When I was in seventh grade (the year 1987), I was the designated ‘gas cylinder replacement guy’ of the house. Loading the empty cylinder on my bicycle back tray (can’t call it a seat), tying it up, getting my house help (servant) holding on to it, we would both drag the cycle to the Gas agency, in hot forty degrees sun, amidst dusty half-baked roads. After two-hour long wait, we would get a filled cylinder, load it on the cycle, tie it up and drag back the same two plus kilometres. At all of 12 years old, I was best equipped in the house to do these jobs. Or replace the electric switches, bulbs, tube-lights, loose wires, short circuits, heater coils, basic electronic or plumbing issues. My house had three earning members but all of them weren’t privileged – they were salaried slaves, that too with an honest private organization. The privileged ones were some of my self-employed or government employed, friends and relatives – who had iron chest safe at homes, packed with currency notes. My guess is, even in 1987, those houses had loose currency stacked running into multiples of tens of lacs. All my life I have paid tax from 10% to 33% range. They have never. And if you ask them, ‘Proudly, never’.
Once a middle class, always a middle class
My father held a decent post then. After some career ups and downs, all he could save up was for a three-bed room house at age 50 in one far isolated corner of a semi-city. That house also happened, courtesy low-interest loan, from his employer. My privileged friends or relatives, off course, had houses where you could get lost, counting the rooms. Seriously.
My engineering college fees had a major capitation component, my first domicile certificate needed some ‘money for sweets’ at the government office, my first passport attestation (incidentally my only visit to a police station) got me so wrapped in nervousness that I could act the perfect fool and not pay any bribe. No such luck with train ticket collectors though – every time I needed to convert my wait listed ticket to a confirmed seat. These were amounts which weren’t budgeted in the house and hence would cut off from my pocket-money.
Get Rich or Die Tryin
Recently (2015) I entered a popular jewellery shop at Chennai hoping to get something nice for my wife and come out as a privileged NRI – Non-Resident Indian. As it turned out, the ‘shop’ was a four-floor tower and when I walked in, it had at least two hundred buyers on each floor. Some of them brought jewellery at a rate faster than what am able to buy toothpaste and soaps. I left the store at an optimal point – the minimum amount I would need to spend for a worthy gift for my dear wife. That ‘optimal point’ was one of the lowest billing amounts of the day for that store. My three-decade journey from small city to metro to the leading city of the world actually didn’t change much.
I remain a middle class, salaried, tax paying, white money person. I still have an eye on the taxi meter (when it’s going off bounds); parcel all left over food on my restaurant table; walk out of restaurants which ridiculously price themselves; jump at deals and discounts; don’t pay forced tips or bribes; scold my family for wasting electricity or water and research multiple options for weeks before buying any high-end product/ticket.
Entire life, I must have invested maximum time in this decisioning process – where to save the next buck, what to buy and what to not, which house to rent and which to not, where to eat and where to not and so on. Hence, on the stroke of midnight hour (I was at SGT), 8th Nov 2016, when Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi unleashed a firm stroke to curb black money accumulation, restrain bravado of non-tax payers and stop free-flowing money laundering, I pumped my fists. Someone was batting for me, finally.
The Demonetization surgical strike
From urging to open bank accounts, to linking it to AADHAR card, to giving multiple dates to disclose income, the government has done it all systematically – Till the warning had to be upgraded to a penalty. Within four hours of that news, there were sacks of 500 & 1000 rupee notes burnt at Uttar Pradesh. Within four days of that news, four lac crore rupees have been deposited in banks. And counting. The intent was clear when in the first week of November, the govt fined India’s largest conglomerate – Reliance – a whopping 14000 crores as a penalty for another unrelated deviation.
In subsequent speeches, the Prime Minister has said this war against corruption has just started. There are tax raids happening all over the nation, the detractors are trying to strike panic (a definite sign that something good is happening), a builder from Surat (Modi’s own vote bank) has surrendered 6000 crores cash, a Congress minister (Abhishek Manu Singhvi) levied 57 crores fine and it is all just the start! The common man is troubled and will likely face problems the next two weeks, but they are fighting like foot soldiers – for a better country.
There are enough post-mortem opinions – what could have been done better. There is a clear view that this won’t stop black money completely – it hasn’t in any part of the world. But for sure, the cost of keeping black money has substantially increased. The risk of laundering multiple folds increased – including many NGOs having licenses cancelled in last one year. The bravado of paying out any competition (eg. black money house purchase or bribe for government contract) substantially decreased; for the seller as well as for the buyer. Anti-socials (terrorists, naxalites) have been handicapped finally. Stone pelting has stopped in Kashmir, suddenly.
The middle class is gaining some steel, finally. They feel it. Even during this hassle period, with studio anchors and media street reporters provoking the common man to speak against the government, 80% have given thumbs up that they see some change. They have filled forms quietly, waited for Banks and ATMs to operate patiently, they are holding it together, strongly. They see hope.
The international media have called this step bold with some suggesting replication at their nation. Singapore media paid the ultimate tribute to PM Modi last week with this headline (picture below). For those unaware, Late Shri Lee Kuan Yew is God of Singapore. In the 1950s this island country was worse than any Indian village. Inhabitants then thought the island would be extinct in few years with diseases, marshy lands etc. Today, it’s the leading powerhouse city of Asia, and indeed, the world.
To put in better context, international media are generally frugal in showering praises to developing economies. In fact, local news here is quick to always show any adverse India news in detail – more to paint a picture how India isn’t great and NRIs are better off here. That’s a global trend. Early this year, in an exception to the rule, Singapore allowed PM Modi to address a rally here, and now they have compared his game changing steps to what Lee Kuan Yew took decades ago. Singaporean Indians and Indian Indians are all proud of such trends.
All along our lives, we have grown abusing a life of EMIs, of trains over planes, of public transport over taxis, of 2bhk in far-flung area vs 3bhk sea front, of looking for sales and discounts while, beside us, would be people with thick wads of cash bypassing our lanes, our choices and throwing money at will. People stocking false walls, sofa seats, attics and trunks filled with cash – cash, which I or my engineering friends may not earn entire life, together. Hell, even in my high profile MNC bank job, my less educated younger DSA (direct selling agencies) employee friends were making six times my monthly salary – an offshoot of a heavily blackened property mortgage market.
Now, this week, I have a big grin on my face. Am giggling at every lawyer, doctor, relative, friend, businessman, capitation fees college, government official I crisscrossed – who should be in jail for evading taxes, legal earnings and asking/paying underhand money for decades. Am thankful the current government had guts to strike back. Hard. On the knuckles, on the stomach. Not even caring for own vote bank, own state unit readying for elections or their own corporate backers.
If we don’t back the vision and intention now, just because of rigid egos, biases or can’t withstand the pain we get normally in visiting temples or MTV roadies auditions; we deserve to stay in that abusive life. And see those rich, illegal money earning kids, their pot-bellied ‘I care a damn’ fathers or ‘gold chains weight drooping shoulder’ mothers forever trampling us.