Thoughtlessness run riot

There have been media reports that the Centre is toying with the idea of making digital payment compulsory for across-the-counter sale of medicine by pharmacies. But now it is not a matter of speculation. The Drug Controller-General of India (DGCI) has ‘requested’ his West Bengal counterpart to introduce the cashless system in all wholesale and retail medicine shops. In fact, he has gone a step ahead and directed that the progress made in this direction be reported every month. This is thoughtlessness run riot. To take a simple example, the price of a strip of ten 500 mg tablets of paracetamol--a common pain-killer–is Rs.13.50.  A single tablet is sold at Re. 1. How can a poor – or even a middle class – man having no ATM card --- buy a couple of paracetamol tablets in a cashless way? 

The Union Finance Ministry and the Reserve Bank of India have, since November 8, revised or amended their orders more than a hundred times. Almost daily there is a fresh order amending or cancelling a previous order which might have been issued just the previous day. It shows how a huge misadventure named demonetization was embarked upon without any prior thought or anticipation of its wide and varied impact on every segment of the economy. Gradually the demonetization discourse changed – from unearthing black money and punishing black money hoarders to introducing a cashless society overnight.

The Government has failed to come out with the name of a single black money hoarder anywhere in the country who has been caught in ‘operation demonetization’ and sent to jail. Instead what is seen is an unending wait before bank counters and ATMs for small money by the common man. On the other hand lower level bank officials are being arrested every day for smuggling out huge wads of new currency notes to unscrupulous businessmen, traders and touts. Nobody says they are not guilty. But is it to catch and punish such small fry that the country was thrown into the throes of demonetization?

The search in the residence of Tamil Nadu Chief Secretary will only make bureaucrats of non-BJP-ruled States hesitant to carry out orders of their chief ministers and other ministers for fear that they may thus incur the displeasure of the Centre and be made targets on one pretext or  another. Once again the same question crops up: was the idea of demonetization conceived for punishing the aberrant or deviant members of the bureaucracy? It may take quite some time to assess the negative impact of this thoughtless step on the economy, from farm production to GDP growth, but no doubt the cost will be heavy. 

Friday, 23 December, 2016