Back in India – my third (?) home.

As much as I love India there are times when I REALLY, REALLY wonder. This whole demonetization thing has been an astonishing eye-opener. For those of you who may not know – or care – in early November the India government announced that effective immediately 500 and 1,000 rupee notes were no longer valid currency and the India population had until December 30 to turn them in for replacement. Sounds ok right – helps eliminate the black market and reduces the grey economy, encourages people to embrace the digital world and open bank accounts. Sure except, no new bills were available to replace the old and when they were printed the sizing was changed so every ATM machine in the country had to be modified. People are still only allowed to withdraw very small sums from the ATMs – if you can find one that has been modified and has bills. People lined up in droves to exchange their funds only to be told that they could open a bank account for deposit of their old bills but not actually withdraw any money. People actually died standing in line!

In Canada there was mass confusion, many people like me who go to India on a regular basis of course were holding INR not to mention all the India expats and second gen. who also had cash and couldn’t fly to India before the deadline. Naturally neither the Indian Consulate in Toronto nor the Embassy in Ottawa had a clue – probably not their fault – nobody had a clue. The best I could gather was that if I presented myself at the Federal Reserve Bank in Delhi before March 31st and signed an affidavit on where and how I’d come by the money I would be allowed to exchange 25,000 rupees. Not by the way, all I was holding but still…

I arrived in Delhi, and foregoing my usual sybaritic jet-lag cure at the hotel spa dutifully headed to the Fed for the opening at 10 am. There was a mob swirling around the formidable iron gates with army in riot gear attempting to impose some order to the mess. I stood with one group for about half an hour – you have to understand that in India there is no such thing as an orderly queue – until one of the young solders half dragged me over to his sargent who did speak some English – it is a bit disconcerting to be dragged away by soldiers never mind how sweetly they are smiling at you! The Sargent gave me to understand that I was in the wrong line and to stand with the mob who had passports. An hour later I had worked my way to the front with sharp elbows and a callous lack of regard for my fellow man – only to be told that I was in the wrong place and to go to the State Bank down the road…

By this point I’d collected a couple of Australian women who tagged along as I dealt with State Bank. They of course had NO idea what I was doing there or why and said “Go back to Reserve Bank Ma’am!” Back we go and this time I really bulled my way to the front and just about jumped down the throat of the teeny, tiny little sweaty man who was admitting people into the inner sanctum- or at least the front lobby to be more prosaic! Eventually a very nice lady appeared in response to my cranky demands to explain that she was really, very, terribly sorry and the government had changed their minds again and would not be allowing “tourists” – any none Indians, to convert their demonetized currency! BUT possibly that could change again and to check back with then again – really?

I limped back to my hotel after 5 or six hours of this nonsense and reflected on what a disaster this all was. Sure its an inconvenience to me and no one likes to lose hundreds of dollars arbitrarily even if they can afford to do so but I couldn’t help thinking of all the people I know of in India who depend on their tiny bit of daily cash – the construction coolies, the laundry men, the tailors and the fruit sellers, the beggars and the chai wallahs. What happened to them?

Bloody politicians!!!