How A Tweet Questioning The Health & Fitness Levels In India Got Misquoted As ‘Privilege’ & ‘Lack Of Empathy’

Acting against conventional wisdom that I should refrain from posting tweets that tend to get read differently from their intended meaning or have a different context than what seems obvious, I did this.

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Within 5 seconds of posting this, I knew I had dun goofed. Not because I regretted saying what I did. But because I knew that tweet left a gap wide open to be misread, misquoted and taken out of context. And there it was. Hate comments started pouring in. People with 10 times my followers started manually retweeting the tweet with their own wisecrack about it, and someone even asked if I was “getting paid” for it. I knew a Pandora’s box had been opened. Though, the unsaid rule of Twitter is to not feed the trolls and understand that most people are not as offended by your tweet as much it’s an opportunity for them to garner some RTs by trolling you, I knew I couldn’t let go of this. Because it’s not nice that someone accuses you of “being privileged” or lacking sympathy when it’s totally the opposite. ( I’m okay with being called ‘stupid’.)

So, let me explain. Over the last 2 weeks, since PM Modi announced the landmark, if controversial, demonetization policy, the initial public support and “wah wahi” has quickly turned into dissent. Cases of public being inconvenienced, marriages breaking up, people committing suicides and “death by standing in an ATM” have been breaking out all over media. ( Even though curiously, most of the polls whether by a supporting or opposing media have seen majority vote ‘support’ for the move.)

We know, that this move was purported to fight corruption, circulation of fake currency in the market, and as a necessary byproduct of invalidating 70% of currency, encouraging a digital and cashless economy. Reasons, on the face of it, noble enough for the average person like me to support it. But like with every policy as drastic as this, it’s come with its fallouts. Which I’m well aware of and not trying to look past.

While  public inconvenience and distress was more or less expected, things get serious when deaths are involved. The thing with deaths is, you can’t be objective about it. People’s emotions are involved, and rightly so. 10 deaths are 10 too many, 1 death is one too many.  So, my tweet that questioned the health and fitness levels of people who have been collapsing to their deaths touched nerves, and that’s ok. What I didn’t mean to do was though, trivialise the deaths or mock old age, but highlight two things.

 

1.  Health is a bigger issue here

Much unlike what clickbait headlines will have you believe, “standing in long ATM queues’ isn’t the cause, but the trigger. If you can die *just* because of standing in an ATM queue then yes health and fitness levels are an issue. People who have died from standing in the queues is because they were old, in frail health and/or had dangerously low fitness levels. Noone in an ideal world should be dying from standing for long. Feeling dizzy, tired perhaps, but not dying. Death from standing is serious, and should draw attention to the bigger issue.  Are we so frail as a nation that physical activity that happens suddenly does us in? Shouldn’t we as a country ( Outside of all the cash and demonetization issue) aim to be fitter, more health conscious and above all prioritise physical activity on a regular basis so the one time we HAVE to do it, we don’t succumb? If today they’re made to stand at ATMs because of one policy, tomorrow it could be to collect essentials outside a ration shop, or to “get darshan” of a deity at a local religious function. Have you heard of people who have died from trying to do “chaar dhaam ki yatra” in their old age. Why are we not angry then, that people prioritise being pious over their health? In some cases, the poor people have no choice but to stand in queues because they need the cash immediately. These cases are rare, but they exist. 

And if people who are in ill-health and in danger of collapsing due to standing for long, then we need to step in. Banks need to provide seating outside ATMSs, station water dispensers. Temporary labour employed by the banks to stand in for a certain age group could be considered.  In fact banks are already doing a good job of having special days for senior citizens. Adult children of old people should volunteer to withdraw money for them. Heck, you and I, can volunteer to help out. But are we? With a move this drastic, we all need to step in to make it easier for everyone. Airing opposition on social media just fuels blind hatred.

2. Media bias

Every death being attributed to ‘standing in ATM queues’ isn’t a result of the standing itself, but because of other causes that were for furthering political agendas were misquoted or amplified to make the government look like absolute devils. I’ve read status msgs, I’ve read reports, and I’ve also read confessions from people who have been at the receiving end of the ‘ATM crisis’ that the family members they lost was not during the ATM queue or because of it, but because of other issues like heart attacks, accidents and murders in some cases. By simplifying a death by demonizing demonization you’re feeding these political trolls who seek to garner public support and stoke rage against the government by playing sympaths. Take for example Mamta Bannerjee who’s suddenly the champion of the old and poor, when farmers in her own state die. Also, the fact that West Bengal, of which she’s chief minister, is amongst the poorest states in India. Aravind Kejriwal is having a field day villfying the government. Kejriwal who rose to fame because of his claims to fight corruption.  Liberal media outlets like Scroll, Huffington Post and others are playing up deaths and misery, without carrying a single piece on the positives of the move. ( My favourite is how robberies have come down because no cash to steal. :P) . I also absolutely refuse to buy reports of “demonetization deaths” from the same media outlet that instead of lamenting an open case of  dowry, glorifies it by blaming the government for “breaking up a wedding.”

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Calling out logical fallacies in the demonetization is welcome, using it as a bait to further agendas and ‘anti national’ feelings isn’t.

3. Hypocrisy involved

Some of the worst critics of the demonetization policy tend to cite the plight of the common man and the poor who’re suffering at the hands of it. Interestingly, many of the same people are people who ill-treat their maids, are rude to waiters, and think nothing about haggling with the poor for a a few rupees while shopping. Why, some people I personally know consider it a skill to drive the best “bargain” at a local market even if it comes at the cost of some poor person being forced to sell at low price because he has mouths to feed. Same parallels? Not the same thing I agree, but perhaps, having sympathy for the poor will be a lot stronger if it was followed with action.

Just to quote an example, we have a house help in our house, whose services we don’t really need, but we have him because the man’s poor and in need of a job. Similarly, in my brother’s office, we support a lot of immigrant labour and help them earn a respectable living. I’ve never personally ‘looked away’ or held contempt for a beggar and tried to help them with food or money (if they’re old or genuinely handicapped) I try to put my money or my labour where my mouth is. Empty words on social media are easy.

4. Economic ramifications

I’m not sure at this point anyone in the country can really predict if demonetization will help. At best, we’re  all speculating. Some parties would choose to stay optimistic and cite the millions of cash that’s been deposited into banks the last 2 weeks. The same cash will help banks mobilise funds to lend to public at lower rates and lend to the government to go towards government projects. (What you call bonds) This, to my mind, from how much economics I know, is good for the economy. Plus, when you encourage the country to open bank accounts, instead of hoarding cash, you’re also creating a habit of earning on their savings and investments. Cash lying in suitcases and storerooms isn’t good for anyone. And that black money hoarders are going to be wary going forward, is a reasonable assumption to make. And all this will come at a collateral damage. No constructive activity ever happens without winners and losers. Do we know how many poor people lose their lives at construction of skyscrapers that become our homes, offices and malls? Do we know how many people die on the road because some rich fuck had to speed? Or simply how many poor people suffer because we choose to buy from supermarkets and ecommerce stores instead of local vendors. It’s a sad reality. The poorest always lose.  

Do I believe that the government should have planned this better? Absolutely. Do I think that demonetization is the sole cause of every problem plaguing India? No. If anything, it’s bringing to light, just how deep our troubles run.

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