Hello, that’s my money

Urvashi Butalia | Updated on January 16, 2018 Published on December 09, 2016
Wads of worries: Our experience, and that of people around us, made us realise the hundreds of ways in which Indians deal in cash. Photo: Vijay Soneji

Wads of worries: Our experience, and that of people around us, made us realise the hundreds of ways in which Indians deal in cash. Photo: Vijay Soneji   -  The Hindu

Urvashi Butalia

Urvashi Butalia

One of the things about the demonetisation process has been the infantilising of Indians

On November 8, we —my colleagues and I — were in Guwahati, for an annual festival of Northeast literature that we organise. The festival, Cultures of Peace, brings together writers and performers, but mostly writers, from across the Northeast, to talk about their work. Before we left, we withdrew money from our account for the small expenses that are part of such events — money for tea and biscuits, food bills, taxi fares, incidentals and for payments to our speakers.

The evening before the festival, we heard on the news that ₹500 and ₹1000 notes — the denominations in which we had taken our money — had been demonetised. The money with us was not worth the paper it was printed on. We were quite foxed. How were we to deal with things now? Paying for hotels could be done with credit cards, but even credit cards have a limit, and we were in danger of crossing that just with one set of payments. Somehow we managed, by borrowing from friends, begging people for credit.

We were mystified though, and also angry. Why had this been done without any discussion? Without any warning? With us was a friend, a foreign traveller who had cashed money at the airport; suddenly, she too was without money.

We brought the money back with us, thinking we’d put it back into our bank account since that was where it came from. But here, we came up against an unexpected problem. The money came from what is called an FCRA account, a special account that allows you to receive foreign funds. But such accounts cannot have rupee deposits. What we were now doing was just such a thing, and of course the bank refused to oblige.

Stories like this are no longer unusual, hundreds such have appeared in the papers and elsewhere in the media. But our experience, and that of people around us, made us realise the hundreds of ways in which Indians deal in cash. None of these transactions is a black transaction, nor does it create black money. But they are cash transactions.

How will these be converted into cashless ones? Every morning I buy a green coconut from the man who comes round with his cart. How would that ₹40 transaction become cashless? Middle-class people like me, who are privileged enough to have credit cards, are nonetheless so used to thinking that those are for the big expenses, that we never think of using them for smaller things like buying a coffee or a kilo of apples.

And then there’s the other, unspoken effect of this, for the small economies that I began to exercise in order to save the precious cash I had, had a much deeper impact. The coconut seller now had many customers who did not do their daily spend, which meant his earnings were drastically down, which meant his family had less to eat. What did this have to do with black money?

When I came home, I talked to the young woman who is my domestic help. She was distraught: Her father, a subsistence farmer in Assam, and her mother, a vegetable seller, had been keeping aside money for her brother’s wedding, which was about ₹40,000. What were they to do now?

Her mother isn’t alone in this. One thing that was common to all women in the village was that they secreted away little bits of money saved from the household income, keeping it aside for emergencies. Many of them had never been to a bank and they had no bank accounts.

But couldn’t they hand the money over to their husbands and ask them to change it in the bank? No, she said, for how could they tell the husbands about this secret income? She herself had broken her little daughter’s gulak (piggy bank) — the child is only three — and ₹18,000 emerged. What was she to do now? How would she explain this to the bank?

Questions and more questions, with no real answers. The hardship and stress that the demonetisation process has thrown people into has been amply documented. But the question in my mind is: Doesn’t a State or a leader who takes such a step owe an explanation to the citizens? An explanation that does not rely on notions of nationalism, or on making a commitment to support your country, but rather one that respects its citizens and takes their concerns as genuine.

One of the outcomes about the demonetisation process has been precisely this — the infantilising of Indians. It’s assumed that we have to suffer some hardship for the greater good, but what exactly the greater good is has not been explained. How India will start shining again is anybody’s guess.

I’ve never understood why States are unable and unwilling to treat their citizens as the adults that they are. Poor village women understand money, they know they need to save it, but they save it in cash. What would it have cost to talk about these things — for our leaders to say we know the money poor people have is not black, we know they don’t have bank accounts, these are our reasons for taking the steps we’ve taken. But perhaps that’s too much to ask.

Urvashi Butalia is an editor, publisher and director of Zubaan

Published on December 09, 2016
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