Since 8 November 2016, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the unexpected announcement that the government was demonetising notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000, the country has been engulfed in chaos. The situation has been worse for those in rural or semi-urban areas: currency notes have taken longer to reach these regions since a sizeable majority of the bank branches and ATMs in India are located in urban areas. In rural areas, both the supply and demand for commodities have reduced, leading to a vicious cycle that perpetuates the absence of liquid cash in the market. The informal economy that is prevalent in these regions too has been disrupted.
On 16 November 2016, Sagar, a web reporter with The Caravan, spoke to Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, a social scientist and political philosopher. During the conversation, Shepherd spoke about the impact of demonetisation on lower-caste communities and labourers of the unorganised sector, the inefficacy of this measure in dealing with black money and its consequence on the economy and the upcoming elections in Uttar Pradesh. Shepherd told Sagar that the most adverse effect of the Modi government’s decision would be on those who are already marginalised. He added that this policy was not as much a crack-down on black money as it was a strike on “black people”—those who spent the entirety of their day on physical labour in the sun. In the government’s move, Shepherd also sees at play a nexus between Brahmins and Baniyas.
Sagar: On 14 November 2016, a week after he had announced that notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 would be demonetised, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that the corrupt were upset while the poor were “enjoying a sound sleep.” Do you agree with this proposition?
Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd: No. After Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his so-called surgical strike against the so-called black money, the bullets first hit the mass labourers, the Dalits, the tribal people and other poor people in the deeper hill and forest regions. The poor are not enjoying a sound sleep as the prime minister would like to believe.
My feeling is that a white Modi has made the people black, not the money. See, by the midnight of 8 November, the masses in tribal areas, the Dalitwadas [Dalit settlements] and many houses far away, had just one note of Rs 500 or two, which they got because of labour, because of some sale in the market. The next day, they were supposed to buy salt, oil, some medicine, something. Suddenly, the note gets devalued. Now where should they go? They don’t know banks. They have never seen a bank in their lives. A majority of those in under-developed areas across India have never seen a bank in their lives. Many of them are located far away from banks, at least 20 or 30 kilometres. Most people in rural India would have heard about the news only by the evening of 9 November, if not later. So now, they had to start for the bank that evening. On 10 November, they must have had to run to whichever bank was the closest, but there was no money there. Money had not reached several banks. So what became black then?