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Collateral Damages: Life Itself 

By Valson Thampu

That demonetization has inflicted collateral damages even the government admits outright. But there is little concern as to what the nature and scope of these collateral damages are.

The question needs to be asked: what are the core collateral damages that the country as a whole has suffered in the demonetization process? Where are we headed?

The effect of ‘damage’ is diminution. When anything is damaged it becomes less than itself. So, it is possible to assume that the collateral damage is that our savings and assets have become, de facto, less than itself in terms of our freedom to use them. They are ours, but not really ours. It is ours which is now theirs. Or, it is theirs which, we are told, could be ours within an unspecified period of time.

Another aspect of damage is vulnerability. If, in war, half your house is bombed, it is collateral damage. While you can use the portion of the house that still stands, you feel extremely vulnerable. You feel that the earth has shifted from beneath your feet.

It does not have to be argued that the banking system has taken a body blow in their credibility. How can citizens continue to trust banks in the wake of this alarming demonstration of their unreliability? Demonetization has taken banks perilously close to being black holes. The trust between the banks and citizens stands violated.

But none of these is the core damage. They are peripheral to the real damage that has happened, I am afraid, irretrievably. The most destructive and lamentable damage we have suffered is to life itself.

Today, as never before in human history, life is money! Or, money is our life. We are infected with a pathological and maniacal obsession with money. Money is the only one sun in our horizon. Herein lies the supreme irony. Only money matters in the proffered cashless society.

Nearly 90 people dying for cash is a symbolic statement. It means only one thing. Money has become more important than life itself.

Let us look this in the face. What is the most fundamental human duty? It is certainly not to sit and count cash. It is not to dream of the scope and size of long-term monetary bonanzas. It is to make life worthy of living. It is to lead meaningful lives. The legs of life have been broken in a single swish of the mallet of demonetization.

Banks have become the new temples of trans-religious worship. Life begins and ends at ATMS.

This is an insult! Money, in whatever form, should be only a small part of our life. Money, let us say, is like our heart, which is the best we can possibly say of it. Imagine living day after day, month after month obsessed only with the beating of your heart! Having to stand in queues days on end to have your hearts resuscitated and charged so that it can beat till the next day. Even a quack will tell you that it is a state of serious illness, not of health. But we insist on believing otherwise.

The problem with the modern man, Albert Einstein said decades ago, is that he prioritizes means to the neglect of goals. Life, for instance, does not matter; means for living are all that matter. You must have a glittering expensive watch; it does not matter if you cannot be punctual. You must arrive in style at the venue of the meeting; never mind if you have nothing to say.

I wonder why Shree Shree Ravishankar is quiet! What has happened to his Art of Living? How come it does not bother him that the very foundation of life, its humaneness, is being eroded? What has happened to the Indian spiritual vision of life? Have the fiery custodians of Indian culture gone to sleep or what?

The crippling effect of getting fixated with money as the sole driver and sustainer of life is that it blinds us to the larger dimensions of life and of our own personality. If money is all that matters, an underworld don should be respected several notches above a Nobel Laureate. If money is all that matters, corruption accorded the status of worship.

“If there is no God, wrote Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, “then anything is permissible.” Top on the list of the “permissible” is that money becomes our god. The cashless society, going by available trends, will be indistinguishable from a godless society; for it will be a society in which money will be invisible and uncontrollable like gods. If you think that this is the panic of a puppy priest, just wait.

Already we are vassals of money. In what sense? Our total human resources have shrunk to our wallets and bank accounts. The resources of mind, of heart and of the soul have sunk into irrelevance. Not many people draw from their vast and awesome non-monetary resources to enrich and celebrate life. Money enables us to be tourists. But we have become blind to the beauty of nature in our own back yard. Watching a sapling grow, sport a bud and, in course of time, a flower, is no longer within the range of our delights.

Finding disinterested delight, as Matthew Arnold said, “In the free play of ideas” is now alien to us. We have all but lost the honey and milk –the sweetness and nourishment- of relationships. We are utterly, utterly alone.

In all these respects we have progressed like crabs, as Shakespeare says, backwards!

We were already on the brink.

I resisted credit cards and debit cards, cell phones and other gizmos for the reason that they modify human behavior. Technology, in you don’t know, enslaves us. Modifies human nature. Credit cards, for instances, promote superfluous shopping and wasteful lifestyles. Cell phones compromise one’s concentration. On the one hand we promote Yoga because it improves one’s concentration. On the other hand, we crowd our lives with every imaginable avenues of distraction!

Finally, consider the collateral damage is to our freedom. We are now at the threshold of a society of unprecedented control and surveillance. Only the stupid will argue that surveillance is a problem only for law breakers.

It is of the same as saying that those who have no black money will not oppose demonetization. Come one, we are not that stupid! I will oppose demonetization if it means that my free and unfettered access to my hard earned money is obstructed. If I have to stand for days in queues or waste my life visiting banks. Especially when I know, based on set past patterns, that none of these exercises will benefit the common man.

Life will never be the same again. Henceforth we shall live by money and for money. Corruption will reach unprecedented levels. Measures to contain corruption will nudge us deeper and deeper –collateral damages again- into a police state, reminiscent of George Orwell’s novel 1984.

I am not blaming Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He is not god. Nor is he an economist. The tragedy is that we do not any longer have economists. Or if we have, they are on a long, long holiday. Those who pander to the powers that be, violating their conscience and compromising their professional integrity –the intelligentsia ever ready to sell their souls for a shoulder of mutton, as Christopher Marlowe says- should be called by a name other, except “economists.”

(Valson Thampu is former principal of St. Stephen’s College, Delhi)

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