Demonetisation Drive, Turning a Dream into a Nightmare

It is nearly ten days since Prime Minister announced his demonetisation drive. Since then common people have faced immense difficulty in withdrawing money from bank. Many do not have money for food. Many have sick family member in hospital. People are losing their daily wage. I lead a comfortable life. Yet, my experience with HDFC bank took me back to my days when we were growing up in an India where government would control our lives.

When I was in college I used to stand in queue to get milk. We were entitled to a quota of two bottles.  Sleepily, I would stand in queue at 4.30 am in summer and 5.30 – 6 am in winter. Some smart and enterprising gentleman would ask me, and many like me, to take a bottle for them in case I was carrying one bottle. Most often people would keep line for their friends. Some rich people would send in their servant or driver or maid to stand in queue. So despite reaching early, my position will become 20th or 30th. When I would reach the counter, the vendor would say “I am out of milk. I shall give you one bottle only.” One day one aggressive man grabbed the vendor by his collar and wanted to see his inventory. We were all surprised that the booth had a stock of several crates meant for selling in black market. Those were the days when India was in scarcity economy. We knew very little how the world worked. We accepted on face value what any person on the other side of the counter said. We were so naive.
After a long long time I experienced the feeling of scarcity and panic of my childhood at HDFC bank in Vasant Kunj. This was my fifth visit to the bank after currency demonetisation was announced. I was lucky only once. I arrived early and stood in line from 8 am. There was murmur that “there is no cash.” A few of us persisted with our line. Bank staff started discouraging us saying that “there is no cash. We do not know when cash will arrive. It may come in half hour. It may not come at all. Go home.” We persisted with our line. There was a shout “cash has arrived.” Two people waked in with a trunk. There was speculation among people standing in queue, “This looks to be an empty trunk. You fool, would two people carry an empty trunk? It is full of cash. ” The female officer standing there said , “It is an empty trunk. These people have arrived to take cash back to head office.” We were disappointed. But still continued with line. All of a sudden at 10 am the same bank staff announced, “we shall give money. Please stand in queue.”  We were all in queue from 8 am or earlier. Where did the money come from? All of a sudden a group emerged. These people had token from day before. After a lot of heated argument, it was agreed that two person from the current day and two from day before would go in. People started going in. No one was coming out. Meanwhile, senior citizens, and not so senior ones, also went in. At 12.30, we were told there is no cash. 

Hardly 6 -8 people had gone in. At a rate of 24000 rupees per person maximum, did the bank have only 2.5 to 5 lac rupees? After a heated exchange, it emerged that people going in, specially senior citizens, were withdrawing using more than one cheque. Some other people going in for money exchange, where only 2000 rupee is allowed, were also withdrawing money. Genuine customers standing in withdrawal queue were being shot shrifted. Why were bank employees allowing them to do so? Bank was treating different customers differently. There is a nagging suspicion that private banks treat high net worth customers preferentially. If such discriminatory treatment persists, there is no hope of demonetisation drive succeeding. 

Demonetisation drive has transported to India of my childhood. Where, rich, powerful and connected behaved like animals trying to protect their kill. Where powerful took advantage of their position. Where average citizen stood in queue but came out empty handed. I am sure many of these people trying to secure their own interest today, are product of scarcity economy of the past. These people know how to use their position and power. If preferential treatment and VIP attitude persists, there is no hope of any progress. Common people are getting angry, frustrated and disillusioned of authorities, be it government or bank, continuously lying to them. 

In a situation where government and opposition political parties are competitively trying to project themselves to be the saviours of common man, I think onus lies on government and its machinery to be better prepared and deliver. A decision of this magnitude needs a picture perfect execution. Otherwise, a bold vision has every possibility of being turned into a terrible nightmare.

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