The media was faulted both by supporters and opponents of demonetization. The former, which included BJP politicians, alleged that the media deliberately highlighted and thereby exaggerated the hardships demonetization had caused, and ignored the positive impact of this historical step. The latter made the by now routine allegation that the mainstream media had sold out by going euphoric over demonetization.
A survey of three newspapers - the Indian Express, Hindu and Hindustan Times - shows that they did their job professionally. Both their reportage and their editorials were fair to both sides. Along with their opinion pages, they covered varied and unusual aspects of the impact of demonetisation.
They tested every claim made by the government, checked the implementation of every new announcement, and reported from the remotest villages (`At last township on Myanmar border, they dread the new Rs 2,000 note’), `Cash reaches ATM in remote Bastar village, over within two hours’).
When the PM’s narrative shifted from getting rid of black money to bringing in a cashless society, these papers began exposing the meaning of `cashless’ and ``digital’’ on the ground. (Cashless in Gadchiroli-Pavan Dahat; Cashless? That’s a joke - Bashaarat Masood)
Reporters from all three papers spoke to sections of society normally left out of mainstream news: tea garden and construction workers, artisans, truck-drivers, dhaba owners and patrons, domestic workers, vegetable vendors and traders, and also transgenders, sex workers, victims of trafficking lodged in government shelters, pensioners, the differently abled, even Pakistani Hindu refugees in Rajasthan and Bangladeshis in Kolkata for medical treatment.
Among the more memorable stories was that by the Indian Express’ Sadaf Modak on an undertrial behind bars for three years who had been granted bail but could not leave because the court staff was not accepting old currency.
But one important section left out, at least in these three dailies, was women. Of course, many reports included the reactions of women as well as men. But on women exclusively, the Indian Express had just two brief reports; on self-help groups affected by the operations ban on District Cooperative Banks, and on housewives unable to buy daily necessities for lack of cash.
These papers also had quotes from leaders of women’s organisations. But was that enough? Milind Ghatwai’s report from Bhopal in the Express on February 7 about demonetisation having led to an increase in domestic violence would suggest that more attention needed to have been given to women.
This lacuna apart, the extensive coverage brought to light many facets of our country normally ignored by the press. It brought into the homes of urban, well-off readers, depictions of the fragility of life for the majority of Indians.
Throwing light on the invisible lives of the poor
Online comments from readers on such reports often showed empathy for the conditions under which this majority earns its living – the lack of minimum wages, job security, bank accounts or identification. These reports also showed how skewed towards urbanites are facilities that city-dwellers take for granted, specially banks, hospitals, public transport. And how all this taken together resulted in a single official decision derailing the lives of this majority- yet this decision remained irrevocable.
Report after report described the tumult into which the lives of the poor had been thrown by one diktat. Newspapers also reported the pleas that were made, even from within the government, the ruling party and its mentor the RSS, to reconsider or soften the diktat. But the powers that be remained by and large deaf and blind.
Reading the coverage, you wondered: weren’t these sections of people considered when the decision to suddenly withdraw Rs 1000 and 500 notes was taken? Apparently not. And they continued to be ignored. BJP functionaries, starting from the PM himself, were quoted mouthing self-congratulatory platitudes and even outright lies about ``sacrifice’’, ``long term gain’’, ``no disruptions’’, ``no panic’’. The reports revealed a disturbing usage of Hindu religious terminology to promote demonetisation: terms such as `yagna’ and `shuddhikaran’ were used, the first by the PM, the second by Union Minister Venkaiah Naidu.
So much hardship yet a BJP civic poll victory?
But the coverage by the press of the impact of demonetization also made you wonder about the victory of the BJP in the civic polls in five states that took place after November 8. Though many reports quoted people’s willingness to suffer the inconvenience caused by demonetization, the overall picture of misery and devastation didn’t prepare you for the way people voted. Even the BJP was afraid of the voters’ backlash in Chandigarh’s civic polls, reports said. Yet, it swept the polls.
Ramesh Vinayak in the Hindustan Times explained this victory by pointing out that demonetization wasn’t an issue in the civic polls. Local issues mattered more. Two articles in the Indian Express spoke about money having been responsible for the BJP’s victory in Maharashtra’s civic polls. While one simply reported an allegation by MNS chief Raj Thackeray that the BJP’s win was a ``victory of old notes, not of the note ban’’, the second was a report by Zeeshan Shaikh:`Maharashtra civil elections: Candidates woo voters with ‘old notes’’ in which both voters and candidates spoke openly about receiving and giving old currency for votes.
Adding credence to this report was the report quoting the BJP’s state chief Raosaheb Danveat at an election rally in Aurangabad: ``Lakshmi comes home a day before elections, accept it.’’ .
Scattered protests and scattered coverage
Looking at the coverage all at one go made one realize why most people felt surprised at the lack of protests against demonetization. There were reports of protests aplenty across the country. Most of these were organised by trade unions, political parties, traders’ organisations and in one case (Delhi), student bodies.There were also reports of spontaneous demonstrations by ordinary people,from Kerala to Bihar to West Bengal, frustrated by the hard wall of ``no cash’’ against which they were being forced to bang their heads. These mainly took the form of rasta rokos and attacks on banks and ATMs.
Yet, these were scattered reports of scattered protests. Given the largescale disruption of daily life caused by demonetization, it would have been difficult for any one leader to sustain a mass protest. The protestors could not have spent time on the streets when they had to queue up outside banks for their own money.
The Trinamool Congress’ massive rally in Kolkata and the CPI(M)’s700-km-long human chain stretching across Kerala were both reported. The Hindu carried the maximum number of reports of such protests by trade unions and political parties, even those held in small towns of the south.
But the media also brought out the disunity of the Opposition even on such a life-changing issue. Their statements showed that they disagreed on fundamentals such as the desirability of demonetization itself, with only Mamata Banerjee, Arvind Kejriwal and the CPI(M) questioning its efficacy in achieving the objectives declared by the PM.
Apart from the long queues, deaths and shortage of cash that dominated the news, some recurring themes marked the coverage of demonetization in these three papers.
The fallout on farmers. The demonetization announcement coincided with the period when the kharif crop had to be sold, and the rabi crop had to be sowed. Report after report showed that farmers were left with unsold crops and no cash to buy seeds and fertilizers for the new crop, or to pay farm workers. As one UP farmer told the Express’ Ramendra Singh, ``This is a very ill-timed decision. The PM should have avoided it at a time when farmers sow their land.’’ (`A month later, and only rich would have been affected’).
Didn’t the PM know this?Modi was to boast later that the rabi crop was unaffected. This Express report from Punjab explained the ironic reason why this happened – the farmers simply abandoned banks and took a step backwards; they turned to arthiyas or commission agents who gave them seeds and fertilisers on credit. (`Punjab farmers weather storm – with help from arhtiyas’ by Anju Agnihotri Chaba).
The impact on livelihoods of workers in cities. ``We never dealt in Rs 500 or Rs 1,000 notes before, yet we are suffering the most due to their absence,” Satish Bairagi, a 42-year-old daily wager earning around Rs 200 a day at the Berasia agriculture marketing yard, Bhopal, told Express reporter Milind Ghatwai.
This was the condition of workers across the country, as revealed by The Hindu’s series on industrial woes and demonetisation, and Sarah Hafeez’s many moving reports on Delhi’s workers in the Indian Express.
The ban on deposits and withdrawals in District Cooperative Banks. These arewhere most villagers have accounts. Almost every state government, whether ruled by the BJP, its allies or the Opposition, appealed against this ban, not only because politicians control these banks, but because the ban left villagers with no way to deposit or withdraw their money.
If there was one reporter who followed this story tenaciously, it was Partha Sarathi Biswas of the Indian Express in Pune. The Hindustan Times’ investigation into IT raids on these banks revealed that the highest deposit was made from November 8 to 11 by a cooperative bank headed by BJP minister Dileep Sanghani in Gujarat. (`Deposits in co-operative banks rose 6-fold in 4 days of note ban’ – Appu Esthose Suresh).
The impact on weddings in the wedding season. Anxious parents thronged banks with invitation cards to withdraw badly needed cash, only to be turned away. Some of these parents died waiting in line. The atmosphere in those homes as the wedding took place can only be imagined.
Patients in hospitals. It was a trying time for patients at hospitalsthat refused to accept old notes despite instructions from the government. Some children died because of that. Among the most moving stories was that by the Express’ Arun Sharma of a Kashmiri nomad who, despite having Rs 29,000 with him, could not get his son to a hospital in time, because no one accepted his money. (`Haroon and his valley of grief’).
The PILs filed against demonetization across the country. Reports of hearings in the Kolkata High Court and the Supreme Court gave hope to readers that the government would have to explain a lot. Very sharp questions were put by the judges; but the answers just never came. Ultimately, nothing came out of these hearings as the Supreme Court referred the matter to a Constitutional Bench.
Appeals to the PM and FM by individual CMs. These were appeals to ease the situation in their states. Allies of the ruling party such as the TDP could directly ask the RBI chairman for cash to be sent to AP, and get it done. On the other hand, an all-party delegation from Kerala led by CM P. Vijayan was refused an audience by the PM – reportedly the first time such a rejection had occurred.
The range of opposition to the scheme. Reports in these papers showed that while Mamata Banerjee, Arvind Kejriwal and the CPI(M) attacked it from day one, their styles were different. Mamata kept up her characteristic high-pitched attack as she travelled across the country. Arvind Kejriwal was equally shrill, but preferred to voice his criticisms in pointed, inconvenient questions asked at press conferences, small street corner meetings and tweets.
Kejriwal managed to unearth a video showing the BJP’S Meenakshi Lekhi having opposed demonization as a ``diversionary measure’’ during the UPA regime on the ground that it would hurt the ``illiterate and those with no access to banking facilities.’’ The CPI(M) held peasant rallies in Delhi, human chains across Kerala, moved a notice for a contempt motion against the PM in Parliament and also went to the Supreme Court against demonetisation.
Another constant voice of opposition was that of P. Chidambaram. Apart from his weekly column in the Express, the former finance minister spoke against demonetization at every forum available, substantiating his arguments with facts and figures.
Manmohan Singh’s speech in the Lok Sabha made big news. These papers also carried the views of former RBI governors and other economists who had held high positions, slamming demonetisation. The reservations of top industrialists, Ratan Tata and Adi Godrej, who had initially supported the move, were also reported.
However, the coverage of the PM’s speeches, which amounted to a continuous hardsell of his move, especially at election rallies in UP and Punjab, more than offset any critique. What remained in the mind were his emotional appeals, not Kejriwal’s allegations or Chidambaram’s reasoned arguments.
On the other hand, coverage of comments by BJP leaders and government officials only served to highlight their insensitivity. If attorney general Mukul Rohatgi told the Supreme Court: `` Some collateral damage has to happen’’, BJP national vice-president Vinay Sahasrabuddhe told reporters: ``People die waiting in line for ration too,’’ and Haryana CM Khattar could see only ``cheer on the faces of poor people’’.
The RBI’s secrecy and loss of autonomy. The rejection of the RTI application filed by activist Venkatesh Nayak wanting minutes of the RBI Board meeting which approved demonetization was reported in every paper. So was the silence of the RBI governor. Reporters didn’t fail to ask the Economic Affairs Secretary why it was he and not the Governor who was briefing the press. The papers noted the day Urjit Patel broke his silence - a full 19 days after the announcement.
The continuous raids on those with huge amounts of old and new currency. Income Tax officials told the Express that they were carrying out two raids a day. The coverage given to these raids went a long way in reassuring readers that the rich and corrupt were indeed being caught with black money, and the PM meant business. Names of BJP functionaries appeared in some of these reports.
Voluntary efforts. The voluntary efforts made by some authorities to help people could have become the norm had the government ordered all authorities to take such steps. Postal officials in Ludhiana and Delhi went to old age homes and hospitals to help the inmates exchange money. The Bahruch district collector helped organise farmers to sell their produce directly to customers.
But except for stray reports about Shiv Sainiks in Mumbai offering tea and snacks and Congress members offering water to those standing in line outside banks, there was no news about any party making the long wait easier for those worst affected though Uttar Pradesh CM Akhilesh Yadav did give compensation to the families of those who died in queues.
Some of the best stories:
To sum up, the press can be proud of a job well done. However, there was one sour note: a report in the Express titled ``Thank you Bhaiyya’’, narrated that reporters had congratulated the PM for demonetisation when he entered the Parliament Library building on the eve of the Winter Session. But, by then, their own colleagues had reported enough stories of devastation.
“We are poor people,” said Mithun Lohan, a tea garden worker at Dhumchipara. “I don’t think the government realises how poor we are. We get rice at Rs 2 per kg from the state. But even then it is difficult for us to ensure that we’ve enough money to buy food for our family. If we miss a day’s work to go to an ATM or a bank that means a loss of Rs 120 for me. I can’t afford that.”
We’re selling flowers at the price of dirt. Soon, we won’t even have the money to feed ourselves. If the government thinks I am a criminal because I am taking old notes to feed myself, let them do so. I have no choice,” said Ali Sheikh, a florist from Hooghly.
A Russian diplomat said, “We are not begging...we want access to our own money."
``The government has stopped exchange of old notes. The factory owner has given me around Rs 7,000 in old notes, which I cannot exchange. I do not have a bank account either. No one is accepting these notes. What do I do? Burn them?” said Rajesh, one of the 70 workers in an export house, which fired 280 people last month.