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Demonetisation Has Brought Out The Worst Form Of Elitism Among India's Privileged Classes

Us versus them.

10/11/2016 12:29 PM IST | Updated 11/11/2016 3:01 PM IST
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People queue up outside ATMs to withdraw hundred rupee notes at sector 12 on November 8, 2016 in Noida, India. (Photo by Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced his government's plan to withdraw Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 bank notes from circulation at a mere four hours' notice, much anxiety has prevailed among Indians resident in the country and elsewhere.

Their worries are essentially similar: Does my cash have no value at all now? How difficult will it be to get it swapped with the new money? How am I going to tide over the next few days?

These questions must have crossed the mind of almost every Indian in the last couple of days, but a vast section of the economically privileged classes seems to have processed them solely through an inherent, and urgent, sense of solipsism.

The obvious casualties of any war are usually the poor and the disenfranchised. This is true even more if the enemy under siege happens to be black money.

It won't be wrong to wager a guess that many among this sub-set of the middle and upper middle classes believe in growth first and human values last. A great many of them have voted the current, supposedly pro-poor government, into power. Some may even have been inconvenienced into postponing their parties to celebrate Donald Trump's presidential victory due to this temporary cash-flow problem.

Prosperity and the prudence of online transactions often don't go hand in hand in this country, especially if the source of wealth must remain unaccounted, existing under the not-so-proverbial mattresses and in suitcases or hand-bags.

The initial flurry of panic on WhatsApp and social media about the fate of their hard-earned money soon gave way to figuring out survival strategies for the coming few days — until the ATMs became functional once again and banks started exchanging people's cash holdings with the new currency.

READ: Brilliant Or Heartless: Reactions To Modi Government Scrapping ₹500 and ₹1000 Notes

Since then, from morning till night, app-based cab aggregators, online wallet operators and other Internet-based service providers have been assuring their customer base of their continued presence in their lives because, in case their clients forget, these are not cash-dependent platforms.

It doesn't matter that India continues to remain a cash economy. As this article in Scroll points out, over 90% transactions take place in this country offline, while more than half of the population don't even have bank accounts. And a large number of those without bank accounts will never be able to open one because they don't have identification papers.

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A youth show 500 and 1000 rupee currency note in Allahabad on 09 November 2016. (Photo by Prabhat Kumar Verma/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Among the remaining, a fraction uses online wallets and may have debit or credit cards. But a sizeable chunk of those who have bank accounts and cards are uncomfortable with online transactions or reluctant to use such facilities, especially those who joined the workforce years before the liberalisation of the economy and at a time when teenagers didn't go around flashing plastic money at the drop of a hat.

In the next few days, the worst hit by demonetisation are likely to be people belonging to the low income groups and the poorest of the poor — daily wage-earners, labourers, domestics — who get their means of sustenance, mobility and security from having petty cash in hand. A series of reports have already pointed out the trials of this floating population and the small traders who service them.

While the upper crust of the middle income groups wait for their seafood lunch after clicking a few buttons on their smartphones, thousands are being turned away by roadside eateries and grocers in spite of having money on them.

While the upper crust of the middle income groups wait for their seafood lunch after clicking a few buttons on their smartphones, thousands are being turned away by roadside eateries and neighbourhood groceries in spite of having money on them. It is this latter group that is stranded without public transport because of their inability to pay with the cash they may have on them, as their employers complain on social media while driving around in air-conditioned cars and taxis.

Medical stores and hospitals, which were asked to accept Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes for a few days, had to turn away customers with only cash in hand as these establishments ran out of change. In the thousands of small villages across the country, most of them with none or a barely functioning ATM machine and no banks open for an entire day, medical emergencies must have left people feeling more helpless than usual. Even if they had cash on them, it would have been of little use in times of crises.

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Representational image. (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

While the very rich, among whom the fear of being caught with black money must be the most acute, send their drivers and other household staff to queue at the banks to change their cash for them, many among the latter will be left at the mercy of others to have their hard-earned salaries converted into legitimate currency.

The irony, amidst the unfolding chaos, is that demonetisation as a means of alleviating the menace of black money, though tried and tested earlier, has never been a foolproof success. Those who have the wherewithal to evade the income tax department's hawk eye and stash away huge unaccounted sums of money elsewhere are likely to find newer ways of getting around the government's latest tactic as well.

In the end, it is the poor who will end up paying the price for the bad karma of the rich.

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