Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has called the Narendra Modi government’s demonetisation move “despotic action that has struck at the root of the economy based on trust.” “It (demonetisation) undermines notes, it undermines bank accounts, it undermines the entire economy of trust. That is the sense in which it is despotic,” Prof. Sen told to a TV channel. The demonetisation experiment of Modi has disrupted the life of a nation without any debate, without consulting his colleagues, keeping even top functionaries in the dark, he has brought millions of Indians unaccountable miseries and forced them to suffer through. If human rights approach is applied to redress the situation, the government can be held accountable for the numerous violations occurred due to demonetisation. Norway-based Amit, our editor-at-large, analyses demonetisation and its impact through the framework of democracy and human rights-based approach in India.
On November 8, 2016, Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister, announced that all 500-and 1,000-rupee notes would be withdrawn immediately from circulation. It was justified as a move designed to fight corruption, terrorism, and target people who have been dodging taxes by holding stockpiles of cash, known in India as black money.
Now we know neither corruption has stopped, nor terrorism and black money. Needless to say, chaos, confusion, loss of lives and livelihood characterise current situation in the context of demonetisation. Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has called the Narendra Modi government’s demonetisation move “despotic action that has struck at the root of the economy based on trust.”
“It (demonetisation) undermines notes, it undermines bank accounts, it undermines the entire economy of trust. That is the sense in which it is despotic,” Prof. Sen told to a TV channel1.
The demonetisation experiment of Modi has disrupted the life of a nation without any debate, without consulting his colleagues, keeping even top functionaries in the dark, he has brought millions of Indians unaccountable miseries and forced them to suffer through.
Indian Democracy in Peril
The founders of modern India believed in the democratic constitution and political institutions all adhered to democratic beliefs. Democracy, one might say, is the national ideology of India as Robert Dhal says (On Democracy, p.159). There is no other. Weak as India’s sense of nationhood may be, it is so intimately bound up with democratic ideas and beliefs that few Indians advocate a nondemocratic alternative. However, current Indian political scenario tells different story – now we have Indian Prime Minister, who has been leaning towards dictatorship and disregard for basic democratic principles such as free expression, human rights and people’s participation in decision-making
Mere election of political leadership does not qualify India as a pure democracy until unless people are involved in decision making and all human rights are respected, protected and full-filled. A large number of people living below poverty line, hunger-deaths, police-torture, lack and access to basic amenities such as quality education, clean drinking water, employment, along with health care and protection of minorities, put a question mark on democracy and international human rights obligation of India.
A democratic country must comply with its essential principles such as rule of law, good governance, fulfilling its international human rights obligation, accountability and transparency, and people’s participation in decision-making, particularly decision that affect people’s lives deeply.
However, keeping the despotic decision on demonetisation, which has suddenly imposed on Indian citizens on November 8, 2016, further, seriously has damaged Indian democracy. The decision on demonetisation was arbitrary and without people’s consent thus making it undemocratic and despotic. In this context, it would be interesting to note minimum criteria for a nation to be called a democratic nation.
Minimum Standard of Democracy
Robert Dhal, a legendary American political thinker in his book, ‘On Democracy’ sets five minimum criteria (or lowest standard) for a nation to qualify to be a democratic nation. These are:
1. Effective participation: Before a policy is adopted by the association; all the members must have equal and effective opportunities for making their views known to the other members as to what the policy should be.
2. Voting equality: When the moment arrives at which the decision about policy will finally be made, every member must have an equal and effective opportunity to vote, and all votes must be counted as equal.
3. Enlightened understanding: Within reasonable limits as to time, each member must have equal and effective opportunities for learning about the relevant alternative policies and their likely consequences.
4. Control of the agenda: The members must have the exclusive opportunity to decide how and, if they choose, what matters are to be placed on the agenda. The policies of the association are always open to change by the members, if they so choose.
5. Inclusion of adults: All, or at any rate most, adult permanent residents should have the full rights of citizens that are implied by the first four criteria.
Notable is the fact that decision on demonetisation and its (manner) implementation has violated most of the democratic standards set by Robert Dhal. Neither there was people’s consensus, voting or discussion before the implementation of demonetisation. The whole process of demonetisation was kept confidential (on the pretext of secrecy) and later shrouded in mystery and policy confusion.
In addition, the arbitrary manner in which demonetisation is imposed, also violates basic norms of human rights. Usually, in evolved democratic model a human rights-based approach is applied to the functioning of the government to measure the efficacy of its function and to hold government accountable.
Human Rights-based Approach
A human rights-based approach is a conceptual framework for the process of human development that is normatively based on international human rights standards and operationally directed to promoting and protecting human rights. As we will see further, painful process of demonetisation did not follow human rights-based approach in its implementation since decision was neither based on people’s consensus nor transparent, also, government was not prepared to deal with the situation in the aftermath of demonetisation and shrugged off its responsibility to help people in need (lack of responsibility and accountability on the part of government).
Average poor and lower middle-class Indian was made to suffer for no fault of his/her own. Approximately hundred ordinary people lost their life standing in the queue outside banks or ATMs while most of the well-connected elites and politicians got their new currency delivered at home.
Needless to say, arrogance and arbitrary work style of (way demonetisation was implemented) Prime Minister Modi clearly undermines the principles of human rights and democracy.
Demonetisation Affecting People’s Lives
Consumer goods sales are reported to have dropped by one-third. Farmers have difficulty buying seeds and fertilizer and selling crops and perishable produce. The fishing industry is close to collapse. Few villages have ATMs and having to trek into cities and wait in line for hours means the loss of daily wages — as it does for the rickshaw drivers, street vendors, domestic workers and daily labourers in the cities. The construction industry has been badly hit with significant wage implications for its casual workforce.
If human rights approach is applied to redress the situation, the government can be held accountable for the numerous violations occurred due to demonetisation.
People have right to compensation – those whose businesses have suffered small or big, libel to get compensation from the government.
Those people spent hours in ATM queue to withdraw their money, must get monetary compensation for the working time wasted in ATM line, including compensation for their business loss, too.
Those people died in ATM queue, fairly deserve to get monetary compensation from the government.
Migrant workers who lost their job, due to demonetisation, must get monetary compensation from the government.
The government sponsored media censored news of protest and violence of people due to the demonetisation, needs to be scrutinised since freedom of expression been restricted by the government.
The government can be held accountable for the chaos, confusion and people’s misery erupted after the decision on demonetisation. By invoking nationalism (by the Prime Minister) to sacrifice people their interest will not free Modi from his constitutional duty to respect and protect the democratic and human rights obligation to the people. However, it was common folk who suffered due to the arbitrary demonetisation decision, not the rich, elites and political leaders. Lullaby of nationalism was thrust upon common people while rich and elite never joined the chorus. It was ordinary folk who spent hours in ATM line and gone through pain and agony, not the rich and powerful.
Since the decision on demonetisation was arbitrary and without any parliamentary approval and debate thus the Prime Minister has violated basic rule of law and democratic framework. The foundation of democracy is based on people’s consent, particularly decision affecting people’s lives. Not only the sudden decision on demonetisation, but also the forced eviction of tribal’s in Orissa and Chhattisgarh, due to government mining project doesn’t meet international human rights standards and minimum democratic principles. Notable in this context is Modi’s avoidance to debate in parliament on demonetisation is a sheer disregard to the foundational principles of democracy. Thus, it is apparent current Indian government is sliding towards dictatorship by ignoring democratic principles and parliamentary democracy.
Eminent human rights activist, Dr. Lenin Reghuvanshi considers ‘demonetisation’ a violation of the right to private property and right to make choice. He believes the decision on demonetisation is related with the emerging fascism.
Finally, it can be said, demonetisation may have achieved some political agenda by a political party; however, this decision clearly failed Indian democracy and violated human rights norms. The government’s decision on demonetisation was arbitrary, undemocratic, its implementation was ruthless and people left no choice but to waste long hours in ATM line – in the process – some died, some complied. The disasters and tragedy that occurred in aftermath of demonetisation cannot be undone, but, only bitter lessons can be learned and mistakes to be avoided for future. The government must compensate to those suffered due to demonetisation. The process of demonetisation has dehumanised the ordinary folk and shook the very foundation of democratic principles.
1 http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/Amartya-Sen- terms-demonetisation- a-despotic-action/article16730675.ece
Photos from the internet.
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Amit Singh is a human security and social justice expert. He is a doctoral candidate at University of Coimbra, Portugal; hold master degrees in history, human rights, and multiculturalism. He is a columnist for several newspapers in Norway and India.