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The New Demonetisation Notification Could Well Be The Gold Standard Of Sexist Stereotypes

Almost a month after announcing the demonetisation drive, the government still seems to be making decisions on the fly.

02/12/2016 4:16 PM IST | Updated 02/12/2016 4:51 PM IST
Ajay Verma / Reuters
A salesgirl shows a gold necklace to customers at a jewellery showroom in the northern Indian city of Chandigarh November 11, 2012.

Not long ago Baba Ramdev said, to much general merriment, that the BJP probably did not realize their demonetisation drive was happening in the middle of the wedding season.

"Many in the BJP are bachelors and they did not realize it was wedding season, that was the mistake," Ramdev quipped. We laughed then. But perhaps Ramdev had a point in a larger sense.

Almost a month after announcing the demonetisation drive, the government still seems to be making decisions on the fly, announcing new measures every day to plug loopholes left unattended, announcing deadlines one day and reneging on them the next.

The ever-changing procession of rules, amendments, U-turns points to a government that seems hopelessly out of touch with the day-to-day reality of ordinary lives. Surely the government knew that having nothing in between a Rs 100 and a Rs 2000 would cause havoc and hoarding. Or maybe it did not.

Mid-course corrections, say diehard fans of the government about the latest changes. But when mid-course corrections happen every day it is no longer mid-anything. It's a daily zig-zag.

The latest announcement of gold and jewellery limits is another perfect example of information that delivers more confusion than clarity. The government has said married women can have up to 500 grams of gold jewellery, unmarried women can have up to 250 grams and men can have 100 grams.

First off, as many have wondered on social media, where does that leave poor Bappi Lahiri?

And God forbid, that a single woman who likes her jewellery, might have spent years building up her own collection. Now she must explain it.

But on a more serious note, the government is setting into regulation the idea that a single woman with too much gold jewellery is somehow suspect. While it might be true that much of gold jewellery comes as wedding trousseau, it's also true much comes via inheritance.

And God forbid, that a single woman who likes her jewellery, might have spent years building up her own collection. Now she must explain it. It's one thing to have a stereotype about who should wear gold jewellery or not, it's another thing to turn that stereotype into regulation. This could well be the gold standard of sexist stereotypes. It also adds to the general sense that in India right now you are guilty until proven innocent whether it comes to the money you stashed under your mattress or the jewellery you kept in your locker even if most of it was perfectly legitimate and accumulated over years and years.

And what about hijras? Where will they fit into these rules?

Actually there's almost something tempting about the prospect of a harried IT official trying to lock horns with the family matriarch about her jewellery. What do you mean I have to prove this came from my long-dead grandmother, sir? What's proof?

The government also realized that the new jewellery rules could cause immense panic around the country. So it moved quickly to try and assuage fears. It has said there is no limit in holding gold jewellery by anybody if they can prove it was acquired through inheritance or through other explained sources of income. But again, to add to the confusion, it did not say how it was going to determine which necklace was inherited from the great-grandmother vs bought at the local jewellery shop days after the demonetisation. How does one prove inheritance anyway in our sprawling family trees?

Actually there's almost something tempting about the prospect of a harried IT official trying to lock horns with the family matriarch about her jewellery. What do you mean I have to prove this came from my long-dead grandmother, sir? What's proof? A black-and-white photograph from a wedding 40 years ago? This could add a whole new exciting plot twist to our hackneyed saas-bahu serials.

Rupak De Chowdhuri / Reuters
A woman is reflected in a mirror as she tries on a necklace at a jewellery showroom on Akshaya Tritiya, a major gold buying festival, in Kolkata, India, April 21, 2015. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri/File Photo

Not to worry, says the government. The officer conducting the search will still have the discretion not to seize gold jewellery based on certain other factors, like family customs and traditions.

But that's the rub. Why should anyone need to depend on the discretion of the investigating officer? In a country used to bribes, the very words "discretion of an officer" should bring up very red flags as pink as the 2000 rupee notes. Discretion is a dicey word in India given that we are seeing stories every other day of bank officials being held for money laundering for a commission as happened here and here and here.

This does not mean that the government should not pursue any strategy against ill-gotten money being hoarded away as gold. But it does mean that it has learned little from the many pitfalls and embarrassing moments seen in its pitiful communication about its rollout of the note-ban.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
NEW DELHI, INDIA - NOVEMBER 28: Delhi Congress workers protest during the Jan Aakrosh rally against demonetization of the Modi government, on November 28, 2016 in New Delhi, India. Minister of India Narendra Modi in an unscheduled live televised address to the nation on November 8, 2016 announced demonetisation of 500 and 1000 banknotes from midnight. (Photo by Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

In that case it seemed to have not quite foreseen the travails that would be faced for example by those getting married this season or the headaches faced by foreigners in India without access to bank accounts.

Even when it tried to create an exemption for them it put in onerous caveats for example having to document that each vendor being paid did not have the ability to accept cheques. But as a caterer said, cash being okayed for the couple did not help the caterer who might have taken on five wedding jobs that week and now faced a cash crunch in terms of delivering. The teeth pains of demonetisation look set to become a root canal as we struggle through the first pay day after the measure took effect.

Almost a month after announcing the demonetisation drive, the government still seems to be making decisions on the fly, announcing new measures every day to plug loopholes left unattended, announcing deadlines one day and reneging on them the next.

With the gold jewellery announcement the government wants to indicate that when it comes to corruption, it means business. The gold announcement is one more sign that it's serious when it comes to laying down the law. At least for today. Tomorrow it might change everything.

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