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Cash to burn

Cash to burn

On a week night at 8 pm, I sat scrolling Facebook on my mobile phone when people on my newsfeed began to rapidly express their surprise about 500 and 1000 rupee notes being banned. I recalled that I had six notes of 100s on me and wasn’t sure how long I would be able to survive on 600 rupees. At the same time, I dismissed this as just another rumour.

An hour later, I called my mom in Bareilly. She told me that she had stopped on her way home at a pharmacy but the chemist had refused to give her her medicine because she had two 500-rupee notes with her and wanted to pay with those (the exemption for medical facilities accepting old notes was issued by the government much later than this). Exasperated but having no choice, my mother went home.

Just then, another friend who I was supposed to go out for dinner with me called. She works for a luxury retail brand and had to stay back at work because of a sudden surge in sales — management had decided to extend the hours of the store. The brand in question did roaring business, closing at 3:00 am after ringing in more sales than they did during the whole week of Diwali. Apparently luxury shoes and bags were the best way to get rid of unaccounted wealth.

The next day, there was a complete lull as banks were closed and the roads were surprisingly silent. However, the day after I decided to visit the bank so that I was familiar with the process for when the need arose. That day the newspapers had reported an incident from rural India, where a woman died of heart attack after she saw the bank shut the previous day.

Upon reaching the bank, the process seemed manageable and I made a withdrawal of a small amount. It took three hours, but everyone was cooperating; so far, so good.

That weekend saw overflowing crowds at banks and numerous friends called to find out how to convert their black money to white. Any amount of ‘cash’ was being strongly held on to, and frivolous expenditures were being deferred. This has never happened in our generation — we are, after all, propelled by the theory of ‘earn and burn’.

However, it wasn’t the rich and the elite who may have had hoarded some of their illicit wealth in cash who were ‘trapped’. It was people at the bottom of the social hierarchy and those on the margins who suffered the most. Some of the worst affected groups were the poor, the farmers, street vendors and low-income and middle-class homemakers (who had saved in cash).

Eventually the entrepreneurial spirit kicked in: a week later, auto rickshaw, Uber/Ola drivers and roadside paratha-wallahs began accepting payment through ‘Paytm’, a mobile app. The business savvy also found other ways to make money from the demonitisation fiasco. On my second visit to the bank, I saw a bunch of daily wage workers who were hired to change currency for a ‘sethji’. Unfortunately for the ‘sethji’ that the party got over too soon — to ensure fair distribution of cash, banks began putting vote marks on people who had exchanged currency notes.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, December 11th, 2016

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