Open letter to the PM from an Indian in the Bank Queues

Open letter to the PM from an Indian in the Bank Queues

Our Beloved Prime Minister,

I would like to start with this disclaimer; I do not have any political affiliation and I am as Indian as you. I have seen a disheartening trend where anyone criticizing any of your policies is either termed as from rival camps or an anti-national. This situation has become so alarming that an ex-army man, who commits suicide, is branded as a congress party member. To term this as a tragic aberration is to forget the plethora of cyberbullying cases where people have been abused and threatened because they dared to question you. I might write a separate letter to you on this issue some day. But today I write to you as an Indian standing in bank queues. I could have written and sent it directly to you. But given your busy schedule and frequent foreign trips, I am apprehensive that such a letter might reach you late or may not reach you at all. Also, while I write this, I believe that I echo sentiments of few thousand Indians if not millions. Hence, I am trying to save few papers by being the collective voice. Please use these papers to print few more currency notes.

I scribbled this letter while I was standing in the queue to get my money exchanged. With your announcement to demonetize 500 and 1000 currency notes, my wallet suddenly turned into a bin of waste papers. You were very considerate to announce that emergency services like hospitals, doctors, flights and trains would continue to accept the older notes. But I have heard of stories where people were denied medical service in want of legal tender.  I was recently traveling to Ahmadabad, to the birthplace of Gandhi. The same Gandhi, who has broken his promise to pay the bearer an assured sum. I know it is the RBI governor who makes this promise, but Gandhi has gracefully put his face to that commitment. I was traveling to the airport at around 2 PM on Sunday. It was working Sunday for bankers and non-working Sunday for citizens who had to shun their work to queue up at the bank. I could tell the Bank from an ATM from a distance without reading the signboard. I have shortsightedness so I generally find it difficult to tell if it is a bank or an ATM. But last Sunday, I could. ATMs were all deserted and banks were characterized by swarms of humanity. That was my first encounter with what is happening outside our phone screens right now.

Before proceeding further, I must confess that I was quick to term demonetization scheme as ‘master stroke against black money’ the moment you announced it. I also knew that it would go a long way in curbing the menace of counterfeit notes. I was so inspired that I wrote, “Announcement to Discontinue 500 and 1000 Notes Was Timed to Perfection”. I still stand by what I said then being cognizant of its limitations. This Sunday encounter was the first reality check. Once I reached the airport, I needed some cash lest I should barter my belongings. In my ATM hunting, I ran from one ATM to another. Some ATMs announced upfront that they had security guards, fully functional AC but no cash, others were a bit playful. They would let you swipe, enter pin, enter amount and then display a vague message that got you thinking that “Maybe because I entered Rs 1300 and the ATM only has 500 currency notes, so let me try a multiple of 500/2000”. This ATM hunting that started in Bangalore continued in Ahmadabad and is back full circle now.

In Ahmadabad, I went to Kankaria lake early morning. If you happen to reach here before sunrise, you are greeted by colorful lights all around. Thanks for making Ahmadabad such a nice city. Sunrise here is breathtaking. Above is the moment I captured on my phone. While I was returning back home at 7 AM, I found people queued up outside banks. The markers of the queue were sleeping on a makeshift bedroll, meaning thereby that they might have arrived the previous night. People who had come early morning were half sleepy. My cab driver could gauze my unusual interest in the queues and narrated his story. Just a day before, he joined one such queue at 7:30 in the morning. He could get his currency notes exchanged only at 1:30 PM. Loss of half day wage for a cab driver to get Rs 4000 exchanged!!

Sir, most of the people in the queue are daily wage earners like this cab driver. They are already facing cash crunch because the currency notes that they have, does not carry any value and whatever business they do, has slumped because their customers do not have any legal tender. In such a scenario, if they have to let go of their day’s wage, their kids would sleep hungry that day. Yesterday, I had to get some currency notes exchanged. My experience was relatively better as it was my ‘home’ branch. But I saw all kinds of rules in action at banks. Most of the people who had turned up were illiterate and hence form filling itself was a herculean task. There was not a single bank employee who could guide them. Somehow, they managed to get the form inked. They would reach the bank counter after waiting in the queue for eternity only to be turned away by the cashier for minor mistakes. It seemed as if people on the other side were bent upon denying cash to these people. I also know of banks which have only entertained account holders of their respective branches. There are few others who have mandated PAN card even for smaller deposits. There are all kinds of banks with all kinds of rules and the common man is facing the brunt.

It’s too early to comment on how effective this would be but we have been put to a lot of inconveniences. I know this policy is a step in right direction to boost the financial health of India. While Jan Dhan Yojna was about financial inclusion, this is to exclude people with unaccounted money. The intent is good, but the execution has been pathetic. Sir, a policy cannot be rolled out first and arrangements be made later. Government should have recalibrated the ATMS beforehand or at least increased the inflow of lower denomination while curbing the higher denomination. Cash is the oxygen of the country. Right from food to shelter and clothing depends on this. You cannot cut off the oxygen supply and then look for alternatives. While you and your fellow politicians carry oxygen cylinders, there are people like us who are hand to mouth.

Mr Modi, I must congratulate you for this bold step but at the same time, it’s imperative to warn you that no policy of this great impact and reach be rolled out in such a hurry. I will recommend that you go back to your childhood books which read,

“I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man [woman] whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him [her]. Will he [she] gain anything by it? Will it restore him [her] to a control over his [her] own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj [freedom] for the hungry and spiritually starving millions?
Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away.”

The way this demonetization drive has been executed, it clearly fails this talisman. It fails more miserably than I flunked mathematics in class III.

Yours Truly,
A Disappointed Indian