On Tuesday 8th November 2016 just after 8pm IST (Indian Standard Time), while I was busy in my office in India uploading files and checking emails, I heard my boyfriend’s voice from the living room – “What useless rubbish is this?” exclaimed Mr D.
A TV programme Mr D had been watching was interrupted for a live televised announcement by Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister, declaring that all ₹500 and ₹1,000 notes would no longer be legal tender. Mr Modi was giving everyone 30 minutes notice. Yep, you read that correctly. Thirty minutes notice on a major nationwide-sweeping action. With the slash of his mouth he had caused long-ranging disquiet. He then babbled on for around an hour about the reasoning behind the apparently impetuous demonetisation declaration.
Mr D and I sat and watched in disbelief as the information was relayed across a host of different TV stations, both English-speaking and Tamil. We looked at each other opened mouthed, quizzical, not immediately comprehending what was going on. Was this action for real? Was this news some kind of joke? How could cash we’d been using for years suddenly, in the space of 30 minutes, become useless? What stroke of lunacy was this by Modi and his government? Why so little notice? How the hell was this political stunt going to deal with black money? As we digested the facts as they presented on our TV screen we realised this was not a hoax, this was a true event. Our disbelief and consternation were compounded because we had significant plans for the following day (Wednesday 9th November).
Mr D had been to the bank earlier in the day to withdraw enough cash for both of us. Up until Mr Modi’s announcement, we felt we had got ourselves adequately prepared for our important excursion to the city. But there, on our TV screen, Mr Modi had just made life difficult for us – and the whole of the 1.34 billion population of India. We cared less that all banks and ATMs would be closed the next day – but we did care that in one fell political swoop and we were lumbered with a load of useless ₹500 notes.
All in however, the next day we travelled, ate and went about our intended business without too much worry or hassle. Many of the businesses we visited allowed us to pay using our bank cards. One thoughtful and business-savvy restaurant owner agreed to take and give us change for a ₹500 note for our lunch. Nevertheless we returned home with our wallets full of now illegal cash and, more crucially, down by a few precious ₹100s. True to the notifications, all banks and ATMs were closed so we never saw what took place the following day – queues everywhere as people attempted to deposit illegal notes or, more necessarily, withdraw low-denomination cash.
Watching the TV images of lines of people at banks and post offices across the country I considered the fact that Mr D easily and successfully managed to deposit our ₹500 notes on Thursday afternoon. But we were still very much reliant on the few ₹100 notes we had left. I, like countless others, raided my coin tin and was delighted to find several ₹5 coins and even a couple of ₹10 coins in amongst the silver. I’m still holding on to them though. Not having an Indian bank account I am reliant on ATMs. Where we live, in a small town out in the sticks, we are both blessed and cursed by the inoperable ATMs.
We are blessed not to live in a city where there are more people needing access to cash. TV images show interminably long queues at all the banks where some people have reportedly been standing in line for up to eight hours. A few bank branches are dispensing new ₹2,000 notes (although if you’re unable to get change, they are, quite frankly, fairly useless at this early stage of the mayhem) and some ATMs are working, if only for a short time until the insufficient quantity an ATM’s cash cassettes of ₹100 notes run out. On the flip side, our curse is that being in a small town of about 145,000 people means our ATMs will be among the last to be up and working. Mr D has been out everyday to find out if any ATMs in our town are yet working, but nothing as yet. And when they are, they’ll surely be out of the necessary readies almost immediately as ATM operatives struggle to keep up with the intense demand.
So we too are going to have to join a queue at one of our local banks – and standing in queues is something I loathe. When I see a queue for something I’d planned to use or see, I walk away without hesitation. The only queues I tolerate are at supermarket check-outs and waiting for a bus, otherwise I’m outta there. Although I don’t have an Indian bank account, the fact is Mr D is going to have to go to his bank and get us some cash.
Modi has claimed that ordinary people will not suffer. But that statement is already being proved erroneous. The media is reporting that people are stocking up on tinned and dry foods, ATMs are unlikely to be fully functional for at least two weeks, people’s wallets are empty of legal tender, businesses unable and unwilling to accept banned notes – all of that seems to me to be a form of suffering everyone is experiencing. Everyone but Modi and those who already trade in the black market economy I’m sure.
As has been reported elsewhere, India is a cash economy so the news that regular folk are the ones bearing the brunt of this sudden change in the rules is no surprise, that outcome is as assured as the sun rising and setting each day. How Mr Modi expects to put an end to black market money mills is curious to me. He has asked for patience, for everyone to wait until December 31st before castigating him for this actions, but the truth is, I’m certain, like everywhere in the world, those who successfully deal in a black market economy, especially in a country as cash-dependent as India, are probably five steps ahead of the government.
So let’s see, as he says, what the state of play will be come December 31st. Who really will be the winners, the losers, and those laughing all the way to their offshore bank accounts behind the backs of their low-paid, highly inconvenienced workers and staff. As for me, I’m either going to have to go on a Modi-instigated weight-loss regime due to a lack of food, or swallow my queue-dissing pride and line up like thousands of other people are doing every day.
In the meantime we have been fortunate. Mr D’s various forages for food and supplies have been successful: a few vegetables for a few rupees; other items secured on credit by those small businesses who know and trust us to return with cash as and when we’ve got it. Despite the many frustrations of everyone in this unexpected and inconvenient situation, the beautiful thing I can take from it all is that we are still surrounded by people being kind and generous-hearted at a time of difficulty for everyone across this truly incredible land.