How we hit the 500-note panic button in India

Amrita Mukherjee November 10, 2016 11:11 PM (UTC+8)
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In my Kolkata home, usually at 8 pm, my octogenarian parents are glued to the television watching mindless Bengali serials at unpardonable decibels. But had the television not been on, we wouldn’t have known Prime Minister Narendra Modi was addressing the nation. My mother was pretty sure he was there to declare war with Pakistan but what he did caused more mayhem than a war would probably have .

He declared that Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes were defunct as of midnight, although note holders could change those till December 30 at banks. ATMs would remained closed for the next one-and-a-half days. Although hospitals would continue to accept these notes for some more time, India would now have to use the Rs 2000 notes to be released in the economy soon along with new Rs 500 notes.

This he said was being done to take on the parallel black money economy flourishing in India. In his address he said: “There is a need for a decisive war against the menace of corruption, black money and terrorism… Corruption, black money and terrorism are festering wounds which make the country hollow from within.”

What do I do?

All that Modi said was fine but what was I expected to do?

A message sat in my Whatsapp inbox from a friend, “If you need money go the ATM immediately because there will be a big queue soon.”

I rushed to the ATM immediately. There wasn’t a soul there yet because the news hadn’t sunk in. I picked up cash but managed only to get Rs 500 in Rs 100-denominated notes; the rest was paid out in Rs 500. There’s wasn’t a choice of denomination in the ATM machine but I refused to worry.

I was back home with the cash but my mother immediately said, “You could have picked up in the entire cash by asking for Rs 400 then you would have got denominations of Rs 100. They are showing on TV some people are doing that at the ATM.”

It actually hadn’t occurred to me, or rather I wasn’t bothered, because it had not sunk in yet that I would not be able to use the Rs 500 I had picked up. I decided to make another trip to the ATM.

What did I see? There was a big crowd there and more people were there to deposit money than withdraw. They were depositing all the cash they were keeping at home in denominations of Rs 500 and Rs 1000.

That’s when it struck me that Modi had played the master stroke to flush out all the cash that has been hoarded in each household in the form of black money.

Someone standing in the queue said: “Do you really think all the top bosses of India are in our state. The real culprits with real black money have long ago been told to transfer the cash into dollars or Euro or to banks outside the country it’s us middle class people who have to bear the brunt of everything.”

I did not bother to stand there to get Rs 100 notes. I was determined I would not let this scenario affect my life. I wasn’t stashing away black money so why would I suffer standing in an ATM at 10:30 pm?

Chief Minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee was the first Chief Minister to react to Modi’s address through twitter. She wrote: “The PM could not get back the promised black money from abroad from the rich so a drama to divert his failure.”

The next thought on my mind was the car. Was there enough petrol? As some of the anchors on television became excited and fueled the panic that had already gripped the country, I could not ferret out whether petrol pumps would accept Rs 500 notes beyond midnight.

A television reporter showed the madness at a few petrol pumps in the city. The pump management was accepting Rs 500 and Rs 1000 but they weren’t willing to give any change. One look at those images on TV and I knew I could not possibly push my father out at that hour to get petrol. If need be, we would do without the car for the next few days.

Then finally someone said I had 72 hours to fill petrol with Rs 500. Phew!

In the virtual world

Details of Modi’s decision started making the rounds on Whatsapp groups, moments after the PM’s declaration. So did the jokes.

Friends from the US wrote: “While we are counting votes you guys are counting notes.”

“Modi has played the Trump card and turned the situation Hillari-ous.”

Someone shared: “Jayalalitha has gone back into a coma after hearing that Rs 500, Rs 1000 are defunct from tonight.”

“Today drink and drive maximum fine will be Rs 100.”

While discussions went on late into the night on Whatsapp and social media, many people supported Modi’s move saying this would help the economy flush out the toxins, but many felt that this decision would harass the common people while those who were really sitting on black money would, as always, find a way to wriggle out of the situation.

One post circulated on Whatsapp said that the Rs 2000 notes to be introduced soon would be fitted with microchips and it would be possible to trace where the notes were located. If too many notes were found sitting in one place for long then it would be traced.

A friend very pertinently pointed out: “Would it have hurt a lot if the new Rs 500 notes and Rs 2000 notes had been introduced and then this decision declared? We would have probably been saved from a lot of hassle but the purpose would have been served.”

Now I am dreading the thought of going to a bank and standing in a long queue to change the money I picked up from the ATM. And where would I have the time to stand in the long queue between my office and home to change all my money? That I can only change Rs 4000 a day doesn’t make things better.

We’ll see what happens. For now I refuse to panic.

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