Some hard truths about the privilege of coping with demonetisation

Belong to middle or upper castes and classes, and try to look the part.

 |  7-minute read |   28-12-2016
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It is 50 days since The Leader announced that Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes were no longer legal tender. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked for 50 days to usher in a black money-free economy. Some observations and suggestions follow:

1. Several weeks ago, my parents went to two different bank branches, deposited good amounts they had saved for emergencies in the now junked denominations and withdrew some. In both cases, they gate-crashed and went straight to counters, ignoring the long queues.

Savarnas, especially of the non-dark-skinned kind, always find a way in brahminical India. I accompanied my father, 89, to a State Bank of India (SBI) branch near where we live and where he has an account. He headed to a counter, disregarding the queue and the need to take a token.

I was feeling embarrassed looking at the people waiting patiently behind him. Presumably because of his obvious advanced age and pronounced stoop, they let him get away with it. I bet any Dalit-Bahujan, Adivasi or Muslim as old, or older than him, would have stood no chance.

My 87-year-old mother, I learned, went with my sister-in-law and saw a similar exercise at the HDFC Bank the same afternoon, again ignoring the need to take the precious token. At the counter, she got a bank official to overlook the fact that my mother was not carrying the original Aadhaar card, but only a photocopy. (That the bank official should insist on the Aadhaar card against the expressed orders of the Supreme Court is another matter.)

atmembed_122816121943.jpg Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked for 50 days to usher in a black-money-free economy. Photo: PTI

2. A few days ago, my father went under the knife at a private hospital and paid a substantial amount upfront. While he was being discharged, we owed Rs 49,000 to the hospital. I offered to pay with my debit card. For reasons best known to the bank or finance minister, or their party minions, not to mention clueless folk in the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), I was allowed to transfer no more than Rs 25,000 from my account to the hospital electronically.

Fortunately, my elder brother - who incidentally continues to be a Modi-toady - was carrying enough cash to see us through.

So much for cashless/digital India.

3. I ran into a neighbourhood carpenter the other evening, a devout Hindu who sports the mark of his religiosity on his forehead, and asked him: "How's business these days?"

I was alluding to the post-demonetisation chaos.

He just went on and on about the various scandals regarding banks having waived loans owed by Bangalore's own Vijay Mallya as well as The Leader's proximity to the Adanis, Ambanis and other moneybags financing the BJP whose stashes have long ago been sanitised (and there's evidence aplenty to corroborate this).

My carpenter acquaintance was holding forth for so long and so compulsively that I began to wonder whether I was in the grip of the lead character from one of English literature's most celebrated poems, Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" in which the mariner stops a man about to attend a wedding and starts narrating a long tale about how he happened to kill a bird - an albatross - and how that affected him and other sailors and how they arrived at a denouement.

The good carpenter and I were standing next to a parked car whose owners arrived eventually and to my very great relief, asked us to move, and the albatross, so to speak, was obliged to fall from our necks a lot sooner than it did from that fictional sailor's in Coleridge's poem.

And yet, looking back, I wish it hadn't.

I wish more of us Savarna-born middle-class citizens were and are forced to stand and listen to what the majority of Indians are facing in Modified India - especially in the current demonetised nightmare that many sections of the media are under reporting.

Bearing in mind also that Modification started under the brahminical Congress long ago - at least from the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984 to the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992 when a Congress party prime minister was wilfully or otherwise, asleep at the wheel; not just since 2002 riots in Gujarat, following which The Leader has been on the ascendant.

4. Humour in the time of demonetisation: A few days ago I was walking towards the General Post Office in Bangalore and passing by the imposing Vidhana Soudha (Karnataka's legislative building), close to the statue of BR Ambedkar and noticed that on that near-empty street, a vendor was hawking peas at Rs 40 a kilogramme.

I went over and before me was another person who bought one kilo - meaning he owed the vendor Rs 40. To my amazement and amusement, that buyer took out a Rs 2,000 note and offered it to the hawker. The look on the vendor's face was to die for. I confess I was the first to burst out laughing. The other two dramatis personae savoured the moment for a bit longer before joining in the merriment.

5. There are better ways to get change for the Rs 2,000 note - at least for some of us.

If you're from the upper/middle classes and/or oppressor castes - and since you're online and reading stuff in English, you most likely are - but are struggling to find cash despite your privileged plasticity, here's a tip:

Try to locate an ATM in a sparsely populated area, but with highly influential entities around - that ensures cash comes in and stays put for a while as there aren't too many takers.

The other evening I was told of an ATM next to a defence establishment on a long stretch of road in Bangalore full of other such near-empty real estate belonging to various branches of the Indian Army on a not too busy part of the city with vehicles whizzing past. And I got that coveted Rs 2,000 note.

Now, there's not much you can do with that blessed note. Not to worry.

My next stop: a shop selling beverages with er... strong content. They do massive amounts of business daily. Some are even known to accept the "old" Rs 500 notes from daily-wage labourers provided the latter buy stuff worth Rs 150.

Since I, a regular customer at that shop, was already well-stocked - hic! - all that I bought was a (plastic) bottle of soda costing Rs 18.

I'm now flush with Rs 100 notes.

Yay!

Cheap thrills in Modified India! Even for the plasticised among us.

It has come to this.

And as most of us are opposed to reservation (affirmative action) for Dalits, Other Backward Castes and Adivasis, what do we care for the woes of farmers in godforsaken rural areas with few banks serving large numbers of villages? Numerous village industries, fisherfolk and farmers' crops and catches are now worth almost zilch.

Not to mention the fates of their urban counterparts, the street-vendors, construction workers and others operating on the margins of the economy.

There seem to be only a few ways to weather this crisis: try and belong to the majority community, meaning Hindu in India. It would also help to belong to Savarna (oppressor) castes among Hindus and to be as fair-skinned as possible while barging into your bank branches.

And do try and look the part. Also, try to live in affluent urban agglomerations because the banks and ATMs there are more likely to be attended to rather than in some rural or over-populated boondocks.

Also read: Modi's solution to black money, demonetisation, as bad as the problem

 

Writer

N Jayaram N Jayaram @n_jayaram

The writer is a journalist now based in Bangalore. He has worked for the Press Trust of India and Agence France-Presse.

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