Reality and delusions

December 11, 2016

I went for a haircut today, ignoring my father’s warning that it would be crowded on a Sunday.

The barber wasn’t around when I went in. Two customers were waiting. One of them said that he had gone home and would be back soon. ‘Muthu’ was on TV. The flashback was starting. By the time (father) Rajinikanth was cheated out of his property and pauperised, the barber was back.

After I was done with my haircut, he asked for Rs.80.
“Has the rate gone up?” I asked.
“Only by 10 rupees,” he replied apologetically.
“How is your business doing?”
“You can see how bad things are – Sundays never used to be so sparsely crowded. Earlier, I couldn’t have gone home for lunch at 1pm. Nobody has money. People were giving me old 500 rupee notes. What would I do with that? I gave a free haircut to some of my customers. So few people come in now. “

I wasn’t enterprising enough to educate him about PayTM or a swiping machine.

“The person who was there when you came in – he is having a haircut after 3 months.” (Yeah, I know, it has been only one month since Nov 8 – but the math will work out if, like me, he cuts his hair once in 2 months.)

The cynical-me quipped, “By the time this is over, looks like we’ll have a lot of rishis with matted hair.”

“After 50 days, people may not be alive,” he was more cynical than me. “The big guys are able to get 100 crores and more. Only we struggle. At Annur, last week, somebody spread a rumour that Modi is going to credit 1 lakh into all our accounts. Many people waited outside the bank for a long time before being turned away. How can Modi give 1 lakh to all of us?”

It may seem as if I am beating a dead snake. But the snake is alive and hissing. (Figuratively speaking. I don’t recommend beating a real snake.)

The whole of last week, when I had to commute from Coimbatore, I saw long crowds at ATMs (especially government banks), or closed ATMs, early in the morning and late at night, all the way from Coimbatore to our village.

Our daughter’s music teacher was worried as her husband, who used to work as a goldsmith, is out of job. Her eyes lighted up, when my wife gave her the fees (in 100 rupee notes) for last month, though she had not held any classes then. Usually she would have refused but accepted this time without a protest.

Our neighbouring farmer has not received any money from the milkman this month. The milkman has not been paid by his cooperative. The farmer has no money for buying cattle feed. With no monsoons, his current crop will be a total failure, and the cows are his only hope till the next rains. He asked hesitantly if I’d allow him to graze the cattle on a fallow patch on our land, where there is any hardly greenery.

But a large landowner was able to hold a function at his newly constructed home, inviting 5 or 6 villages, and serving food for two days.

What we see needs to be recorded, in the hope that our delusions will be dispelled some day.

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On standing in queues (or) How people die in queues

December 4, 2016

Indeed, queues are not new to Indians, especially the poor. It is only now, many of us who can talk about standing in queues are standing in queues, and therefore, we get to see and hear the plight of those standing in queues. Standing in the queue is an educative experience, in itself (for us, the so-called educated). The objective is irrelevant. Moreover, in today’s India, the more the time you spend on the queue, the more the points you garner for patriotism. I lose a lot of points writing such long, sob stories and shouldn’t miss a chance to gain some.

When I was on my third mission to get Aadhaar card, last Monday, there was again a long queue. After waiting for over an hour, they issued only 60 tokens at 10am. I was 70th on the queue.

There were a number of old people, who had come for the second, third, fourth times. Many of them had returned, even after registration, as their fingerprints had not been captured properly, and their cards were declined. One helpful staff member said that a new machine was expected to arrive in the next couple of weeks and that may be able to record their fingerprints. But most of the elderly decided to wait.

One old, illiterate woman, complained to the staff member that the people at the ration shop were insisting on her Aadhaar card. She showed him the acknowledgement for Aadhaar that she had received earlier. Her card may have been declined due to no fingerprints. He asked her to show that slip at the ration shop. She had done that already, and yet, they had refused to issue her the ration items. He, then, advised her to go to the Tahsildar, get his signature on the slip, and take it to the ration shop. The flabbergasted lady trudged away.

I keep asking my mother, who had been pressurizing us to get that Aadhaar, to tell the ration folks that there is a Supreme Court order against insisting on Aadhaar card. But she says all arguments are in vain. All that the staff at the ration shops know are verbal orders from above. And I am not sure, if this is a fight I wan’t to pick up seriously at this point. (Anyway, my objections to Aadhaar are not just about queues but I’ll keep them away from this post.)

Our next quest for Aadhaar was on Friday. My wife decided not to leave anything to chance and went to join the queue by 6.30 on a cold morning, chilled by the previous night’s rains. Surprisingly she was only the second person. I relieved her at 8.30. After a week of heavy rush, or due to the rains, the crowd was relatively lean that day. I kept hearing stories from those on the queue about their previous experiences. An old lady who was number 3 on the queue had gone for breakfast at some eatery nearby and was not back for over an hour. My wife had been worrying if she had fallen down somewhere. Another lady said the old woman came yesterday, couldn’t get a token and was in tears. She was coming from Periyanaicken Palayam, around 20 kms from that office. Everyone sighed with relief when she did rejoin the queue.

“I have had fractures on my leg, after a fall. My hip is broken. I had to go up and down to 4 offices, just to find out that I have to come to this office. Our ration has been stopped this month,” she told me later.

Person no.5 on the queue was an eighty-two year old man. His 6 sons and 1 daughter and their families had already taken their cards. At that time, he didn’t deem it necessary at his age. But now, some pension of Rs.1000 that he was getting from the government has been stopped, due to Aadhaar.

We kept hearing many more sob stories. Another old man was complaining that getting the right information was the most difficult task. If he sought some clarification on the documentation and such, he would be asked to refer to a poster with that information. He can’t read.
“Are they telling that the uneducated cannot live in this country anymore?”

There were also touts who had offered to take some of them to a private operator, nearby, for a cost of Rs.250-300. Without middlemen, I already had an appointment with the same private operator for the next week (but our conscience had pricked holes on our privilege and we decided not to go there). The cost quoted to us was Rs.150 per person. Even that was seen as unaffordable (or non-essential) by most of them.

After a combined wait of about 4 hours, we got the tokens. Some people from earlier queues, who, for some reason or other, were turned back after waiting a whole day despite having tokens, were given priority ahead of us. The operator and the machine struggled a bit to capture our young daughter’s fingerprints. Otherwise, our registration went off without much fuss. When we finished, I could see that the old lady (No.3) and the old man (No.5) were still standing, while the others were being attended to. I intervened, and heard the same story again, “Their fingerprints won’t get recorded easily. We will be making 60 others wait if we attend to them now.”

“I am eighty-two years old. I have been waiting since 6am and am starving to death. Should I collapse and die to get this Aadhaar? What is the need for a government that tortures its elders like this?”

“Why don’t you go, eat and come?” my wife asked.
“Will I not go, if I have money?”

We compelled him to come with us and bought him some bun, biscuits and tea. It must have been around noon. He refused the offer to eat lunch at a nearby mess, “At this age, if I eat food cooked badly outside, I’ll have diarrhoea for 3 days. I’ve learnt this after so many such experiences.”

So, yes, people dying in queues could have died anywhere. But why should they be forced to be on this queue at this point of time is a question that cannot be evaded.


Bourgeois of the world, unite!

November 28, 2016

I cannot believe now, that 12 years ago, I was a centre manager for credit card sales – for Coimbatore and Cochin. But to my credit, I didn’t last in that role for more than a year and moved to a different position at Mumbai (I’m not sure if I can claim blame for the fact that credit card sales was wound up in many smaller cities, including those two, soon after). I realise that I missed an opportunity to see it as a service to the nation (and pocket heftier bonuses). How silly of me, to have tried to induce low-paid sales officers to work for salaries and incentives and prizes. If I were to do that role now…

I’d tell my boys, “If soldiers can stand on the border for days, can you not stand outside the ATM for a day and canvass those on the queue? Record Mann ki baat and play it to your prospects. Prove to them it is anti-national if they don’t go cashless. Every card that you sell is a slap on the Pakistanis and a checkmate on terror funding.” I’ll end my pep-talk with some fiery lines from Bharathi, and disperse after Jai Hind.

I’d approach my collections manager and convince him to recommend opening up of the blacklisted territories. “Kottaimedu, Ukkadam and Karumbu Kadai are the last frontiers in our war against cash. If we convert them all to credit cards, there would be no bomb blasts in Coimbatore. It is your patriotic duty to recommend to the anti-national credit team at Bangalore to open up these areas.”

I’d write to the credit team at Bangalore (forgot the exact name of the team – our hearts would bleed to see them declining 50-60% of the hard-earned applications), “Stop declining cards to agents and real estate brokers. How can you be swayed by trivial aspects, such as credit scores, default rates and profitability, when in the long run, your approval of cards for them will sound the death knell for black money?”

What a historic opportunity has been presented to the banks, the Visas and Mastercards, the AirTels and Reliances, and the PayTMs! They have the most iconic brand ambassador in the country speaking on their behalf. Only once before in the history of India, did a business entity get such a glorious chance, and what a peerless precedent they’ve set: East India Company created a giant of a nation out of warring tribes and petty states; they ushered in modernity and technology; they bestowed on us, railways and post offices, mills and banks.

Oh, bourgeois of the world, unite, and build a cashless nation!


Conversations in the time of cashlessness

November 28, 2016

(From my Facebook post, dated 15-Nov-2016)

Yesterday, as I was headed to our village near Pollachi, I could see that all the banks on the bus route from Coimbatore were crowded. At the SBI branch at SIDCO, they had put up a shelter. At the Vadikipalayam branch, 7-8 kms from our village (with buses every half an hour), there were two long, separate queues for men and women.

All along the way, the word ‘money’ had filled the air and kept slamming my ears. Whoever I met, spoke more about money than the failing rains. Not everything that they said was true – but they said what they believed to be true. I am translating and putting down the conversations that stayed with me.

A youngster on the bus:
Everybody is paying wages through the old notes. I have decided not to accept them and haven’t gone for any work today. They do exchange at the bank but one has to stand in the queue.

An old man working at a farm on the way:
It has been 23 days since it rained. So, she (his wife) has also not been able to go for any work.
What money do I have that needs to be exchanged? They (their employer, an IT professional in Japan) usually send money from Japan to another person. That person comes and pays us our salary. I am not sure which notes we will get this month.

Another middle-aged man who joined us:
Who goes to the bank? I get my salary only our owner comes (a doctor from Cochin) here. It has been two months since their last visit. We usually manage with our son’s income. Savings – what savings? Not a single paisa stays. Some expense or other is always there. Last month my mother-in-law died. In our community, we have to spend lavishly for everything.

Modi has announced just like that and left. Everyone here is suffering in the queues. If we go to buy anything at the shops, they first ask us to show our money, and only then turns to take the goods. Everyone is getting their daily wages in old currency. If they visit the bank to exchange, they lose a day’s wage.

Who gives change for 2000 rupees. Today, the one who has a 100 rupee note in his pocket is richer than the one with Rs.2000.

At the petrol bunk, they take the 500 rupee note only if we fill for 500 rupees.

I heard that bundles of 500 and 1000 rupee notes came floating on the Ambarampalayam river. Some of our boys went to see it. Big shots are there at Ambarampalayam and Vettaikaranpudur. Though there is no tax for agricultural income, if they show so many crores, will there not be questions on how so much could be earned through farming? They are all into various businesses.

Someone said that an Omni van stopped at a dustbin near Eachanari. They unloaded a few boxes and burnt them. All of it was cash. Nobody knows who they were.

What worries do the black money hoarders have? They’ll wait till next month. Whatever they are not able to convert (into white), they would just throw away and walk off. They would make up for it in the next month. (Black money is a flow and not a stock. – Prabhat Patnaik)

Yesterday, they drilled a bore well at Chettiar farm. Even after 1000 feet they got no water. Last year too, they had dug 5 bore wells and got nothing.

On your electricity line, the three phase current has not been available for the last 3 days. At your neighbouring farm, they said they hardly had enough water for the cattle. Work will get done only if the lineman is paid.

Our neighbouring farmer:
I had opened a bank account for the gas connection. But I haven’t put any money in it so far.

The milkman has already told us that he would pay us only in the old currency. He pays us every fortnight. His company has told him that they would pay him only in old notes. Such a big firm – why can’t they pay in new currency?

My brother’s son is travelling. He called me to tell that the salt price to going to shoot up to Rs.300 per kg. He asked me to stock up a sack of salt. I ignored it – what is the big deal if there is no salt?

The woman who grazes her cattle on our farm:
My brothers have borrowed all the money from me. They’ll return when I need it. What indulgence do I have have?

Yesterday, the VAO’s assistant called me and gave the Deepavali saree. Usually it is given before Deepavali. But this year it has come only now.

I don’t know whether I’ve a bank account. The newspaper boy took Aadhar card and photo. He withdraws money every month and gives it to me. He takes 50 rupees. He does this for all of us. Earlier the postman used to do it. This boy is also some government employee. (She has been abandoned by her husband, and gets a pension of Rs.1000 through a Government scheme).

As you warned, the tomato prices are very low. At Giri annan’s farm, they have left the tomatoes unplucked.

An old couple, who own a 10-acre farm:
There has been no rain. If this situation persists, we are going to struggle even for drinking water.

It is alright – Modi has started off a good task. Are these people not flush with black money? Let it all come out.

There was no money floating on Ambarampalayam river…we were there yesterday. Just some cloth bags. People are also spreading rumours that someone burned bundles of cash near Kurichi pond.

There was a long queue at Vadakkipalayam. So I went to the Pollachi Indian Bank and deposited Rs.7000. I’ve 7 accounts. I went with the idea of visiting the branch that was least crowded.

For how much did you purchase tomatoes at Coimbatore (Rs.8 per kg). Yesterday we sent 14 boxes (15 kg per box). After the vehicle rent, toll at check post, commission etc, we got Rs.120. We didn’t even get the plucking wages. I am plucking them myself…paying wages for this doesn’t make sense.

This new 2000 rupee note is like this thin saree. It will tear as easily. Yesterday, at the TASMAC shot, somebody gave a fake 2000 rupee note and had two quarters.

The rich have no worries. The poor also somehow manage. The middle class seems to be stuck and suffer.


(My Facebook post dated 13-Nov-2016)

Last night, as we travelled from Tiruvannamalai to Coimbatore via Salem, the usually crowded buses on that route had many vacant seats. Demonetization seemed to have led to decongestion on long distance buses, at least for that day. My Home-Finance Minister had the premonition to ensure that she was carrying a few 100 rupee notes. A group of pilgrims from Pollachi, who were on their way back from Tirupati via Tiruvannamalai, somehow scrambled to pool together all their 100 rupee and 10 rupee notes to buy their tickets. When the bus stopped at a roadside restaurant for dinner, they did some inquiries and decided that fasting won’t do them much harm. Two black money hoarders who were carrying a couple of 500 rupee notes insisted that their money be accepted by the conductor, and refused to get down in the middle of nowhere at night. The conductor took the bus to the police station. The police promptly got them alighted.


At Salem, I suggested to the Pollachi pilgrims to take a train. Worried about how to reach the railway station, they tried their luck with an apple-vendor. For buying a few apples, the vendor accepted their 1000 rupee note and gave them change. That should have helped them reach Pollachi.


What we talk about when we talk about inconvenience (for the landless and the landed poor):

November 28, 2016

It is not merely about standing in the queues. Like many of our well-meaning friends have mentioned, they are used to standing in queues. (But unlike what the memes say, not to get the latest iphone.)

It is about forgoing their daily wages. In contrast with the good people in the organized sector, there is no concept of paid leave for them. You earn only when you work. Many daily wage earners work at different places on different days. Going to the bank means waiting for a not-so-frequent bus to go to the bank and waiting again to return.

It is about receiving their daily wages in old currency and having to go to the bank again to exchange the currency. You know, they don’t have luxury of using plastic money or stocked up vegetables in the fridge and provisions in the shelves.

Going to the bank again, means foregoing their daily wage again.

More than anything, one of the main reasons they have resisted for so long, and still resist going to banks, and such places, is because, going there makes them feel worthless, and dependent on the mercy of others. All their skills mean nothing. All their ability to lead a completely self-dependent life on the land comes to nought. To add more insult, their worthlessness will now be branded with indelible ink on their working-class fingers.


Shoot the idea

November 28, 2016

‘The idea is good but the implementation is bad,’ is the common refrain that we hear from the 7% (as per reliable surveys, which I won’t question) who criticize demonetization. I belong to an even more minuscule minority. I believe, the idea is bad, and therefore, the implementation is shoddy. Or rather, the idea is bad, even if the implementation had been exemplary.

I have no doubt that almost all of us have been complicit, in varying degrees, in the generation of the so-called black money. But in a country with one of the highest inequality rates [Top 1% own 58.4% of the wealth in India, and top 10% own 80.7% of the wealth; as per other reliable studies], it defies logic to go after 100% of the people, when the same or better results could have been achieved by targeting the top 10%. Even if the major black money hoarders lie outside the official top 10%, it would have been surely possible to identity the major sources of black money generation and go after them. That would have been much more optimal use of available resources and bandwidth than this mammoth wild goose chase.

Two other aspects irk me more.
One is the now stated objective of a cashless (read, digital) economy. In the short run, it shows complete disregard for the current demography of the country. In the long run (though all of us will be dead), it betrays an utter lack of concern for privacy and freedom. It is scary to think of so much data in one place. It’ll lead to more centralisation. It does seem inevitable now. But there is still that minuscule minority that dreams of a decentralised society, where other non-digital modes of truly cashless living shall emerge.

Secondly, the assertions about the moral basis for the idea. The moral high ground that is being claimed for this move is something that my mind refuses to concede. No moral act needs such secrecy and deception.

Some of the kurals that I’ve been using when I discuss Aram with school children, have been continuously ringing inside my ears during the last couple of weeks:
இன்னா எனத்தான் உணர்ந்தவை துன்னாமை
வேண்டும் பிறன்கண் செயல். (316)
Shy away from doing to others
what you perceive would have harmed you.

நன்றே தரினும் நடுவிகந்தாம் ஆக்கத்தை
அன்றே யொழிய விடல். (113)
Even if some good comes out of the gains generated by
being unfair, desist from making that gain.

வேலொடு நின்றா னிடுவென் றதுபோலும்
கோலோடு நின்றா னிரவு. (552)
The extortion and graft done wielding the sceptre
is no different from robbery done pointing a spear.

உள்ளத்தாற் பொய்யா தொழுகின் உலகத்தார்
உள்ளத்து ளெல்லாம் உளன். (294)
One who, true to his heart, lives without lies,
will forever live in the hearts of all.

மனத்துக்கண் மாசிலன் ஆதல் அனைத்து அறன்
ஆகுல நீர பிற. (34)
True moral integrity lies in being spotless in your thoughts;
everything else is loud and blatant posturing.


$700 billion bailout plan in US Vs. Farm Loan waiver in India

September 30, 2008

There was a hue and cry from the corporate world and business media about the farm loan waiver. I found it amusing then. It looks even more amusing now, in the wake of the $700 billion bailout plan (now aborted) in that, presumptive, most capitalist of capitalist countries, the US. There was a muted response to this plan in the mainstream media; most debates were about how best to finetune this plan. 

P.Sainath ridicules this plan, in The Hindu, contrasting these reactions against the earlier rage over the “historic farm loan waiver for $16 billion”. (Sainath belongs to those rare breed of journalists, who slog it out in the vast rural hinterland to unearth the real truths, while his more elitist counterparts hog the limelight with lazy-sleazy sting operations and Arushi sagas. His apparent Socialist leanings notwithstanding, it is the existence of honest contrarian-journalists like him, which will make democracy and ‘free markets’ work and evolve).

Whether we like it or not, for those of us who were waiting for the crash, the developments are interesting, to say the least. This is definitely a serious test for capitalism and at the end of it, hopefully, we will evolve to a higher, humane form of capitalism (or whatever new -ism) and not find recluse in retrograde initiatives. The real danger is not the impending recession or a repeat of the ‘Great Depression’ with ripples across the world, but a reactionary withdrawal of heads into an excessive-regulatory shell. A temporary recession, which doesn’t hinder future growth, is more welcome than a few more decades of decadent licence-raj.