Whatever else can one say about India, one has to admit that the kind of entertainment and excitement that we have in this country throughout the year is not found anywhere in the world. The Bengali poet D.L. Roy was so correct when he said “You can’t find anywhere another country like this”! I was convinced of the truth of this in the course of the last one week.
The city of Kolkata, somewhat reluctantly, was returning to its normal rhythm after a month of festivities. People started attending their offices and businesses; schools reopened and the prices of daily necessities started showing a downward trend, much to the relief of this pensioner. It was at this moment, when I thought I would have some respite from the blaring microphones all around and the ear-splitting bursting of diwali crackers, came the “surgical strike” in the form of demonetization of currency notes of higher denominations.
On the television, the Prime Minister spelt out the rationale behind and mode of implementation of the new policy. He was at his best, convincing self. This ‘hardened’ skeptic, who had spent years within the ‘system’ observing or ensuring the implementation of many such decisions taken with the noblest of intentions, was not convinced. I could visualize what was in store for us at least for the next few days, or maybe, weeks.
The prime ministerial sermon ended with a request for the people to remain calm and patient in the coming few days, and to cooperate with the authorities even at the cost of some personal difficulties. Financial and political pundits started the usual vivisection of the sudden decision. The visual media started flashing the salient features of the policy, which misguided the people more than they helped. Some, not understanding what it was all about, ran to the nearest ATM booths and withdrew cash, adding to their existing stock of the soon to be obsolete currency notes!
Armed with my identity documents, and their “xerox”- as a photocopy is popularly called in this part of India, next morning I hit the road for the nearest bank . This place has branches of at least four different banks. So I thought I would be able to offload at least part of my hoarding. Avoiding the first two banks that had huge crowds waiting before their gates, I tried my luck at the third, a private bank.
The lady at the front desk gave me a reassuring smile, handed out a form and guided me to the queue where twenty odd persons were waiting to exchange their OHDs. [Sorry; I forgot to tell you: OHD is the acronym for Old High Denomination (currency notes)]! The other, longer, line was for those who wanted to deposit their stock. “Not bad; servicing twenty people may take about half an hour”, I told myself, and started filling out the form.
I was utterly wrong. The procedure was hopelessly slow. The sole teller first accepted the forms from ten customers at a time, and scrutinised them. He then walked out of his cabin to verify the details ‘online’. He returned after nearly forty five minutes and took another twenty to hand out the change to the first batch of ten. Thus, after almost two hours I could triumphantly come out of the bank with forty one hundred rupee notes in my wallet. Just one more official could have cut down the waiting time; perhaps that one additional hand was too much for the bank to arrange for.
Although my wallet was fatter now, it was only half of my target amount. So, the next day I thought of visiting a branch of the State Bank of India. The real fun was here. There was total pandemonium on the footpath outside, and the crowd had spilled over to the road. I settled down for a patient wait for my turn to come. A wait of forty minutes took me just two steps closer to my goal. But, after another ten minutes people in our line started showing signs of restlessness. Those in front gave us a running commentary of the proceedings inside. “The Manager came to the gate and said he could only accept deposits, as there was more cash for exchange”, one commentator announced. So far, almost everyone was all praise for the Prime Minister’s “bold initiative and how it would flush the black money out of the closets”. “Achche din is just round the corner”, said some. Now their ire turned against the Reserve Bank for not supplying enough currency notes. Anyway, since the bank had no cash, I gave up my quest for money and left.
After these two unsuccessful attempts to exchange our stock of OHDs, my wife and I visited a nearby branch of a bank next evening to deposit them into our account. “No more deposits today”, the Branch Manager tried to dissuade us. A little insistence, however, made him relent. It was a great relief for us. I could not blame the Manager. He and his staff looked quite visibly tired after the harrowing experience of managing huge crowds throughout the day. I also saw how the officials, faced with restless crowds on the one hand, and non-availability of either adequate number of staff or the required quantity of cash on the other, did the best they could.
Those waiting in the ever-lengthening queues mostly took it sportingly, with some minor aberrations here and there. It really was a good experience watching the people and their activities. As it happens in a motley crowd, some were true gentlemen (and women) waiting patiently for their turn (which never came, in some cases). Others looked about for opportunities to somehow sneak in by creating a ruckus at the gate, while yet others frantically called up friends or acquaintances inside the bank to see if there could be some way of avoiding the long wait. In a more advanced country so many man hours lost in waiting for a handful of currency notes would have raised eyebrows; here no one bothered.
One could also pick up extremely enjoyable bazaar “gups” about the latest in politics. Even the most ordinary man kept his audience enthralled by his analysis of such complicated matters as the government’s Pakistan policy, or the intricacies of the US Presidential election! Others, in whispering undertone, gave insider’s information – much like the bookies at the Royal Calcutta Turf Club – about the next step the Prime Minister had up his sleeves. Yet another told us how the revenue intelligence people would track the movement of every single new 2000 rupee note by means of the embedded ‘GPS chip’! He had no clue how that would help eradicate corruption, but was sure that the “IAS officers” knew better.
According to the government, this surgical strike, like its more lethal version across the LOC, has been a success. We don’t know much about the latter, but one must say that execution of the latest ‘strike’ was somewhat crude. The incision no doubt took the law-abiding multitude as well as the unscrupulous few by utter surprise. That indeed was the intention and, given its objective it had to be so. Our only complaint – if I may not be termed anti-national for saying this – is that this is more like a surgery done in some obscure nursing home, where the doctor discovers to his horror after the operation that there is no stock of bandage left for dressing the wound! Of course, with the patient still in his stupor, someone will run to get the gauze; but the ‘management’ we hope will be doing its homework better next time!