"We are soldiers of the new economy," screams an ad for a TV news channel, as it promises to join the war declared on black money by the Narendra Modi government. But a far more sobering message is heading towards Modi in South Block from the imposing Rashtrapati Bhavan:
It's time you looked at demonetisation from a human angle.
President Pranab Mukherjee is no ordinary head of state. He has been the nation's finance minister more than once, and has seen political and economic highs and lows — whether it was the Emergency or the reforms that kicked off in 1991 when he was deputy chairman of the Planning Commission to then finance minister Manmohan Singh. Speaking in Hyderabad, former Reserve Bank of India governor Duvvuri Subbarao said the objective of the 8 November demonetisation was a subject of "contentious debate" in terms of costs and benefits, as he described it as possibly the "most disruptive policy innovation" since 1991.
Now, "disruptive" is a cool world in Silicon Valley, where comfortable lifestyles and venture funding make life adventurous for many. But not for millions of workers in industrial areas such as Tirupur or Thane, or for farmers queuing up outside rural cooperative bank branches bereft of cash that runs the system.
This is where the president's words are significant: "We all will have to be extra careful to alleviate the suffering of the poor which might become unavoidable for the expected progress in the long term," Mukherjee said in his New Year's address to state governors and lieutenant-governors.
When Manmohan and Mukherjee led the early days of the 1991 wave of liberalisation that included a devaluation of the rupee, a control of state spending and other belt-tightening measures, the government was repeatedly forced to use the term "reforms with a human face" to defend its actions. In sheer contrast, we now have a government that sees the war on black money not as a task of the rulers, but a crusade where citizens need to bear the pain. This might seem romantic but for the fact that the victims of the demonetisation drive seem to be suffering more than the intended enemies.
When the government shut its doors on the Income Declaration Scheme at the end of last September, we would have imagined that the next status for those caught for tax evasion would be total confiscation of seized money and/or punishment in extreme cases. What we have witnessed instead is a born-again version of the IDS with a higher level of taxation but nothing truly punitive.
Now, contrast this with millions of labourers and farmers having to stand in queues to withdraw cash, or being denied legitimate salaries by employers because cash supplies have run short. The march to a cashless society is a slow one anywhere on the planet, and the unseemly haste with which the government has pushed in poorer citizens into the war on black money smacks of forced military service.
Conscription is not something modern democratic republics do. The US saw anti-war protests during the Vietnam War days not just for pacifist reasons but because ordinary citizens did not want to suffer in a war that was not of their own making — or for no fault of theirs.
Modi's New Year's Eve speech offered minor token gains in interest rate waivers and benefits for pregnant women and senior citizens, but the bulk of the population has been co-opted into a war not of its own making.
The government would do well to remember that reforms, especially disruptive ones, need to have not just a human face but clear gains for those who suffered pains. The president's speech is a wake-up call for the government.
Poor citizens should not be treated like conscripted soldiers.
The author is a senior journalist. He tweets @madversity
Updated Date: Jan 06, 2017 14:53 PM