I am compelled to write this post in order to express the complete and utter chaos that I have witnessed over the last few days as a result of the decision of Indian PM Narendra Modi. I couldn’t have dreamt such a surreal scenario up in my wildest dreams I tell you!
I am sure many of you will be aware of how, overnight, Modi announced, without warning, that suddenly the 500 Rs and 1000 Rs notes are legal tender no more, in a surprise bid for everyone to deposit their old notes and thus pay tax on undeclared cash or “black” money. The nation, the very fabric of which is impregnated with corruption, was in shock.
I am not sure, however, if many of you will understand the repercussions of such a decision unless you’ve stepped foot in India before. In India 90% of transactions are cash based and almost half of those transactions involve the 500 Rs or 1000 Rs note as that’s what the ATMs primarily dispense. In fact these two note denominations make up 86% of cash in circulation.
Imagine then, if you would, that everyone’s cash becomes useless overnight, and that it has to be changed into either the new 2000 Rs note or the largest surviving existing note of 100 Rs (approx £1.20!). So you have more than a billion people who need to change or deposit all of their cash as it is now about as useful as toilet paper. People need to eat, get to work etc. and card cannot be used for such daily necessities in India unlike in Europe where you can function almost entirely with just a card in your pocket. Then imagine that every single bank (who new nothing of this bombshell) and ATM across the country is closed for a day in order to restock with the tiny 100 Rs denomination or the new 2000 Rs. It’s gonna be chaos right?
Well that’s just the start of it. Because of the size of the population and the sheer quantity of cash in circulation each person can only change 4000 Rs (£50) per day. As for withdrawing cash there is a limit of just 2500 Rs per person per day!
For the last few days, since the banks and ATMs have been stocked and reopened, predictable scenes of chaos have ensued as each and every branch and ATM across the nation has lines of people extending out into the street all desperate to get hold of some cash that they can actually use to continue life as normal! Countless ATMs are out of order or out of cash!
People are having to queue for hours to get hold of some small quantity of cash which is causing a massive disruption to normal life. Small businesses and trade are suffering massively as nobody wants to spend what little cash they can lay their hands on,
As for us tourists and those with Indian currency abroad, well we’re, to all intents and purposes, screwed! We are not allowed to exchange our now useless paper for money at any bank branch, believe me I spent a whole day trying in what ended up being a futile bank crawl. It turns out tourists are provided with one option, that is to go to an international airport where “special” counters have been made available to change up to 5000 Rs at one time… which is not an awful lot! Urrrm, how do I get to the airport to begin with, all I have is useless paper in my possession? Seems like they didn’t think about that… Suppose I manage to get there, turns out all I can do is buy back foreign currency and even then, only if I can provide a receipt of my original exchange to Indian Rupees. Fat chance! After all, one never knows when one’s money might go bad… Anyway I’m in India and I want to buy breakfast not foreign currency! And if my return flight was tomorrow, well I might as well just cast my Rupees into the bin as the old notes will not be accepted at forex counters in India let alone abroad. For many tourists, the circumstances in which they find themselves are impossibly difficult!
I count my blessings that I have been able to weather the storm as my food is provided and I have no urgent need for cash and that I am here for several months and can change my money before the 30th December deadline by depositing it in my local friends’ bank accounts and then incrementally withdrawing it as new currency. There is a saying in India, Atithi deva bhava, which means “guest is god”. Sounds great doesn’t it? If only one ever felt it!
Oh yeah and the brand new 2000 Rs note has a spelling mistake on it… only in India!