(Update: According to the latest report in The Huffington Post, the death toll due to demonetisation now stands at 47. When this article was first published, the death toll was 33.)
'It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.'
The above statement is a principle called Blackstone's formulation in criminal law. It is based on the rationale that in a situation where you can either punish several people guilty of crimes but also punish the innocent or save the innocent but also risk the guilty escaping punishment, you should save the innocent.
With the demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 currency notes, this principle has been annihilated. And it wouldn't be entirely wrong to expect the government that introduced this move to shoulder some of the blame for the destruction of this principle.
Since the implementation of demonetisation at midnight on 8 November, 47 people have been reported dead in incidents directly or indirectly caused by the central government move. The Huffington Post and The Indian Express published detailed reports on each of the deaths, suicides and a murder that took place.
It can, of course, be argued that a few of the deaths reported may not be linked with demonetisation and could have taken place even if demonetisation did not take place. But the fact remains that most of the reported deaths could have been avoided in the absence of the currency ban.
Moreover, it has been merely eight days since demonetisation was announced. This means that on an average, around five people have died every day as a result of demonetisation since the move was announced.
On Wednesday, the issue of demonetisation was discussed in the Rajya Sabha. Opposition leaders like Congress MP Anand Sharma, BSP chief Mayawati and CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury also talked about people dying because of demonetisation. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee also mentioned the deaths after meeting President Pranab Mukherjee.
So what was the government's response to the Opposition on the issue of demonetisation-related deaths which was raised by prominent politicians during a six-hour debate in the Upper House of the Parliament?
Next to nothing.
Union ministers Piyush Goyal and Venkaiah Naidu responded to the Opposition on demonetisation but avoided talking about the deaths (At that time, the death toll was 33).
The statement that came closest to giving us a hint of what the government thinks about the deaths was when Naidu compared the "difficulties" faced by people to, of all things, child birth.
"As far as difficulties are concerned, child birth is not easy at all. But once the child is born, the mother's happiness knows no bound," Naidu said.
And apparently deciding to be creative instead of talking about people dying, Naidu spoke of how the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan was about cleaning the "tann, mann, dhann" of the people and how demonetisation was actually a "mahayagna".
In fact, Naidu acted as if no death had taken place and painted a rosy picture of the country where everyone was overjoyed with the decision of the prime minister. "Temporary pain for long term gain is the buzz across India," he said. He also said that the Opposition leaders needed to listen to the people to understand that everyone was happy with demonetisation.
Goyal's speech equally left a lot to be desired. "The vikas yatra that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has started in the country has moved forward," Goyal said. "The entire nation is welcoming this step of the government... Slowly and steadily, the queues at the banks have been decreasing and the people are willing to face the difficulty for few days, as the decision stands in favour of the nation. Also with the new Rs 500 and Rs 2,000 notes in banks, the people are happy."
The people are happy?
Naidu and Goyal should try saying that to the families of the people who died because of exhaustion from standing in extremely long queues or because a hospital refused to treat them after rejecting Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes. The government too needs a reality check.
Without a doubt, the speeches of Naidu and Goyal were two of the most disappointing speeches made in the Parliament this year.
The demonetisation-linked deaths were not "difficulties", inconveniences or hardships.
They definitely cannot be compared with "child birth".
The pain isn't "temporary" to those who have lost their lives or loved ones.
What the victims and their families faced was sheer trauma.
The debate on demonetisation will continue on Thursday. But the reason Naidu and Goyal did not talk about the deaths was probably because there is no way the government can defend itself against the criticism that demonetisation has led to deaths in the country. So, even if the government does make a statement, it will be tough to portray a picture of perfection in the country.
Even outside the Parliament, the response from the ruling party has not been encouraging. BJP MP Goyal Shetty had pointed out that "every year, 3,500 commuters die on railway tracks, five lakh people are killed in road accidents, many more die in terror attacks and other incidents, but nobody speaks about them." An odd justification.
BJP national vice-president Vinay Sahasrabuddhe also made a similar remark when he said that "people sometimes die waiting in queues for rations".
But why should the government respond? Why blame the government when a few people break laws?
First off, many of the deaths were suicides or deaths probably caused by standing for long hours in queues. So, those took place without any law being broken.
Secondly, while it is true that the government has approved the use of old currency notes at government hospitals and while using public transport till 24 November, the fact that some deaths took place because such places refused to accept the old notes shows how effective this exemption actually is.
Yes, the government cannot be expected to make sure that each and every person in the country follows laws.
But that's the point. Didn't the prime minister think about this fact and the repercussions of places like hospitals not following the rules before demonetisation took place?
The government surely is not naive enough to believe that each and every person is a law-abiding citizen.
And yes, deaths after government decisions aimed at social welfare have taken place in the past also, like during the protests against the Mandal Commission in 1990. After all, the application of Blackstone's formulation is more complex when it comes to governance. Sometimes, the people have to make small sacrifices for long term gains (even though deaths are not in anyway 'small sacrifices').
But even if we were to give some leeway to the horrible assumption that some people died for a greater cause, demonetisation will anyway not have a great impact on black money, its main target. As P Sainath writes in this article in the People's Archive of Rural India, "As several writers, analysts and official reports have already pointed out, the bulk of India’s ‘black’ economy is held in bullion, benami land deals, and foreign currency." He also points out that the Central Board of Direct Taxes had said in a 2012 report that demonetisation had failed on two past occasions in 1946 and 1978.
Another Firstpost article pointed out that while demonetisation had some benefits, "such a massive exercise will not ensure the death of shadow economy".
Let's be even more lenient and assume that demonetisation will wipe out black money. Even then, what the NDA government has trouble understanding is that no amount of economic development can ever be more important than the basic human rights of a person.
And the right to life of an innocent person is the most important.
With inputs from agencies