Thursday, January 12, 2017

Fiddling while Rome burns

The demonetisation rollout is a failure of imagination and empathy

(Published on December 17, 2016 in Business Standard. Somehow this one got saved as a draft rather than published as a post at the time.)

Every person has a particular odour. It’s made up of bodily odour, personal products, clothes, food and health smells, and general hygiene. Good, bad, or indifferent, that smell is individual. But you can’t smell yourself—you’re too habituated to discern it. That’s the default olfactory universe you live in. 

The same thing applies to how most of us view the world; our experience is our particular experiential ‘smell’. It’s easy to assume that your views make obvious sense, and everyone must share them. You have to bloody your nose on this assumption—have your first huge fight with a loved one that leaves you enraged and misunderstood and shocked—to begin a process of emotional evolution. You learn that you smell distinctive to others.

We are shaped, and divided by, any number and combination of things: gender, age, language, race, colour, attractiveness, sexual preference, nationality, geography, religion, class, upbringing, history, education, occupation, economic status, cultural tradition/conditioning/influence, marital or romantic status, physical health, mental health, temperament, priority, training, habit, fear, political affiliation, access to power, access to technology, interest, talent, ability, intelligence, wisdom, ambition, fame or anonymity, style, relative success, socialisation, sense of security, food preference, tolerance of others, preferred forms of expression, will to power, and whether we live in cities, small towns, or rural villages. That’s just off the cuff.

Understanding your singularity in the sense of ‘isolated’ rather than ‘special’, is the first step towards negotiating the world. The only thing that can bail you out of the incarceration of your own experience is empathy—an act of imagination that allows only the wispiest sense of someone else’s experience. It’s patchy and vague. It’s limited by your powers of observation and your privilege. It’s not verifiable. It’s so unscientific, so devoid of data and fact and tangible evidence, that you might call it unsound.

Yet, that specific act of imagination—empathy—prompts much, possibly all, of our science, data, and policy, and is at least part of our success as a species. Why come up with morphine unless you can imagine yourself in pain? Why try to design the best food distribution system possible unless you have tried to put yourself in the shoes of the hungry? Why strive for peace unless you can feel the terrors of war? Why appeal to justice unless you can recognise injustice?

But empathy has a powerful enemy in the shape of self-interest. It doesn’t come easily to everyone, and it is routinely trained out of people. India’s gargantuan systemic injustices are a barometer of our inability, or unwillingness, to empathise. We’d rather just ignore the vulnerable.

As India enters the second month of demonetisation, we are flooded with reports of the suffering it is causing for no reason other than unforgivable mismanagement. It’s as if the Prime Minister didn’t care to check whether he was setting off wonderful fireworks or a napalm bomb, as long as it made a big bang in the service of his own myth. That demonetisation has been stupidly and ineffectually executed is becoming more obvious with every passing day, so the BJP is shifting justifications as fast as countering reports come in. 

War on black money—but most of it is not black money. War on corruption—but jan dhan accounts are being misused, and both legitimate and counterfeit new currency is finding its way into a few hands. A blow to terrorist funding—but almost immediately, Nagrota was attacked. Cashless/less cash economy—but people are now mistrustful of banks and unpredictable policy. Digital economy—what are you smoking? Barely 5% of India conducts business online; phone and data connections are absent or unstable in many areas; large numbers of people are illiterate, or technology-challenged, or frankly, pissed off that they’re being forced into notoriously insecure and digital banking that might compromise privacy. So now we’re at laddoos and lucky dips.

Minimum government, maximum governance? Is that what you call dry banks and ATMs, people losing wages, losing jobs, shutting down businesses, unable to farm, starving, suffering for lack of medical care, and dying of stress and exertion? No, that’s called unintelligent, non-empathetic bait-and-switch. A laddoo is a slap in the face. Cash prizes are thin bribery atop an almighty screw-up.

If it is the PM’s empathy for Indians that drove the idea of demonetisation, his empathy did not extend beyond his hubris. If it had, he would have consulted talented people to design smart, kind implementation that would solve entirely foreseeable problems, that would cause the least, rather than the most, amount of pain for the most vulnerable Indians. If the cheerleaders on social media had empathy, they wouldn’t defend a shoddy policy rather than their fellow citizens.

As discontent and protest grows, the administration is on the clock. Empathy pushes us to solve problems, but solving problems without empathy pushes people to change their votes.

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