My #DeMonetization experience & some thoughts stemming from it

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8th November, 2016 began on a fabulous note for me. Yummy home cooked food, my favourite folks around me and the preparations of an exciting two-week long motorcycling trip that was to begin the next day. I’d gone to the ATM and withdrawn 10 Thousand rupees, to help me with liquidity for the expenses in the coming days.

Post-dinner, I was just catching up with the boys down the street, when this pal comes up & says, hey dude, do you know, 500 & 1000 rupee notes are banned from midnight. Abuses flowed as I mocked his gullibility at believing everything that’s forwarded on WhatsApp and I asked him to grow up & stop trying to spread such baseless + dangerous rumours. Just as he was trying to convince me that his words were true, the phone rang – it was Dad. Come home immediately, he said. The tone meant that compliance was immediate. Turned out, my friend hadn’t been joking. The Prime Minister, no less, was on TV, telling us all that 500 & 1000 rupee notes were banned from midnight.

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Shrugging off the disbelief & shock of the decision, we immediately rounded up whatever 100 rupee notes were in the house & ended up with 2000 rupees each between the better half & me. The balance 1000 rupees in smaller currency were left behind with Amma & Dad. All plans of sleep meanwhile had gone for a toss. The shocking implications of this move were starting to sink in. Our travel timelines were in shambles, we missed our alarm the next morning & decided to not let the conditions dampen our spirits. The first stop was at the fuel-bunk and we were in for a rude shock. Card machines not working they said. No change to spare either, the attendant gruffly mentioned. If you want to fill fuel, either pay exact change, or we’re accepting 500/1000 rupee notes but only in full settlement. Luckily, between our 2 bikes, we had enough tank capacity to fulfil their restrictive demands. Our friend who was to join us in Navi Mumbai got even more delayed as the ATM’s were shut, and fuel pumps there had a long line of people waiting to tank up. By the time he caught up with us, we’d spent nearly 4 hours just getting out of the city.

We stopped on 4 different occasions that day – the 9th of November for fuel. Each time, the petrol pump guys were insisting on them having no change, and that they’d accept 500/1000 notes only if settled in full. Only 1 of those fuel pumps had a functional card system in place and we ended up spending 15 minutes there just getting that approval slip on the payment having gone through. The food plaza where we stopped for lunch was deserted, with the sole employee at the food stall, mentioning that they’d not gotten half their supplies for want of sufficient cash at hand. Massive snarls were observed at the many toll-plaza’s present along NH4, with toll-collectors demanding exact change, and travellers not having enough small denomination notes.

By the time the sun was fading into darkness, we were starting to get mentally exhausted as very few food-places/shops had working card-payment systems in place. That night, when we stopped by at a food-cart for dinner, we found ourselves being extremely reluctant in parting away with the small cash notes in our wallets.

Having arrived in Goa the next day, we were partially relived. For if there was any place that can be called the utopia of the South, it is this. The next 3 days, we were accommodated by the people around us at the event in the best way possible. They informed us when the solitary ATM in the vicinity was dispensing cash; they ran a tab for us, settling the amount due at the end of the event by card or old notes on a case-t0-case basis. As we bid adieu and shifted base to the central part of Goa for the next 4 days, we were once again plunged in a state of despair. Business was visibly down, with people going about their lives in hushed tones. Street markets were empty, as were small trader shops that would typically be buzzing with customers at this time of the year.

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As days progressed, the ATM’s were all either temporarily shut or had long lines outside of them for the few hours that they were operational during the day. Geniuses that our banking system boffins are, we were directed to return to our home branches when we went down to withdraw money from the nearest bank. There simply wasn’t enough liquidity left in the market any more. ATM’s were out of 100 rupee notes and were dishing out only the ridiculous 2000 rupee notes. But shopkeepers and other outlets didn’t have enough change for them. So you either settled in full or simply skipped the product/service altogether.

By the time we entered the last phase of our trip, the market had began to adjust. It also helped that we were in the most tourist dense part of Goa – the North. Here, 90% of the customers came from within the area. Everyone knew everyone and even when they did, people recognized the need to show some faith & trust. We could keep a tab at nearly every place that didn’t accept card payments. Few even accepted bank-transfers making life easier for us. As we bid adieu to Goa however, and began the return trip to Bombay, the feeling of being slow-choked was back.

Returning home two weeks after the whole #DeMonetization decision, here are the thoughts that continue swirling in my head.

  • If the intention of #DeMonetization was to prevent black money from proliferating, then why introduce a 2000 rupee note as a replacement to the scrapped 1000 & 500 rupee notes. Don’t 2000 rupee notes make it easier to stash away money in more easier manner?
  • When you knew that there are not enough small denomination notes to be passed around as change, why did the authorities print 2000 rupee notes and not the new 500 rupee ones?
  • If you are going to scrap currency denominations that make up 80% of the economy and make the push to ‘cash-less’ transactions, wouldn’t you first spend time & effort, in ensuring that the framework necessary for implementing this is in place?
  • We as a nation, have thrived for generations on our culture of convenience. It was this convenience that was driving us towards digital transactions (via card, via m-payments, and so on). This was more so in the metros & large cities, with the promise of the movement slowly spreading to smaller towns. We don’t have the infrastructure in place for an all-digital payments system. And neither do the ‘Western Countries’ that are being touted as examples. If this were so, then the latter would have banned cash altogether.

What #DeMonetization has done is that it has destroyed the very credibility of trust that had been the bedrock of our economic system since centuries. At a time when the western world was staring at a financial meltdown in the near future, it was us, our robust Indian economy that was to be the sponge that would soak up the resulting shock-waves. Instead, we found ourselves under a financial crisis that’s unprecedented in modern history.

As things stand, it’ll be a week since I returned to Bombay from my trip. During this time, I ended up spending the 100 rupee notes were there in the wallet on the essentials. While radio-cabs and restaurants accepted card payments, i couldn’t afford their higher rates on a regular basis. Thus, none of the cheaper & popular transportation alternatives (train/bus/autorickshaw/kaali-peeli cabs) accepted cards/e-wallet payments. The small-time snack outlets that i visited too demanded cash payments.

Banks  pay us, their customers, interest, because they’re mere custodians of our money. They’re supposed to furnish the amount on demand, in the denominations requested. Yet, when I went and stood in line at the home branch of SBI to withdraw money from my account, they refused, citing lack of adequate funds. 2 hours were wasted because my SBI branch did not have 100 rupee notes to give out, nor did they have the new 500 rupee notes in stock.

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I visited the ATM networks of each major bank, Government as well as Private ones – SBI, Standard Chartered, HDFC and Kotak Mahindra. Each of them either had their shutters down or had a note placed saying they were unable to dispense cash on account of being out of currency. I did this across my usual area of movement in Suburban Mumbai.

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Down to my last 100 rupee note & a few tenners in the wallet, I finally got lucky with a J&K bank ATM in Bandra late last night. However, instead of dispensing the denominations i needed – aka 100 rupee notes or the new 500 rupee ones, it displayed a message declaring it could only give me the 2000 rupee one. Getting change for this one, is going to be another challenging task.

I voted for the Congress and they repaid me by scamming the nation for decades. I voted for the Shiv-Sena and all they gave me was a BMC which is a citadel of corruption in itself along with meaningless anti-westernization/valentine’s day protests. I finally put aside my misgivings about the Gujarat riots & decided to vote for the BJP in the last elections. What I’ve gotten is a media war, an exponential increase in official propaganda, policies that appear further and further disconnected from the reality on the ground. I understand the lofty ideals but the way things are going, they’re looking more like half-baked concepts whose implementation is light-years away from established best-practices.

Inconvenience is one thing, but when you keep me away from my hard-earned money and prevent me from going on with my life, all for the benefit of a few commercial establishments, you’ve got blood on your hands.

Only time shall tell which way the wind blows on this #DeMonetization decision. For now, it is a full-blown crisis to which the authorities are responding with propaganda messages & an atmosphere of severe distrust!

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