Wednesday, November 23, 2016

India's demonetisation strikes the poor

India is a confused nation. Suspended precariously between the developed west and the “under-developed” global south, the country swings drastically and sometimes with great peril to itself.

It wants to be modern, after all modernity is the development paradigm that all the ‘other’ countries must have. The west, India’s aspirational model, has over the years through colonisation and post-colonisation drilled into the psyche of the global south that modernity is the way to go. Modernity ignores the traditional society after all being traditional is the antithesis of modernity. No doubt, the biggest casualty of modernity is the demise of the traditional society - a society that is not necessarily bad but just different.

Narendra Modi secured the mandate to be the Prime Minister of India two years ago holding tightly on to the banner of development. During his election campaign he promised to bring back black money parked in offshore accounts, boasting that it would add fifteen lakhs rupees to every household. A promise he could not keep, a promise that the Congress led opposition and his critics used often to mock him. So Modi came up with a Plan B to crackdown on black money.

On November 8, 2016, at 20:45, Modi announced on national television that the 500 (£6) and 1000 rupee (£12) denominated banknotes would no longer be valid from midnight and new 2000 and 500 rupee banknote will shortly be introduced in circulation, to the 1 billion population of the largest democracy in the world. The reaction was nothing but shocking.

The literate, technological savvy and socially connected elite and upper middle class took to their opinion platforms and most hailed it as a ‘masterstroke’, ‘surgical strike against black money’ and applauded Modi for being a “great statesman”. The lower middle class and the poor that account for over 50% of the population (World Banks report 2016) remained in shock not really understanding what it meant. Some still are.

Try explaining to the labourer why the 500 rupees she got for her week’s work at the site will no longer get her any rice and dal (lentils) at the local kirana (provision) shop; or to the farmer whose 1000 rupee banknotes will no longer be able to buy him any seeds; or to the maid who every month, puts aside a 500 rupee banknote in the seams of her old saree so that her abusive husband cannot grab all her earnings for his alcohol addiction, that her banknotes will no longer fund her daughter’s college next year. Or explain to the retired old man why withdrawing his savings from the bank for his daughter’s wedding would be an impossible task and a cause of his death; or the helpless mother who could no longer feed her children with the money she had and so hangs herself unable to bear to see their hungry faces.

Finance minister Arun Jaitley finds it hard to believe that the poor in India would even have a 1000 rupee banknote. They do and its call their life’s earning. For many it takes months and perhaps years to save that. I remember how my maid would every six-eight months bring in a few hundred bucks she had saved and take a bigger denomination – a 500 or a 1000. This she believed would go into her saving box for a life’s mission. Life’s missions for the poor and the lower income groups in India are simple – a child’s education or marriage, a brick & mortar home, a hospital treatment long due or just enough for essentials on a rainy day.

In March 2016, the Reserve Bank of India report estimated that the 500 & 1000 rupee banknotes amounted to 86% of the total currency in circulation. Withdrawing them and introducing a higher denomination banknote would no doubt be a herculean task with catastrophic consequences. But the government announced demonitisation with little consideration to either the cash based economy or the infrastructure. India’s banking infrastructure failed miserably when ATMs were unable to dispense new notes and then not having enough currency for withdrawals. Banks required documentation and set an upper limit of withdrawals to 4000 rupees (£54) a day then reduced to 2000 rupees (£24) indicating that huge disparity in the demand and supply. This threw the economy in complete chaos and it will last for weeks to come.

Also many don’t hold bank accounts forget plastic money. They save through community saving programmes that are primarily cash based or bury the money in a hole in their homes (in some cases quite literally). But development of the poor is indicated by having a bank account, once again feeding into the psyche of capitalism. Perhaps many of them chose not to have a bank account but just because we want them to be modern on our terms we will now arm twist them into opening one? It’s not a question of evaluating the merits of bank accounts but rather the question of choice. Just like the long queues at banks or ATMs, the twitterati compares to standing for tickets to concert or cricket matches. It’s not the same, simply because in the latter you have a choice not to do it. However, in this demonetisation drive, this very choice is taken away.

This is the India we often forget exists in our desire for modernity. India is largely a traditional society, a large population that earns an honest bread after a hard day’s labour. And it is this section of society that has not just being “inconvenienced” but victimised unjustifiably in this quest to score a political brownie point.

Small businesses are suffering and the death toll is rising by the day. Look at just some of those who lost their lives in this meaningless desire by the government to improve its political image. These are not some global businessmen that siphon off their profits to offshore accounts or child traffickers that made their fortune by trading in vulnerable kids. These are not even politicians who have amassed their fortune through questionable means or the underworld who made a bounty through illegal operations. These are honest, hard-working individuals who could not bear the shock of realising their life’s saving were now worthless tender or who could not get access to their white hard earned money in time to pay for crucial events.

It’s not that the political elite do not realise how badly their plans backfired, they do. Modi changed his tune from the hard taskmaster on black money to this brave soldier who has risked his life and limb to take on the bad guys singlehandedly for the greater good of the country. Are we to feel sympathy for the man who now never has to stand in a bank queue to exchange his currency to put food on his table yet largely ignore the plight of the millions that do?

It’s time the politicians acknowledge who the real martyrs (though involuntary and unsuspecting) have been in this currency war. It’s time to admit the mistake and show those who lost their lives some respect. And perhaps give their families some quick monetary compensation, in new currency notes.

(First published in The Beaver, LSE)

Thursday, March 5, 2015

India's Daughter: A Review

The documentary India’s daughter looks straight in the eye and then slaps right across the face!

While India’s daughter is banned in India, it aired on BBC 4 on Wednesday evening to UK audiences four days before it was originally scheduled. It's also available on YouTube now. I didn’t know what I was expecting from the documentary that has divided the nation once again. 

Over the past few days there were too many opinions, too many objections on the way the documentary was conducted and the content it teased to air. I have not read a single article or watched a single piece of news item on this and stayed miles away from interviews and panel debates. Of course it’s impossible to stay in a vacuum with news and social media flooded by it. But I wanted the documentary to speak for itself and I sat before my TV set with absolutely no opinion on the issue.

It ran for 60 minutes without a break. Yet at the end of the hour, I was left even more baffled. The documentary is neither a beacon of freedom of expression nor is it a conspiracy to tarnish India’s image in the world. And frankly it’s not worth the fuss.

India’s daughter is a story of the December 2012 Delhi gang rape victim Jyoti Singh who everyone knows better as Nirbhaya – the fearless one. Yet the ones that spoke without any fear, dominating the entire documentary, were firstly the accused Mukesh Singh who was convicted of rape, unnatural sex and murder of Nirbhaya and secondly the defence lawyers who justified it.

‘You can’t clap with one hand, it takes two hands to clap,’ was the very first thing you hear Mukesh say and then he goes on to slander the girl putting the blame of the rape squarely on her. 

Sitting calmly in an empty white room, Mukesh also had the opportunity for a dress change and the other accused were also seen in footage shot on the jail premises highlighting the unprecedented access the documentary makers had in Tihar jail. Mukesh introduced his partners in crime and gave the gory details of the rape in a calm and composed voice. Details that you already knew but hearing them like this would again rip your soul apart.

The documentary also spoke extensively to Jyoti’s parents and a friend cum tutor who spoke the victim’s life and her aspirations in great detail. I must admit, they come off as quite progressive and open minded and your heart would cringe ever so often to hear them speak of the tragedy and their beloved daughter.

There are other voices - police, judiciary, historian and varied experts but there is nothing in this documentary we didn’t know before. Sure it’s the first time the accused has spoken on camera. But do we want to hear him?

Banning the film is wrong. It has just catapulted a mediocre documentary in to unnecessary limelight giving it a sort of martyrdom. But for the proponents of freedom of expression, I ask you, whose freedom of expression are you defending. The makers or the viewers are inconsequential here, its the accused and his camp who have the complete liberty to express their contrived views. 

Did you expect the accused or his dim witted, chauvinistic lawyers to look you in the eye and say they were sorry? No, right. So did you really want to hear them give their worthless opinions on the place of women in society or why the protests and conviction have ensured that the women will be the only ones suffering further? 

‘Earlier they would rape and let their victims go because the victims and families did not say anything for fear of societal pressure but with this sentencing, why will the rapists let victims live to testify against them. They will have to kill them,’ says Mukesh in a matter-of- fact way with perhaps a hint of a smile.

Then you have M.L Sharma, defense lawyer justifying the brutality of sexual assault like it’s as natural for a man as shaving his beard. His animated voice and hand gestures adding the dramatic effect to his highly offensive opinions. I will not quote him because it doesn’t merit to be reproduced. Neither thus A K Singh his buddy on the bench who openly said that if his daughter went out with a guy late evening, he would throw petrol on her and burn her alive!

These men are not representative of India’s male mentality. Of course there are more men who share similar opinion in a patriarchal country as vast and diverse as India and they would find many sympathisers across the world but there are plenty more who think otherwise and they had no voice in this documentary. This is quite typical with foreign filmmaker who look at India through tinted lenses and come with their own stereotypes.

For a paper presented at an academic conference in London in 2013, I had researched rape cases in India over a 40 year period to understand why most rape cases slip through the cracks in the media while a rare few turn into national campaigns. While the focus was on media framing, it required reading through many gruelling details of the rape cases including the attitudes of the accused and society at large. The motivation and mentality of almost every rape is eerily similar.

Rapist are not victims of circumstances. Rapes cannot be justified. There is no other motivation for a rape than pure evil and sadistic pleasure. I don’t understand what Leslee Udwin, who made this documentary, wanted us to see and hear through the interview with the accused. Mukesh spoke the language of every other rapist across the world where they show no remorse, where rape is used by them to assert their power often with the intention to put the victim in ‘her place’.

But by letting the accused and his crony lawyers air their vile views to a global audience, the documentary makers have not tarnished India’s image, as the government claims, but have insulted India’s daughter herself and the millions that stand with her shoulder to shoulder. 

They have let the rapist look at India's daughter straight in the eye and slap her right across the face!