Monday, December 12, 2016

Where we share a few anecdotes about this whole demonetization thing

I was rushing to an offsite meeting, when a news alert popped up on my phone, saying Modiji was about to give a live news conference. I texted the family, in case they wanted to watch. I walked into the meeting room, put my stuff down, and since we were still waiting for one or two people, figured I'll go get myself a cup of tea. As I was walking out of the room, another news alert popped up on my phone, making me gasp out loud, and making everyone in the room to turn and stare at me questioningly. Turned out, Modiji had just announced all 500 and 1000 rupee notes were illegal tender, effective in three hours.

The parents were staying with me in Amreeka at the time. They landed back in Delhi a week after the sky fell on all our heads, and decided they should try and exchange some money at the airport, because who knew what the situation outside would be. When I called them, some 4-5 hours later, thinking they'd be home by then, they were still waiting in queues, because of the four currency exchange counters at Delhi's International Arrivals area, one was open. But what infuriated the father the most? This counter, that was operated by a public sector bank, was giving an exchange rate 10% worse than what the exchange rate actually was.

I landed in Delhi a few days later. Now, I have been a huge fan of credit cards since I started my first job, and realised that using a credit card meant I could a, earn some interest by leaving money in my bank account till it was time to pay my card bill (because Indian banks actually give you some interest), and b, I could earn reward points for all card purchases. So for me, using my credit card wherever I possibly could was a no-brainer for the one week I spent in India. And my parents are also in the incredibly privileged position of being able to decide whether they want to go to Mother Dairy and pay cash, or to the grocery store in the market and pay a little more for milk and vegetables, but be able to pay by card. But that doesn't work everywhere. You still need cash to deal with the autowallas, or the electrician repairing your iron, or the sweets shop you've been having pani puri at for decades.

And there was, quite simply, no cash.

Our neighbourhood market has branches of three different banks, and ATMs of at least another half dozen. On any given day, only one bank would have cash available in their branch and/or ATM. And you knew which one had by cash by seeing the mile long queue that would be outside. We went everyday to check, and only one day did the father manage to withdraw some cash - and only because on that particular day, the bank that had cash had opened a separate senior citizens' line, and he now qualifies for those.

If a bank didn't have cash, they also had no clue when they would have cash. They didn't know when they would receive any.

My parents and I were fortunate enough to be able to choose to use other forms of payment to a large extent. My grandmother? Not so much. She lives alone in Kolkata, and I was able to go see her for a day this time. She hasn't used a bank account in decades, and is almost entirely dependent on the cash her children give her. And so her entire savings suddenly turned worthless, till one of her children could come and swap it out for her. The woman who takes care of her is in an even worse position - she has no bank account, no ID proof to open a bank account, and therefore she has no clue what to do now.

Look, I think it's fairly obvious to anyone who knows me at all, or y'know, reads any of my rants, that I am not, have never been, and never will be a fan of Modiji or the party he belongs to. I was devastated in 2014 when he became PM, but there was also a part of me that wanted to be proven wrong about him, that he would be good for India. Simply because being right wouldn't help anyone, would it now?

When this demonetization thingummy was first announced, I thought it might be a good thing. Black money and corruption is a serious issue in India, and if this was the best way to tackle things, I was all for it. But in the weeks since, talking to people, reading various viewpoints, and quite simply, seeing how this has been implemented is leaving me completely disinclined to believe this will do any long-term good.

I can understand trying to keep this policy shift a secret till you're ready to go, so the people you're after could genuinely be taken unaware. And I'm not going to get into whether certain business houses were kept in the loop in the weeks leading up to this, because meh. But how do you not realise just how cash you would need to replace for the the average person trying to lead their lives? And plan for it accordingly? And when you realise you haven't planned things out correctly, is it really that hard to come out and admit you messed up? Instead, we have a PM who refuses to come to Parliament to listen to the Opposition, a Finance Minister who keeps repeating this is how we'll go after black money, and an RBI governor who basically came out and said something to the effect that only dishonest people were facing trouble in this new world. Yes, because every single person in Gurgaon who had no cash because the damn banks have no cash is dishonest. Thanks, you guys.

What's been equally exasperating is the way things keep shifting on you. First they said they'd accept old notes at government run hospitals and petrol pumps till December 15, then they said this only applied to the 500-rupee notes, not the 1000-rupee notes. Then on December 1, they announced this would be only till December 2, not the 15th.

What a complete shit show.

I am told things are marginally better in the week since I came back from India, but not completely. I honestly don't know how long this shortage of cash is going to continue; I do think anyone who thinks it's a matter of weeks, rather than months, is being overly optimistic.

But I would be happy to be wrong about this.

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