Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

My little black diary

Leave a comment

The morning of November 10, when the demonetisation demon hit us, will go down in the country’s history as Black Thursday

Column in Business Standard, November 19, 2016 

The morning of November 10, when the demon actually hit us, will go down in the country’s history as Black Thursday. It left no Indian unscathed. Here are jottings from my black diary of the week:

Thursday, Nov 10: After a quick count my wife and I discover we have about Rs 800 worth of usable notes in the kitty. Our two long-standing staff — scrupulous, loyal and diligent — have Rs 600 plus loose change. Thursday is grocery-shopping day; with other expenses it’s not going to take us far. By afternoon, armed with cheque books, I’m at my neighbourhood bank. The queues are unbeatable. My efficient banker designated “relationship manager” is no longer taking calls. Defeated by late evening I find phones in meltdown mode — friends, family and colleagues are in similar straits.

Friday, Nov 11: Up early, I’m ready for battle at 9 am. Of the four banks on our main street in south Delhi, I have accounts in two. One is a government bank up a twisted dark staircase with slovenly, tea-slurping staff and a fat slouching guard with an ancient double-barrel gun. The other is posh and private — all plate glass, comfy chairs and steaming cappuccinos. Even the guard is lean and alert with a superior weapon.

My banker lets me in on senior citizen grounds and I finish my business in an hour. A retired army officer who lives nearby is dripping vitriol: “Aa gaye na acche din…Aur do Modi ko vote! (Have Modi’s promise of good days come? Go vote for him now!)” Thinking my troubles are temporarily over, little do I know of the strife ahead.

Saturday, Nov 12: Our two family faithfuls deliver ominous tidings: They have more than Rs 2 lakh squirrelled away in trunks, kitchen drawers and elsewhere. It’s not only fat cats who stash crores in basements and under car seats. Imbued with a deep-seated distrust of corrupt governments that long ago abandoned them, this is how 85 per cent of the population prefers to save. It’s their hard-earned income, not ill-gotten wealth.

I rush them to the government bank where I helped start their accounts back in the 1980s. The filthy staircase with lines stretching far down the street is now a war zone — a mayhem of shouting, kicking and shoving. The metal entrance gate is chained and padlocked. Nasty louts, old men, housewives with babies beat against it like storming a jail. Once inside, there’s more bad news. One of my retainers’ accounts has gone dormant from disuse, the other has lost her PAN card. But they manage to exchange Rs 4,000 each and I am fortunate with my Rs 10,000 withdrawal. The ordeal has taken five hours.

Sunday, Nov 13: Our cleaning lady is a born complainer — her poisoned barbs normally aimed at neighbours, employers and Arvind Kejriwal. Today, slumped over mop and pail, she’s hysterically abusing the government. “Maar diya Modi ney…hum sab ko bhikari banaa diya. (Modi has killed us…he’s turned us all into beggars).” Her husband is asthmatic and can’t queue; her children work; she has no money for her bus fare, milk or medicines. I press some money to placate her.

But she’s not the only one penniless. My sister-in-law, back in town, is also cash-strapped. Our daughter calls urgently from the US to say a visiting American colleague is stranded with Rs 2,000 notes with few takers. Like mobile ATMs we’re ferrying money all over the place.

Monday, Nov 14: With my cache of new currency running low I’m back at the bank to beg for rapidly-vanishing small notes. Defence Colony market on Sunday evenings is usually throbbing, with barely standing room on pavements, but yesterday it looked desolate. The well-heeled woman ahead of me at the stationer’s was buying a pack of rubber bands. She plucked out her Amex gold card to pay for the Rs 35 purchase. I was awestruck: Was this a paragon of the cashless economy? Or are the rich so mean they get poorer faster than everyone else?

Tuesday, Nov 15: My brother, who lives in Goa, reports that the tourist season is collapsing. Thousands of marooned holidaymakers are at the mercy of extortionist racketeers. The PM says the poor will sleep peacefully after November 8. In fact, precisely the opposite is happening.

Thursday, Nov 17: Our two doughty faithfuls leave the house at first light and return at odd hours — queuing at post offices (no money there yet) or at banks (where the exchange is down to Rs 2,000 altogether). The news from their villages is grim: Long treks to empty banks, rotting crops, dead trades, voracious moneylenders. All Indian lives are interlinked in a safety net to compensate for the failures of the nation-state but demonetisation’s overall harm is incalculable. It will take 500, not 50, days to alleviate this pain.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s