COLUMN: Can I tell my children to lose $8 is OK because some people are losing their lives instead?
NEW YORK: Dear Prime Minister Narendra Modi,
I wish to share with you some cherished memories from my childhood. Growing up in Delhi, I yearned for summer vacations, to travel by train to Kerala. It was a journey that I looked forward to every year, from my early school days. It was thrilling for me to travel two nights and three days one way, as the coal-fueled train chugged its way through myriad tiny and big train stations on its way to the greenest land in the world I knew; it was a mini vacation within a vacation. I enjoyed the food, language and landscape which changed every few hours; marveled at the beauty and vastness of India. In the rush of people at railway platforms, those embarking upon journeys and those who had come to see others off, I saw the energy, happiness and enthusiasm of the country. I got saddened at the poverty I saw too; at the misery of child beggars – amputated, woebegone. I cried sometimes looking at traumatized, helpless mothers in tattered clothes, begging with infants in their arms. In brief minutes waiting at platforms, I saw immeasurable cruelty, the divide between the rich and the poor; the comfort of children who ate food, reclining at window seats inside the train, in contrast with the anguish of poor children who ran alongside the train to collect money for selling tea and snacks.
On the last day of my vacation in Kerala, my grandfather would call me to his room, and almost in a secretive manner, push some Rupee notes in my hand. It was a tradition which carried on till he died, but which my grandmother then kept alive. I would change those hundred Rupee notes I got, to smaller notes and coins from my father. On the way back, I would give some of that small change to children and mothers who came begging at my window seat on the train, at railway stations.
I’m a father myself now. My two children – two boys, who are now 9 and 6 years old, were born in the United States. When they waste food, or refuse to eat, throw a tantrum, my wife and I often remind them of the millions of children who go hungry in India because they don’t get any food to eat. We have shown them videos of India. With every trip to India, they seem to understand the country better. I make it a point to take them by train and road within India, as I find that a far better educational tool than traversing the length of the country by plane. Last week, my older son, who has been learning coding and is part of a Math Olympiad team in school, told me that he wants to teach children in a village in India the next time he travels to the country.
This summer, my children each got a gift from their grandparents: Rupees 500. They were delighted. I told them it was roughly $8. When we got back home in August, with great glee, they promptly deposited it in their respective piggy bank. My wife and I have another Rs. 1,300 and odd change, between the two of us.
Well, Prime Minister Modi, here’s my conundrum: it’s not such a big deal for me to give up on the Rs. 1300 that my wife and I have – although Sir, I don’t need to remind you that when the immigration floodgates opened in the US, in 1965, Indians were allowed only roughly $8 each by the Govt. of India; most came to the US with even less. But how do I explain to my children that the money they got from their grandparents is now worthless? I could have explained to them the dynamics of currencies, their appreciating or declining values, and perhaps they would have understood that the same Rs. 500 they have today, might be worth only $7 now, but perhaps someday might become $10. But how do I break the news to them that the currency they have stashed away in their piggy bank is junk now, more worthless than last year’s calendar?
Prime Minister Modi, why did you show this shocking lack of foresight, planning and implementation of your demonetization policy? Do you think it’s OK for all NRIs to trash the Indian currency they have, brush it aside as collateral damage to the grand plans you have for India? Why didn’t you include plans for NRIs to change currency when they next visit India? Did you suspect that this would be manipulated too? Why didn’t you allow at least the State Bank of India in the US and the Indian Embassy and the Indian Consulates to exchange the now defunct Indian Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 currency? Do I need to spend $1300 for a flight ticket to India, to change Rupees 1300?
Dear Prime Minister Modi, do I tell my children that it’s OK for them to lose their Rupees 500 because far worse is happening in India? Should I tell them that like many in India who die of poverty and hunger every day, dozens of people have died recently waiting in queues to change their old currency? Should I tell them that ‘boys, you are lucky to go to a good school here, but a college student in India died because of PM Modi’s demonetization policy; that teenager committed suicide because he couldn’t pay his tuition fees’? Or should I tell them of the hapless father who tried in vain to get money from a bank for his daughter’s wedding, and died waiting in the queue as the bank manager refused to accommodate his request? Whom should I pin the blame on, Prime Minister Modi? On the bank manager who didn’t have the money to give it to that heart-broken man, or refused to, or to you, who didn’t think far enough of the consequences of your demonetization plan, and take adequate measures to alleviate misery?
Perhaps, I should tell the story of the old man who died waiting in a queue. That he was as old as my grandfather who died one day in his sleep, and all I saw the next time I went to Kerala was a photo of him with a large garland around it. Or instead, I should tell my children they are lucky that they still have some dollars in their piggy bank as there was this man in India, who carried his sick daughter to a bank to get money for her treatment, and couldn’t get any money from his piggy bank, the one where he kept all his savings. His daughter died as he waited in a queue.
Which story should I tell my children Mr. Prime Minister, to justify your action?
When you came to power, I was your ardent supporter. I felt relieved that the corrupt government of the past would be replaced with new vigor and purpose in India. I was proud to hear you speak at the Madison Square Garden in New York City, where I was present. I was moved by your commitment to clean the Ganga River. But Prime Minister Modi, in order to clean the Ganga, would you try to stop the flow of water, and throw more sludge in it? Dry up the river and then take out all the waste, along with its silt? To me, it seems that is what you have done with your demonetization plan.
It’s depressing to know you have not condoled the deaths of the dozens of people in India because of your demonetization plan. Your silence is cruel and heartless to the families of all those who have died waiting in queues. That’s the difference between a Third World country like India, and a country like the US. Human lives here are more precious Mr. Prime Minister. In India, it’s as if they are collateral damage, just minor consequences, to your long-term plans for a digital, cashless economy. But no, they really are not. They are human beings who died under unnatural circumstances. It’s disturbing that you don’t seem to care for the depressing ‘Burre Din’ you have imposed upon tens of millions of people in India, in order to force them to understand your vision of ‘Achhe Din’, the good days for India, in the future? PM Modi, what if it doesn’t work out like that, and India continues to get clogged more as the economy tumbles and the country loses a generation, goes into the thrall of a recession?
Perhaps, prime minister Modi, your arthshastra with demonetization – and I call it that because of its three-pronged approach to political demolition of your opposition, economic warfare against black money and military strategy against terrorism – will indeed succeed. It’s not a coincidence that you announced your move on Nov. 8, on Election Day here. You wanted to stifle and stymie any stories of resurrection of political leaders in India, emerging from the masses, after the resurgence of Donald Trump. It was an effective weapon to neutralize the likes of Arvind Kejriwal, and curb money for opposition parties in poll-bound states like Uttar Pradesh.
But of more concern Mr. Modi, is that perhaps in using your arthshastra, unlike Kautilya’s grand vision, you may have also killed and put into bankruptcy many small businesses and industries in India, from food processing, bicycles, to automation and transport, local vendors and contractors, the mom and pop shops, the laborers and agriculture workers – the ones who voted overwhelmingly for you to gain power. It’s great to envision a ‘digital’ economy, but ridiculous to expect the tens of millions of illiterate people in India who don’t know how to read and write, to go around carrying a debit card for purchases through the Internet. Millions of people have been affected by your strange decision to not allow select community banks to exchange their hard-earned money. It has led to some small businessmen, like a 70-year-old food vendor in Kerala, Yahiya, to shave the hair on his head in half, and vow to only regrow it after you are thrown out of power. That man almost died waiting in a queue at a cooperative bank, came home and burnt the Rupees 23,000 life savings he had with him since he couldn’t exchange it at the bank because of your decision to not allow cooperative banks to exchange defunct notes.
Dear PM Modi, your vision has been lauded by many economists and criticized by many other economists. I’m not an economist. But the stories coming from India are not comforting. It seems there is still a whole lot of corruption playing out, black money is flourishing. Plus, there’s no guarantee that once the cash liquidity is solved after 6-8 months, things would not end up back to square one. No surety the corrupt would not again start to hoard the new currency. What are you going to do then? Demonetize the new Rs. 2000 and Rs. 500 notes? Introduce new Rs. 1000 and Rs. 3000 notes? Why didn’t you start new banks and install new ATM machines before this move? Why didn’t you reform the Income tax rules earlier? Why didn’t you try to correct the malpractices in the real estate sector before taking the decision to demonetize?
Perhaps Mr. Prime Minister, even you don’t have the answers to all these questions, as policy decisions seem to be taken on the fly every day.
At least, for now, let me know what should I tell my children about the Rs. 500 notes they have in their piggy bank? Now that we have not only Amul butter coming into the US through Amazon, but also your ‘Mann Ki Baat’ through FM, you might even want to address it through the radio.
(Sujeet Rajan is Editor-in-Chief, The American Bazaar. Follow him @SujeetRajan1)