Newsmaker: Lonely warrior

Tags: Newsmakers, Views
In his 20ft by 12ft shop in Delhi's Yusuf Sarai market, crammed with all the knick-knacks he thought had market demand, the shopkeeper was watching the news on television. There were lines of static across the screen and the snowy whiteness of a poor signal, bringing alive the charm of terrestrial TV, even though he had a cable connection. The small TV set had been kept on the top shelf, squeezed between a pile of paper plates wrapped in grimy cellophane and rolls of insulated wire. The display of goods was so chaotic it seemed no small miracle that he could actually find something when a customer asked. For the shopkeeper, watching the news with a mix of resignation and wariness, finding something was the least of his worries. He was thinking of staying afloat.

5 per cent, 12 per cent, 18 per cent, 28 per cent Goods and Services Tax or GST. It was finally here, even though he was not sure he had been waiting for it. He had been given no choice. As he looked around his shop, he wondered how much tax each item would attract. What would he charge for the paper plates, the incense sticks, the toothpaste, and the tomato sauce. And then, what would be charge for the single bottle of imported English mustard he had hoped he would give if a 'good customer' came to his shop. No one did. It was now just a month from its expiry date.

The shopkeeper had called his chartered accountant earlier in the day, only to be cut short. The man was attending class. There were some things he knew, though. The GSTN number was provisional but would do for now. On TV, revenue secretary Hasmukh Adhia, the most visible bureaucrat in a long time and in many ways also the public face of the GST rollout, was trying to calm nerves saying the 'small businessman' would not be harassed. All he had to do was upload details of his business transactions once a month.

The word 'upload' triggered in the shopkeeper a fear of the unknown, even though he barely made over Rs 30 lakh a year. At the municipal school he went to, no one knew how to work the one computer the school had.

The teacher would give details of the working of a computer on the blackboard to explain CPU, keyboard, software and programmes. He remembered some names like COBOL and BASIC. There was also something called ASCII. Upload was an altogether different ballgame. His college-going son uploaded pictures on Facebook while using his cheap Chinese-made android phone. But, here they were talking of Excel sheets and a mechanism that if you filled one form, two other forms would be 'autopopulated'. As for his chartered accountant, when he found time to take calls between classes, would talk of keeping a book of accounts. The shopkeeper watched the news on TV in sullen silence as the thoughts went through his mind.

Only months before, he had come face-to-face with an unexpected downturn. It was called demonetisation. It was like he had been put in H.G. Wells' time machine and sent hurtling into the future, into a new tomorrow that he had no idea how to face. His customers had disappeared. Suddenly, they had no cash to buy his goods. He had no cash either. MasterCard and Visa, even RuPay meant nothing beyond being newspaper advertisements to him. Not even PayTM. Because, till then there had never been any need to. The bank where he had an account had given him a debit card. He had memorised the PIN number, but had not destroyed the letter that had the passcode on it. At the time, when all his cash had turned to junk overnight, and he could only replace them in stages, he felt he had been dumped in a deep ditch and no one had bothered to throw him a rope. It was a fight against black money, he had been told. How much black money could a man selling paper plates, incense sticks and imitation steel utensils be making? Yet, there he was, fighting for survival. Somehow, he had crawled out, bought a POS machine to keep his customers. As summer approached, he thought he was back on his feet. He had suffered, as had his family, but now he wanted to look into the future.

And now there was GST. They had prepared him mentally for the GST launch, but after it had come, he was not sure that he was enjoying the fresh air of India's economic freedom, as had appeared after the midnight session of Parliament to launch it. Traders who were protesting in different parts of the country appeared to be saying the very same thing.

In Delhi's crowded bazaars, in Sadar Bazar, Chandni Chowk and Laxmi Nagar, and in Yusuf Sarai and Madan Gir, in Jwala Heri and Tilak Nagar, the small shopkeeper had always been considered the Bharatiya Janata Party's backbone. At election time, and there were many recently, including the municipal elections that the BJP won on the back of their support, he had enthusiastically voted for party which he considered his very own. Then why was he being asked to bear the brunt of the government's efforts to clean up the economy. That was for the big businessmen to sustain, the people that Adhia said the government was keeping an eye on.

Then, he looked around the shop and decided he had to move on, and prepare anew. That was the best thing to do. There could be no pauses in business, he had to learn and ride. The complaining would have to wait.

ananda.majumdar@mydigitalfc.com

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