A #RushForCash Update: Feeling Blessed, Cynical, Sheepish (but not necessarily in that order)

Queues at ATMs and Banks Continue
Some ten days following the demonetisation of ₹1,000 and ₹500 notes, queues outside ATMs and at banks continue throughout India. This morning’s TV news revealed that banks would only be dealing with senior citizens today. I’m sure the intention behind this was laudable; give room and space for the elderly to do their banking without the aggression and tensions of younger generations jostling them. But consider this – most people have older citizens in their family. Are they going to be pressured into carrying out their family’s banking when they had no intention of putting themselves through that ordeal today?

Locally, the closest SBI ATM has the longest queues ever. Ordinarily the most a queue has ever been is one other person ahead of me. Now, the queue does indeed trail away from the building, along the forecourt, across the access point of a government compound and down the road. The people standing in that queue are bunched up and almost heel-to-toe with one another. A sight unseen.

Cash-Ready Again (Feeling Blessed)
Given all the sites and sights of awful, seemingly interminable queues, I am almost in disbelief about the ease with which we acquired our own stash of much-needed dosh. The cash I pictured in my last post came about because we have access to a non-SBI (State Bank of India) bank branch and in a small town. This, I feel, truly is our blessing. Others are not so lucky. The SBI is a major player in the Indian banking world. Even on an ordinary day mid-week, the local SBI is mobbed with people. Chaos or some version of disorganised activity is the norm. During the current circumstances the situation can only be even more awful for both customers and staff alike. Our good fortune is that on one side we have not had to go through the ordeal of endless queues with people in varying degrees of distress or impatience and on the other to being cash-ready again.

The Masterstroke behind the Apparent Masterstroke? (Feeling Cynical – and a little Sheephish)
While watching the morning news programme, with its ongoing surfeit of coverage about the Demonetisation Debacle that continues across India (there were indeed other Breaking News items in the mix – but I’m sticking with the one item for this post), I considered a possible turn-around on my opinion of Mr Modi’s ‘Masterstroke’. As any right-minded person knows, one can surely not be expected to take the word of a politician at face value. Ergo, the claim that the current ruling party (BJP – Bharatiya Janata Party) acted radically to attack the black market economy can definitely be seen through highly-critical eyes. The suspicious amongst us (that’ll definitely be me) are wondering what is the truth behind the BJP’s motivation. Here’s what I reckon is one reason, one part of the current government’s agenda if you like.

India is frequently cited as a fast emerging economy. Yet a huge proportion of its citizens do not own a bank account, and many do not have the appropriate or accurate ID cards in order to legitimise any chance of changing or depositing their now worthless currency. As this is the case in India, a country striving for global legitimacy, any government can see that to help the country increase its growth and prosperity it needs as many of its citizens to be up-to-speed with current business practices. Most of the world is now online in some way. India has a huge mobile network and many people will have smartphones even where they continue to live in mud huts. Surely, then, to coerce, or rather force, people to adopt new and emerging technologies to help grow the economy quickly Mr Modi has certainly hit upon a masterstroke. For example, a few days ago I scoffed at the notion being purported that vegetable-market vendors would now start accepting payment by a phone app. (such as PayTM for example). I’m kinda laughing the other side of my pretentious patronising attitude now the media has reported that very thing is happening. I’ve not yet been to our own vegetable market to discover if those transactions are taking place here, but now I shan’t be so surprised if the vendors in our small town are happily clicking payments through wirelessly, without besmirching their hands or their customers with grubby notes. That said, I’m guessing they won’t be accepting transactions for my usual ₹30 of carrots.

Meanwhile, Related News Elsewhere……… (Feeling Grateful again)
I’ve been shopping! My kitchen shelves were becoming echoey; the fridge felt unloved; a restock was necessary. Not only did I return home from a fruitful forage with five full bags of goodies, my wallet went from trimmed down (holding a few crisp ₹2,000 notes) to a bulging version of itself full of ₹100 notes. Despite all the shopkeepers happy to have custom, they  half-begrudgingly, almost sorrowfully, doled out their stash of precious ₹100 notes. Here’s hoping those promised ₹500 notes appear soon, and the ongoing mass-induced misery of queuing for regular banking services ends, which will surely put a smile of relief on the face of more than just me and mine.

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Are You Making a #RushForCash? – How some of us are dealing with the lack of cash in a cash-driven economy

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.