If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Monday, 28 November 2016

Demonetisation at a Kolkata street corner

My friend, let me call him Amit, has been living in their own house in an upmarket residential area in South Kolkata for as long as I know him, that is, 58 years. Their two-storey house is just off the main road. Yesterday, he said this over the phone:

“Demonetisation happened in the night of 8/9 November. Within two days, the phuchka-wallah (panipuri vendor) vanished from our street corner. In another few days, the bhelpuri-wallah stopped coming. The ice cream vendor hung on for a week. Then he too was gone.” Then he added, “I had seen three generations of the phuchka-wallah. First his grandfather, then his father, and finally him. Since my childhood, hardly a day passed when they hadn’t been at the street corner in the evening.”

That was to be expected, wasn’t it? When people don’t have cash to buy vegetables, they aren’t expected to have panipuri. So although our prime minister believes the poor are sleeping peacefully after high-value notes were scrapped, the reality is quite the opposite.

We have lived in independent India where urban middleclass families were far from well-off fifty years ago, but now they are. Like my family

My parents struggled through their life to make two ends meet, but my sister and I don’t. In my childhood, the ceiling fan was the last word in comfort during the summer. Now we have air-conditioners. My mother used to take a public bus every day to go to her school at the other end of Kolkata, despite severe arthritic pains. A taxi ride was a luxury for her. These days, I rarely see the inside of a public bus. In contrast, Amit’s family have always been well-off. 

Every panipuri vendor in Kolkata is from either Bihar or Jharkhand. And for some reason, not one of them wears trousers. They still wear dhotis that barely cover their knees, and a long shirt. I can bet my shirt that nothing has changed for Kolkata’s panipuri vendors in three generations. The man who sold panipuri until 8 November 2016 is as poor as his grandfather.

Did I say “nothing has changed”? I was wrong. Something has just changed for them. These poor men who continued to eke out a living through economic ups and downs, through the Emergency and destructive communist governments, have suddenly been deprived of their livelihood. And as my friend was telling, if they go hungry for long, they might eat away their capital and they won’t have the cash to buy atta and suji to make panipuris when normalcy returns. The economist in Dr. Manmohan Singh expressed precisely this in the Parliament when he said, "Fifty days is a long time in a poor man's life." This will have one of the two consequences. Either they will fall into a debt trap and die slowly, or become paupers straightaway.

I would love to conclude with a stinging last paragraph, but I don't have to. The Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen, who has worked through his life on the economics of poverty and development, has summed it up beautifully. Please let me quote from the Indian Express of 26 Nov.

He said that both the idea [of demonetisation] and the way it was implemented, was akin to a “despotic action” and betrayed the “authoritarian nature of the government …”

“It is hard to see how [the move is going to cause any good]. This will be as much of a failure as the government’s earlier promise of bringing black money stacked away abroad back to India (and giving all Indians a sudden gift — what an empty promise!). The people who are best equipped to avoid the intended trap of demonetisation are precisely the ones who are seasoned dealers in black money — not the common people and small traders who are undergoing one more misery in addition to all the deprivations and indignities from which they suffer.”

PS: On Facebook, two of my readers have shared their experience on the topic. Quoting them with their permission:

Soma Sinha Sarkar: I have noticed that the junk jewellery sellers who stationed themselves at various points in South Kolkata have either vanished or their numbers gone down drastically. When enquired, they mentioned cash crunch as the reason for their ordeal.

Satyajit Mitra: I now stay in a place surrounded by villages who regularly take their vegetable produce to local market. The number of them started diminishing from the next day of historical announcement. I cycled to a few villages to find out the cause of their disappearance, they told that they don't have smaller denomination notes to give the customers who are giving 2000 rupees note they got from banks. The saddest part is that they are giving their produce to cattle as their food. Another fallout of 


Bengaluru / Monday, 28 November, 2016

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