I woke up the other day with an all too familiar feeling. As I tried to map out my schedule, I thought about how much my day would cost. I opened my wallet and saw that I indeed did have enough to manage the autorickshaw journey, buy my fruits and vegetables and even have some coconut water. But as I saw the numeration of my cash, I realised that for the most part, all my rupee notes were now worthless.
While my wallet had just been filled the previous morning with a ₹5,000 withdrawal from the ATM, now only had ₹120 of usable money. Going to and returning from the market would cost me ₹100 rupees. The fruits and vegetables would usually run to ₹250-300 rupees and my coconut water ₹30.
We have marginalised the largest portion of our society to such a point that no matter what happens, life goes on, they accept it. This is disenfranchisement.
I didn't have enough cash to make the trip so I looked at my supplies in the refrigerator — enough to last a couple of days. So, I waited.
A few days later, I couldn't wait any longer. As someone who believes that health really is wealth, I needed to ensure that my lack of finances weren't coming in the way of my wellness. So I did what any man of privilege can do — I paid the premium.
I live in a beach town. Thankfully, I'm at the tail end of Uber's service area for Kochi in Kerala and quickly transferred some money from my bank account to Paytm and called myself a cab. While I normally would have gone to the local market and supported the community vendors, I headed to the mall instead, to the Lulu Hypermarket. I knew if nowhere else, I could use my plastic there.
As I got down from my cab, not concerned about the bill, I walked into the supermarket and filled up my cart without any worry. As I bagged my groceries and handed the cashier my card, nothing fazed me. I quickly ordered another cab and I was on my way back home.
As we drove back, I saw vendor after vendor sitting idle, shop after shop empty. There was no "bandh", yet it seemed as if they were closed. I happen to pass a few banks and it did cross my mind to stop at one and see if I too could withdraw money but there must have been at least 300-500 people in each line. I wondered how people could be so patient.
But then again, isn't money the one thing that teaches us the greatest lessons about patience? Last week I was devastated by the news of the American election. I grew up in America and for me to see the results unfold in the way they did threw me off completely. Yet I had solace in social media where friends and colleagues shared their frustrations, sadness and disappointments.
Coincidentally, the demonetisation took place at the same time here in India. I only heard about it because I was so entrenched in social media. I saw so many cheers and congratulatory messages for our leader. I was a bit confused. Wasn't anyone finding the decision rather sudden? Were the banks actually prepared to handle this? Do we not know how cash-dependent our country is?
I managed to live in India for the first four of the five years I've been here solely using cash. I had no bank account or cards. But finally, once all my paperwork and formalities were handled (yes, it took four years!) — I was able to open up an account.
What worries me is that one day there will be a revolution, much like the one that we witnessed in America earlier this month.
I have thought many times about how difficult if not impossible this task would have been in the United States given my lifestyle. Most businesses there look down on cash. If you carry a $50 or $100 bill, they look at you as if you're a criminal. You can't book a flight, rent a car, stay in a hotel without a valid credit card. My four years of living just on cash in India wouldn't have lasted me four days in America.
In fact, the greatest relief I had upon returning to India was the freedom I felt not in being active in such a cash-criminalised society. Having said that, I understand the black money culture here. I understand the drain it puts on the economy and the strain it puts on the upward mobility of a society in general. But we do know that most people don't even have bank accounts, right?
Just like the privilege I carry allowed me to Uber, Paytm and Lulu my way to a solution for my food, knowing someone enabled me to have quick access to the bank here. My local doctor friend escorted me to the local branch of my bank (still about 5 km away from my home). As I literally stepped over hundreds of men and women, I saw their faces. They stood so patiently yet seemed so accepting of me just bypassing the queue.
In a society where hardship and economic disparity are as commonplace as Bollywood and cricket, I wondered how I could take advantage of my privilege. Then I thought about it — if I didn't have a contact, how exactly would I ever get new money?
As we shoved our way past security and entered the bank, we quickly sat by the assistant bank manager's booth. He gave me paperwork to fill out and then he told me to stand in the line. New ₹2,000 bills had arrived that late morning. People had lined up since before opening hours, waiting patiently for their turn. But then patrons like myself would cut the line.
Apparently even the VIP line had a line. I was a bit surprised by who I saw in front of me. They weren't people like me but rather a further privileged class of folks who had their household help go with authorised letters to convert their cash. Predictably, their deposits were in the lakhs while those in the long line had only thousands.
I am troubled to see an economy where people are being pushed towards banking, investments and plastic currency especially because I've seen where it can take a country.
As my turn came about 30 minutes into witnessing this process, I saw that only two ₹2,000 rupee now remained. The woman in queue had ₹1,500 (3 x 500 rupee notes), but as the bank only had ₹2,000 notes, she sadly didn't have enough money to get even one note. The next person quickly handed his cash and got the last two new bills.
Almost four hours and counting, everyone else at the bank was told there was no more cash and they should return home and come again.
The American in me thought long and hard about what I had witnessed. There was no protest, there was no outrage. Yes, there was sadness and even frustration but people had an "I'm used to this" expression on their faces. Seeing the emerging protests and rallies in America against its president-elect juxtaposed with this embedded acceptance of people here left me most disillusioned.
Politics aside, when will poverty not be trivialised? I've gotten a lot of criticism for debating topics ranging from religion and commerce to electricity as a human right. Here, the conversation isn't about whether our currency needed this move but rather when will the privileged understand that those most inconvenienced aren't phased by what is happening? We have marginalised the largest portion of our society to such a point that no matter what happens, life goes on, they accept it and think they can't do anything about it. This is disenfranchisement.
What worries me is that one day there will be a revolution, much like the one we witnessed in America earlier this month. For a large amount of time, a specific group of voters were forgotten about. They accepted things as they were and couldn't find a candidate to support. In the end, they found a champion in a man so plagued by hate that their hatred attached to his and America has changed in a way no one expected.
The least vocal voices need to be heard. Because if they aren't... there will be a greater divide and no rupee amount will patch things up ever again.
Living here in India, I am troubled to see an economy where people are being pushed towards banking, investments and plastic currency especially because I've seen where it can take a country. India is still a relatively young democracy and it should not be replicating the strategies of other capitalist societies, especially given the fact that our nation's population is five times that of most other large countries'.
Standing in a place of privilege, with money and access, it is not my place to say whether an economic policy works or does not work. However, it is certainly the place of people like me to realise that acceptance and apathy are not the same. The least vocal voices need to be heard. Because if they aren't and we compare our struggles to the genuinely disenfranchised, there will be a greater divide and no rupee amount will patch things up ever again.
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