It was one of the most auspicious days and Patna was chockfull of  barats(marriage processions)   escorting the bridegrooms to their nemesis. Anyone else who happened to stir out of his house, even for some quotidian purpose like visiting a friend or meeting a relative ,was bound to run into one or the other.
I hit the first Barat somewhere near the R Block and was immediately co opted as an uninvited- invitee. Of course no direct invitation was extended; it was one of those modes of communication where gesture functions as language. The Barat straddled the entire width of the road and those who were following it were regaled-obliged to be regaled - to the spectacular fireworks on display. Nobody wanted to know whether I was related to the parties to the celebration, no one sought to know my caste, whether I was a Hindu or a Muslim was of no concern to them. But they wanted me to be part of the celebrations for as long as it suited them. After they had impressed me enough, they let my car pass and others similarly lucky and lined up behind me. A few hundred meters down the road, I ran into another one, just a little short of the new Patna Club. Portly ladies draped in heavily brocaded saris and ungainly men, crated in lounge suits and other formal wear were equally determined to have me as a part of their barat even though nothing spectacular was going on. My misery was short lived but the worst was reserved for the last.
  Just before taking a turn to my destined location, I hit another one. Its sociability was not only obtrusive; it was brazen. An orchestra was mounted on a truck and a singer was belting out popular numbers. In the general revelry, one particular dancer as if driven by some unconventional source of energy went on and on. Currency notes were pinned on him and from that distance I could not miss the outmoded notes as well.  He seemed to be prospering by the minute just as my anxiety was rising with the time ticking away on my watch .So near and yet so far! I did reach disheveled and distraught an hour and forty minute late. And so I guess   this was the common plight of all those who were similarly trapped.

   Tomorrow or day after, I guess,  the dancer, the murderer of other people’s time, will  also  be standing in the queue for exchanging his outmoded currency notes before some bank or the other and his time spent in the queue would be a subject matter of national mourning. Top opposition leaders would thunder in the parliament at the poor suffering masses who will constitute our dancer as well. The rich harvest of sympathy would perhaps lighten his load of queuing up that much. 
But what about us, poor humble senior citizens who plan every outing with great care, crowding as many engagements as possible in one; the unknown, unsung, undifferentiated, amorphous mass of people, neither poor nor rich, whose time is wasted almost on a daily basis? Bundhs, morchas, traffic jams, striking groups, marriage celebrations, mourning processions, religious ceremonies, protests against religious bigotry, roads being repaired, roads being dug, a broken vehicle on a narrow bridge, a demolition programme by the corporation, and of course Gandhi Setu, the eternal symbol of inexhaustibility of time and the patience of Biharis;   we are culturally conditioned to rob people of  their time.
 I  believe  all the opposition political parties are planning to have a bundh throughout the country  on the 28th of November , to protest inconvenience to poor people and waste of their time. And the only mode of protest they know is to murder more time of more people, by causing them more inconvenience, dislocations and disruptions. Sadly our politicians only know Homeopathic remedies.