Currency of despair

J Devika | Updated on January 16, 2018
Fall in line: Malayalam actor Mohanlal, in a blog post on demonetisation, asked why people who can wait for hours outside liquor shops, cannot stand in queues at ATMs. Photo: K K Mustafah

Fall in line: Malayalam actor Mohanlal, in a blog post on demonetisation, asked why people who can wait for hours outside liquor shops, cannot stand in queues at ATMs. Photo: K K Mustafah   -  The Hindu

J Devika

J Devika   -  BusinessLine

Demonetisation apologists are blind to the fact that it has decimated the hard-won gains of the poorest

For some years now, my research has been about a fishing hamlet in Kerala, on the survival strategies of coastal women. I had been there over 30 years ago as a young college student. I remember how derelict and forsaken that hamlet had looked then: The miserable, soaking-wet thatched huts, the muddy environs with stagnating water breeding mosquitoes and filthy pigs, people worn out with work and want, and the mucky, impassable paths. What I see now is heartening — proper roads, well-built, if small, houses, well-drained environs, and healthier villagers. The most heartening sight was of neatly-dressed children beside their mothers, carrying new bags and umbrellas, waiting for the schoolbus. That single sight revealed a great deal about the incredible tenacity of the women there — for one could not forget that this was achieved in the face of the continuing destruction of the marine environment, chronic male alcoholism, and falling male incomes. These women look like they have come a long way.

I remembered this amidst the uproar over Prime Minister Modi’s war on the Indian people, euphemised as ‘demonetisation’, if only because I knew that it cut at the very roots of what had allowed these women to keep the family not just floating, but even sailing, in the face of considerable economic adversity: a liquid flow of cash and credit. They handle money from various sources deftly to keep families off hunger and want, merging newer and older sources of credit and credit practices, and creating an ‘embedded market’ in the village, which ensured that their incomes were pumped back into the village. The BJP government’s imposition of new guidelines for the rural employment guarantee programme does not permit flexibility, which was a body-blow to them, because the piling of sand on the swampy areas (which was important to transform the veritable bog this place was into a liveable village) was no longer legitimate work. Women lost work, and their public protests elicited slow response from the mainland-dominated panchayat. Now, I shudder to think of the consequences of ‘demonetisation’. I pray that the hamlet is not hurled back to its nightmarish past. If for some, Modi heralds a glorious future, for many, many of India’s poorest people, he represents a rude shove back into the terrible times they had escaped, largely by their own wits and not the state’s largesse.

The latter group surely includes women, even those of privileged social origin. While the chatter in our own cosseted urban middle-class world is about Modi’s intentions and his strangely Stalinist-sounding evocation of general suffering for the greater good, the women in that coastal hamlet have lost an important avenue for savings —one that is hidden away from abusive husbands and oppressive families. Even well-off older women — especially in Kerala, where widowhood is a much greater problem simply because women’s life expectancy had improved dramatically in the past century — are suffering because they are not tech-savvy. Those with deposits and pensions are suffering simply because they chose to park these in neighbourhood cooperative sector banks, which offer much better rates of interest and service, especially to senior citizens. Underprivileged women in Kerala often bear a triple burden of juggling (often multiple) jobs, domestic responsibilities, and community responsibilities, and standing in a queue in front of banks makes life even more heavy for them. Worse, the Statewide self-help group network of some 34 lakh women, the Kudumbashree, has been thrown into crisis, with lending and repayment nearly grinding to a halt. Modi supporters are deaf to the fact that they have let loose not temporary disruption but the decimation of the hard-won gains of the poorest.

The reaction of some celebrities, too, smacks of hubris. The Malayalam actor Mohanlal, for instance, had quipped in a blog note: if people can queue up in front of liquor shops, why can’t they queue up in front of ATMs? Clearly, this man is not only unable to think, he cannot even see! Women are present in every queue for money withdrawal, but in which liquor queue did he see women?

This probably brings to light the huge gap between the fattened upper-caste rich, whose women are confined to their homes largely, and the poor, among whom women increasingly support their families on their own.

The urban middle-class across India seems to increasingly resemble decadent late-Roman aristocracy in blindness. They barely see how citizenship has changed in India — while the poor understand it, still, as their natural right, the rulers now will admit only those fully transparent to them, or can produce such an illusion, as citizens. Women, who have always lived in opaqueness, who have crafted survival and resistance using that very darkness, are being dragged into ‘transparency’ — even as the prospect of enabling citizenship grows dimmer for all.

J Devika is a historian and critic based in Thiruvananthapuram

Published on December 16, 2016

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