The Human Side of the Great Indian Currency Exchange

“Any change, even a change for better is accompanied by drawbacks and discomforts”

– Allan Watts

I am not an expert in economics or finance nor am I an expert in the political machinery. I am just a citizen of this country who believes that no Government (irrespective of origin party) can function smoothly without the support of people. Accept it we have been a laid back lot for a long time. The last time we were moved out of our comfort zones was in 1991 when the then Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao had introduced a great change in our functioning as a nation. He was a reformer and a man with a vision. He introduced us to liberalisation.

Yes the very change which many leaders opposed including those within his bastion. But Narasimha Rao was ruthless. Some within his party were also against the Congress – BJP understanding on reforms. Many theories floated for and against but the change happened. We all are bearing fruits of the vision of that one man.

Come 2016, while India has already gone through a great political change and a strong divide on political ideologies has surfaced over and above the divisive politics of religion and caste. The current Prime Minister introduced a change which shook the life of the common man. Yes it was sudden, yes it is uncomfortable and thanks to social media (Mr. Rao was lucky in this matter) more than ever conspiracy theories of all kind are floating especially among the otherwise subdued middle class.

Is it a bad step – I don’t know. Is it as uncomfortable as it seems, that was something worth going around for. While opinions are strongly divided amongst groups for and against the ruling party, the discomfort of the people is clearly visible on the streets.

We had stopped queuing up since internet happened. But there are our poor cousins for whom this was not new. They still queue outside kirana shops, they still queue outside banks and they still queue up sadly for drinking water which is scarcely available to them while we shower three times a day at free will.  There are many more queues in their lives.

So, am I propagating that they can queue up for this great money exchange also?

No!

This is just an attempt to understand how we as people have been immediately affected and felt about this change. .

I went around nearby areas in Noida. It is a mix of the rich, uber cool upper middle class and villages. To get a wider picture I spoke to people I could reach in various cities of India.  I interacted with some officers from Police Force, Banks, Central and State Government. The mood varied politically as well as according to their actual experience.

The suffering was visible and so was the spirit. Survival after all is a human instinct.

The ones who bore the brunt of this sudden declaration are the poor especially the daily waged labourer.

In context to NCR, post Diwali there was a stay on any construction activity due to the (now well forgotten) smog. The ban hit many daily wagers and this was followed by the sudden declaration of demonetisation. The daily wager rarely sees a higher denomination of currency but his pay master circulating the wages needs a daily bundle of change. The daily wager unaware of the politics in the power by lanes is caught in the turmoil for daily bread. Such is the scenario that he has no one to educate him or help him in dealing with the same.

Munir stands in a queue in front of the banks at Sector 110 Noida. Tie clad suited individuals are a part of the crowd. He normally doesn’t see them standing shoulder to shoulder with him. He looks around trying to decipher the situation as per his understanding. He has been standing for nearly two hours. I ask him how much money does want to exchange.

“Two Hundred”

Someone had told him that he has to exchange old money in the bank. No one told him that it was only for 500 and 1000 rupee notes. The poor man let out an embarrassing laugh saying he had spent the entire morning foolishly in the queue when he could have got some work to earn his daily bread. A few people around who heard our conversation sympathised with the man. One kind gentle man gave him Rs 50/- and paid the nearby tea vendor to serve Munir tea.  

Munir was just an example of many who were lost in the crowd with little or no guidance at all.

I move ahead through the sea of people. Police men are having a tough day. People are crying foul, people are hailing, people are grateful to the bankers but no one has noticed the policemen. I approach one to know his views. It is a politically correct answer

“If the Government has done it, it must be right.”

On probing a little further about his political inclination, the officer answers, “Madam, you will publish whatever you want to irrespective of what I say.” The remark made me realise I was being considered the not so appreciated representative of media. On disclosing that I am just a housewife trying to find the reality, I get a well founded advice, “Why are you wasting time asking questions? Go stand in the line and withdraw some money for your family.”

Speaking to many people standing in queues, the mood seemed positive by and large. The banks had got a grip on the situation by the third day. They were able to manage crowds better. Certain banks had separate queues for senior citizens, water was distributed. I got to know that someone had even distributed tea.

Just as a bystander I saw people acknowledging each other’s presence. Biscuit packets coming out of some designer bags were shared with people around irrespective of caste or status. Some Lollipops also did rounds.

I was yet to find someone shedding tears. Somewhere in the chaos we all were humans. I asked an aged gentleman about his views on demonetisation. He was a supporter of the ruling party, and a strong one I must say. One remark by him actually echoed the voice of many

“We were fools not to vote for Vajpayee again. India would have been different. This time I will not err.”

I spoke to some more people. The general feeling of discomfort persisted in many. It varied in sentences

Chhutti kharaab kardi madam

Mallya to baitha hain Europe mein, humein punishment de diya.

Line mein khade hone ki umra nahi hamari

Modiji ne to theek kiya, bank walo ko kaam karna nahi aata

Some were hilarious too

Yoga divas par Yoga nahi kiya to Modiji ne patla karne ke liye naya tareeka nikala

It’s Uniform Civil Code economic style. My maid is standing with me in the same line.

I moved ahead to another area. This one was a branch and ATM within the vicinity of a luxury apartment. The queue was long. The crowd was mixed. Much to the dismay of a sunglasses adorning lady, the branch was for the convenience of the residents, why were the outsiders (maids etc) lining up. I could feel her discomfort on seeing two ladies (maids) three steps ahead of her about to reach the door. While the lady must be contemplating whether she should object to certain class of people being there, the maid takes her phone out and calls up her employer, “Didi, aa jao Aapka number aa gaya.”

I asked the maid if she had got her share of cash. She shook her head.

“I do not have the time. I have to come to work. My husband went to stand in the queue today. I don’t know if he has got the money or not.”

The so called Didi arrived and entered the bank, much to the envy of many around. I saw many similar ladies dialling immediately. I assume the line soon changed the class ratio.

Soon the rumours to disrupt peace started making rounds. Foolishly, we who have been asked to cut down our salt and sugar intake made sure the message of “Salt Not Available” was circulated in excess. Some traders had a field day and salt was sold for as good as Rs 190/- (as mentioned by a trader). My own house help went and bought salt for Rs 100/ Kg and that too when she already had filled her ration in the beginning of the month. The reason was only because of the rumour.

The day the news of demonetisation was announced on National TV; many ladies guided their house helps about the basics and warned them against people trying to fool them. A majority of the ladies even offered them help in getting their notes exchanged. As I spoke to some of the house helps around, the maids were comfortable as they had received bonus during Diwali and rations were bought well in advance. Some were worried about how to manage but it was nice to know that some employers gave them provisions to sustain during this difficult time.

Yet there was a section of house helps who were left out or fooled by their very employers who handed over their salaries in 500 and 1000 denominations even after the announcement made on National TV. Yes, people from amongst us did such actions to get rid of some useless paper money by fooling poor.

A small vegetable vendor said he did not face trouble in getting stocks from mandi as he has a monthly account with some suppliers, but seasonal vegetables which he buys directly from farmers were hit due to unavailability of small denominations. He used the afternoon when business is generally low, to stand in the bank line but the crisp new 2000 note still remains in his pocket – unused.

Not to even mention the digital payment service here, as the poor man’s phone is a Chinese copy of the erstwhile Nokia Asha.

Reality bites the spirit of digitised India; it may hold a bright light in many eyes, the planners did forget a basic fact – Not everyone carries a smart phone!

Talking to another vegetable vendor Vijender, in an up market area, I found that while PayTM has made way into his phone the lady customers who till a week back tried to utilise their worn out RS 10 NOTES suddenly only flash a crisp 500 notes. The vendor did not disappoint his customers. For initial two days he put one of his helper in the bank line. Another was deployed for running to and fro between bank line and stall to hand over any such cash coming over to his counterpart. The smile he flashed showed that he did make some profit. On asking about the trouble he faced in depositing cash came a not so surprising answer, “I have an account in the branch opposite the road. The bank people buy vegetables from me.”

He might someday get an award of being the Entrepreneur of Year Award, but so far he is happy with the demonetisation move.

“I have received fake notes many times. It is difficult to identify the real from fake. I think Modiji has made the right decision.”

A bank employee (not wanting to be named) working in a village on the outskirts of Greater Noida, mentioned the initial chaos of first two days was more because of a local leader telling villagers that “They will take all your money and give you only Rs 2000/-.” The villagers panicked. The third day a group of college students arrived and volunteered help. They educated the villagers about the process and helped them fill the forms also.

This incident brings forth two points –

  • Are State Governments really helping the centre in implementation? Considering the chaos and political hulla bulloo, this clearly doesn’t seem to be the case.
  • Why can’t voluntary groups be formed by local bodies to help and educate people in remote locations?

It is evident that what the people require is clarity. Rumour mongering for political as well as silly reasons has really hampered the process.

In due course I am also informed that some organisations that have manufacturing set ups based in rural areas are sending their employees as volunteers to educate and help villagers. Unfortunately, this doesn’t make Breaking News.

States which do not support the current Central Government are not serious about helping. State machinery is not being effectively utilised or in some cases not being utilised at all to monitor and ease the situation, West Bengal being a strongly quoted example.

Ram Sharan is a farmer in the Tigri village in Gautam Budh Nagar District. His village is gradually being absorbed by the fast spreading city. He is one of the affluent farmers in the village. He had approximately Rs 30,000 cash stashed in his house on the night Demonetisation was announced. He has managed to exchange only 8000. He needs change. The problem for him is not about seeds or fertiliser, it is about fodder for his cattle.

Fodder is bought every two to three days and on cash. The amount at home rendered useless, getting fodder was becoming difficult. He employs two daily waged workers to work with him in fields. He is unable to pay them as well.

Ram Sharan makes his daily waged workers stand in post office queues for currency exchange.

“There are many like me who are cash strapped because of this sudden announcement. We have no choice but to wait” says Ram Sharan.

In another village Kotabaug near Haldwani, the problems are not in terms of queues since the bank in the area already gets a minimal amount of cash and ATM is nearly empty. Locals are mostly borrowing daily provisions.

This has resulted in availability of bare minimum things and lesser in variety as the shopkeeper is short of the daily cash earning.

Worst affected in the area are tomato and rice farmers who generally sell their produce during this season. They already were affected due to restrictions on export to Pakistan and now due to shortage of cash their sale has tremendously gone down.

Tomatoes which were priced at Rs 25/kg are being sold as low as Rs 5/- kg as the farmer cannot even wait for the situation to improve.

While the opposition screams foul play – scam, and the Centre unprepared to tackle the chaos. Who is to be blamed? The ruling party for its unpreparedness and hasty decision or the party which ruled India for nearly sixty long years and could never bring the agenda for election beyond Roti Kapda Makaan. Isn’t it a botheration that even after seventy years a majority chunk of people do not have bank accounts or saving accounts in post offices? The current Government too cannot wash its hands off in the name of the long term benefit. They need to develop strategies to immediately help the section of people for whom survival is an everyday struggle.

The blame saga continues.

There are many stories emerging from across cities. The main problem being the bank queues. Most of the working class is putting a brave face and bearing the difficulty in hopes of a better India.

In response to my question about the que-xperience, people mentioned some discomfort but were by and large positive.

Samarth from Kolkata spent nearly two and a half hours in a queue but was lucky to get cash exchanged. His friend he says was not lucky as some people got into a brawl and the bank drew their shutters down for some time.

Hemangi from Mumbai states that though the queue outside Standard Chartered Bank was long, the bank support staff was serving water to the customers every 15-20 minutes. Bank staff was handling queries efficiently and even handing change in denominations of 100 to those in need. Staff gave priority to senior citizens and the situation was managed professionally as well as humanely.

Shrinath from Baroda, did not have to stand in queue for more than an hour, at an ICICI bank branch. He mentioned that the management and staff were good in their behavior and were delivering with speed.

An aged gentleman staying in the outskirts of Noida, had a positive experience as he was escorted inside the bank and given the required amount without any hassle.

Ravneet Singh from Noida says he had to stand in queue for sometime but the bank staff was courteous and had arranged for water bottles for people. They had a separate queue for Senior citizens with a single window for deposit, exchange and withdrawal. A much appreciated move he mentioned was when the cashier handed over a piece of sweet candy to every person after service saying ‘Thank You for Your Cooperation’.

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12 thoughts on “The Human Side of the Great Indian Currency Exchange

  1. Your people there are having to go through so much, I hope that Prime Minister Modi and his government will soon be able to make all of the necessary corrections so that the people can get on with their normal lives. I understand why this was done, no country can have such wide spread counterfeiting of their currency and not go under. Also, it is necessary to make the tax evasions of the wealthiest stop. I wish you and all of your countrymen well.

    Liked by 1 person

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