Friday, November 25, 2016

The audacity of scope

Big dreams need better planning than this

(Published on November 19, 2016 in Business Standard)

It’s always fun to read about putrescent extravagances like the rumoured Rs 550 crore wedding that Karnataka mining tycoon and political crony Gali Janardhan Reddy just organised for his daughter. This one featured a Rs 17-crore bridal sari, Rs 5 crore invitations, and 50,000 guests including Karnataka BJP president BS Yeddyurappa, who is to financial propriety what kryptonite is to Superman. It’s superfun to read about it while standing in a five-hour-long queue for the ninth straight day to exchange Rs 2,000 suddenly worthless rupees for the day. It’s the kind of thing that brings a smile to one’s face in these dark times, even if it is kind of a psycho killer smile.

The Indian government commendably wants to honour one of its campaign promises by sucking out black money and corruption. But in the hyperbolic style of the Modi government, it is trying to do it with that most powerful of economic tools: metaphor. It’s a mahayagya, said Modi, a ‘festival of honesty’. It’s disgraceful to sell state policy through religion, but if you’re going to, remember that like all festivals, this one is a temporary respite until we get back to routine; and like all festivals, it’s going to make you feel good rather than actually change your life.

Targeting black money is a fine idea, and props to Prime Minister Modi for wanting to address the problem. Forget, for a minute, the critique that demonetisation is a high-impact, low-yield exercise that will do nothing to stop corruption. Give the government the benefit of doubt. Even then, when you decide to inconvenience 1.2 billion people, you’d better have thought your plan through, because intelligent planning is the difference between dreams and nightmares. The government has shown unforgivable irresponsibility in not foreseeing or planning for most the basic of problems. We now have new currency that ATMs are not configured to dispense, not enough lower denomination currency in the market to make change for Rs 500 and Rs 2,000 notes, and people are being tagged with indelible ink used for elections. Nobody is prepared for the crippling cash lockdown in 95% of the economy. And it is killing people.

As a relatively hale, time-rich, urban banking customer with four ATMs at five minutes’ walking distance, I can get by thanks to the plastic in my wallet, and standing in line endangers only my mood, not my livelihood. But 55 people (and counting) have died as a result of demonitisation, and many more have gone hungry. You would think that the only time state-directed action kills its citizens is as collateral damage in times of war, or when citizens have been handed a death sentence by a judicial process. Here, people are dying because creditable ambition is backed by incredible incompetence, because an exercise that needs years of planning has been unleashed in six months. What is this unseemly haste about, if not elections? The government’s argument that secrecy was necessary to avoid giving hoarders a heads up has been debunked by reports that many of the right people knew, including allegedly Messieurs Ambani and Adani.

The really striking feature of this demonetisation exercise is India’s tolerance for shabby governance. The more empowered you are, the less you’re willing to put up with stupid or inefficient policy. The less empowered you are, the higher your pain threshold, by necessity—and the more business and politics will take advantage of you. It speaks to the extent to which ordinary people despise the corrupt rich that so many are willing to put up with their present hardships to support the government. Good governance would value that spirit, and would plan as hard as possible to minimise that pain, instead of making a self-interested and frankly legally dodgy splash; floundering; and being reduced to making it up as it goes along.

“No honest tax-payer will lose a single rupee,” said power minister Piyush Goyal. That’s not true; hundreds of millions of honest tax-payers who legitimately pay zero tax, will be losing the money they might have made instead of standing in line.

There is no doubt that black money and corruption have screwed this country hard. There is no doubt that it has to be addressed. I would love to see this exercise succeed. But not at the cost of lives. The days of Pathankot, of JNU anti-nationalism, of beef murders—those were the good old days of calm, controlled, beautifully executed cock-ups—compared to the giant cowpat we now find ourselves in. Modi’s demonitisation isn’t upsetting the economic applecart—it is blowing it up, and screwing the shards into our eyes. Here’s hoping that it will get sorted sooner rather than later, with no more loss of life.

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