Travel to India this December was out of ordinary. It was my baby cousin’s wedding; a milestone, the last wedding in my generation.
With the plan to be in India for a week for the wedding, I had packed rather splendidly for the gala ceremony- dresses with matching shoes and jewelry, make-up and gifts for the family. But, what I did not prepare for was the currency shortage that the country was grappling! And what I did not prepare for, left a lasting impression.
Indian Prime Minister Mr. Modi had announced demonetization by taking off the old Rs 500, and Rs 1,000 notes out of circulation ( which were about 86% of the money supply by value) and introduced new Rs 500 and Rs 2,000 bills. The common man had an option to either exchange or deposit the old notes into the banks, with some restrictions.
Ahead of my India travel, a couple of my friends in the US asked me if I could take some of their old bills of Rs500 and Rs1000 bills to India for exchange. Though the amount not much (ranging from $50 -100 Dollars), the NRIs did feel the pinch of India’s demonetization.
On my end too, the few Rs500 bills that I had saved to take a cab from the airport to the house were a trash now. Good thing my sister offered to pick me up at an oddly hour of 2:30 am from the New Delhi airport.
Next day in India’s capital city, Delhi, I walked passed a street vendor selling clothes. My eyes caught a beautiful skirt hanging on the wire, with an elephant motifs. It was love at first sight!! I talked to the vendor, and we agreed on the price. As I took out my credit card for the payment, the vendor said: “Behenji, mere pass machine nahi hai.” ( Sister, I do not have the card processing machine). I said, “Oh, lekin mere paas cash nahi hai.” (Sorry, but I do not have cash.) I just had the old bills of Rs 500 in my wallet which were useless for him. The vendor asked other fellow shopkeepers if they could help in processing the card, but none of his likes had the credit card machine.
Here I was willing to pay, and the merchant was eager to sell, but I did not have the new notes, and he did not have the card processing machine. What a heartbreaking situation it was! I felt the helplessness in the vendor’s inability to close the sale and take home bacon. I walked away with a heavy heart.
The following day when I mentioned my intention to exchange some of the old bills at the bank, I came to know that the exchange was no longer allowed. People could only deposit the old currency into the bank, and later withdraw a limited small cash in a day. But I was oblivious to the ordeal this transaction entails for the common man!
I saw over 100 people lined up outside the bank for the new currency withdrawal waiting in the queue for over two hours (much before the opening of the Bank). However, standing in line also did not ensure that they would receive the cash. Bank officials distributed tokens in limited numbers. Only the people with tokens could withdraw the cash.
After understanding the entire process, and with only a few days in India, I decided to make do with some conservative borrowing from my family. I also become conscious of the reason why the usually crowded markets were almost desolate. The ordinary man was unwilling to spend the precious cash on the casual shopping, the cash that took them hours to withdraw from the ATM.
I traveled by train to my home city with Rs 1000 in my pocket, out of which I gave Rs 600 to the porter. I had a meager Rs 400 for my entire journey. Before demonetization, I never dared to travel within India with such a small cash in my pocket.
In the largely cash entrenched India economy, demonetization came with its inconveniences, and I got to live it during my short visit. The thing that caught my attention was that regardless of the hassles that the people were facing due to cash rationing, most of them shared a positive outlook about the Prime Minister’s bold move in hope to flush out the black money and the counterfeit notes; and in turn maneuver India towards more transparent and digitized payments.
The country where many people do not have bank accounts and everyday life revolves around cash, from groceries to the hospital bills, whether this courageous step from the Prime Minister Mr. Modi will have long-term economic benefits, only future will tell.
Where I am concerned, I was glad to be a passerby to this cash rationing and delighted to be able to make it to my cousin’s wedding, symbolic of passing the marital torch to the next generation to live happily-ever-after with her Prince charming.