By Vijay Darda | 19-12-2016
I have spent long years in the Parliament, and have witnessed many disruptions in the House. Almost invariably, these are caused by recalcitrant opposition members who want to draw the government’s attention to some issue of pressing concern. But this winter session of the Parliament would go down in the history as the one in which the proceedings were disrupted by the members of the treasury benches. It was for the first time that the proceedings could not take place because the government side was creating disturbance. They came into the House with placards and created a noisy chaos.
So, the winter session was a washout. I will concede that if apportioning the blame is an issue then it goes 70-30 in favour of the opposition. For the bulk of the time, the opposition held up the proceedings. But the norm is that once the opposition agrees to run the House, then the government works with alacrity to see that the proceedings run smoothly. After the opposition had agreed for a debate on the demonetisation issue under any rule, then it was for the Union parliamentary affairs minister Ananth Kumar to ensure that the proceedings ran smoothly. The patriarch of the BJP Lal Krishna Advani was anguished when this did not happen. He was clearly blaming Kumar, his one-time protege for the disruption of the House.
But then Kumar’s was a command performance in a tit for tat response to the opposition. If the opposition did not allow the demonetisation debate for the bulk of the session then the government was not willing to oblige them with a platform to have a go at the treasury benches at the fag end of the session. The loser in the process was Indian democracy. Imagine that the Parliament remains in session and does not discuss an issue like demonetisation that had disrupted every life in the country.
For the first time, the prime minister of India has demonetised 86 per cent of the currency held by the people and he is not held accountable to the Parliament. We have speeches galore from him outside the Parliament, but no structured response to the people’s concerns about the entire demonetisation exercise.
Whether it is demonetisation or the move towards a digital economy, the reality is that the bulk of the people are with the prime minister on this issue as everyone is keen to fight the menace of black money. But the real problem lies elsewhere. With more than 80 per cent of the banned currency back into the banking system, and still a lot of time to go for the December 30 window, the question is where is the huge cache of black money that was to be unearthed through demonetisation? The simple answer is that if demonetisation was to find black money as the Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in his November 8 address to the nation, then the exercise is a failure.
We have been told that the return of the money into the banking system would make the people more tax compliant. But this is a feature whose results will take a long time, as the assessment process by the income tax authorities is time consuming. It may help in reducing the fiscal deficit in the next budget.
We all know that in that November 8 address, there was no mention of digital economy or a move towards a cashless or less cash society. Clearly, this is an afterthought. But there is no problem even with this idea, but it needs a caveat. Experience across the world shows that countries like Kenya, Tanzania that have reached high levels of cash less transaction (over 75 per cent) also remain among the top corrupt countries in the world. Going cashless is not an insurance against corruption. So cashless transactions may be in the tax net, but these do nothing to reduce corruption.
Besides, going cashless requires a robust high quality telecom network across the country. It requires last mile connectivity through reliable optical fiber network. Where is this technical backbone? Bulk of the country does not have reliable internet connectivity, and the moment you step 20-30 km away from a major city you can see for yourself the decline in the quality of connectivity. For that matter in large parts of the broader National Capital region itself, there are telecom connectivity issues in several areas. So how can the country go digital with such a condition of the telecom networks?
Besides, there is the question of freedom of choice. Going digital should be the personal preference of an individual and not a compulsion arising out of cash crunch enforced by the government. The restrictions on withdrawals from ATMs and bank accounts can only be temporary, and once the people have an unfettered access to their cash, then it is for them to decide as to whether they want to use cash or digital payment modes for their transactions. The government then will have very little say in such matters.
The prime minister has asked for 50 days of pain and promised huge gains after that. But then the crux of the matter is that for the daily wage earner, the farmer, and worker who have a hand to mouth existence, this is not a short time. Indeed, it is almost like eternity and that is why we are getting to hear stories of distress from all walks of life. People have been forced to reverse migrate because of loss of jobs in various sectors. The point is that those responsible for implementing this decision should have foreseen the plight of the informal sector, the farmers and farm workers, housewives, students and offered specific tailor made solutions. In this case, after taking the demonetisation decision, the government simply decided to leave it to the people to fend for themselves. The government does not do this even in natural calamities. Why did the government adopt this approach?
The answers to this and other such questions may have been forthcoming if the Parliament had debated the demonetisation issue. But with the opportunity lost, the atmosphere of uncertainty and anxiety that grips the nation in the aftermath of demonetisation would continue.
Before I conclude…
The issue of access to decent public toilets is a matter of serious concern. Studies now reveal that the lack of such facilities in states like Maharashtra are taking a toll of the women’s health in the form of an increase in renal (kidney) problems. The Delhi government has taken a lead in this matter, and the well designed, well maintained public toilets offer an example worthy of emulation. The forward looking Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis could make a beginning in this respect from Nagpur itself.