Here is the story of a chaiwallah, one among those 1.25 billion Janata Janardhans, whom Prime Minister Narendra Modi always refers to in his speeches and big political rallies. The chaiwallah was wondering about his life post the demonetisation announcement. He is one of the ardent aam aadmi fans who looks at PM Modi as his saviour and answer to India’s historical, political and economic miseries. For him, Modi has always been the living specimen of a revolutionary leader, a master orator, a political strategist, master of timing and someone who has successfully instilled the idea and hope of achhe din in million aam aadmi psyche.
Ever since the chaiwallah first heard about Modi in the newspapers, he could always relate to Modi more than any other political leader in the history of modern India. He was so thrilled to hear that once the PM too had humble beginnings, and even sold tea on the roadside for a living. Only such a man could, he always believed, understand the problems of the poor. Not the politicians who are born rich and have seen our world only through car windows. So, the PM has always been his living inspiration.
But, of late, even an ardent modi bhakt like our chaiwallah has developed an uneasiness with the PM, his idol. Why?
It all began after the PM's historic announcement on national television on the evening of 8 November that Rs 500, Rs 1,000 notes will cease to be legal tender. A few hours from then (the midnight of Tuesday) dramatic events unfolded and continues to cause disruption in the life of the chaiwallah.
Our chaiwallah was equally thrilled like many other chaiwallahs and mazdoor friends to hear that this is one of the biggest crackdowns on fake currency/black money ever since Morarji Desai's Janata government did something similar way back in 1978. Despite his limited formal education, he understood black money is bad for our economy and so are counterfeit notes. They create a parallel economy and make a mockery of the formal system and honest citizens like him.
The chaiwallah remembered how he once accidentally laid his hands on a fake note. He recalled being scared and clueless at that moment seeing that piece of paper.
All that the poor fellow could do was to run to the nearest police station and tell the cops so as to save himself from trouble. It was only after he could convince them about his innocence and the fact that the possession of the jaali note was unintentional, could he return to his room that night. He still gets nightmares when he recalls the incident. The chaiwallah knew very well how fake notes and unaccounted cash shake the fundamentals of an economy. As a dutiful citizen, he too wants to get rid of this evil from this great country. Hence, when he heard the PM's currency crackdown he was excited, proud and for few hours, euphoric.
But, our chaiwallah couldn’t sustain his enthusiasm for long on the night of 8 November. His elation was over when he realized that there was only a Rs 100 note left in his wallet along with some small change. There was another Rs 70 at home with his wife. The remaining cash savings were in Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes, which his well-informed children, by then were using to make paper aircrafts and chana packets to put on social media.
The chaiwallah's wife didn’t stop them mistaking that the currency notes were worthless as paper now (thanks to his ignorant and pretentious neighbors!). It was only when he reached home did he take the aeroplanes and chana packets and convert them back into the shape of currency notes by telling them they still carry value and can be exchanged at banks.
The chaiwallah, however, panicked too. His school-going children needed money for the next day and his wife was pointing at the empty vegetable basket at home as if the currency ban was the chaiwallah's personal decision. Our man also had a feeling that the newspaperwallah/cablewallah would be soon at his doorstep for their dues. To his horror, he soon heard on news channels that ATMs or banks would not be working the next day (9 November). In subsequent days, there were long-serpentine queues outside ATMs and bank branches.
With no choice but to stand in the long queue, the chaiwallah tried his luck half an hour in the queue outside one of the ATMs, but the snake wasn’t moving even its tail after half an hour. If it continued in the same manner for another half an hour, his tea business for that day would have been seriously impacted since the office goers are his primary customers. The chaiwallah would then have to wait till late afternoon to get such a crowd again. So, he had to leave the queue with a last depressing look at the ATM door and the victorious grin on the face of the man who stood after him.
This incident repeated on the second day, third day and fourth day too. The chaiwallah hasn't been able to withdraw money from the only cash-dispensing ATM in his area on the 6th day today as ATMs continue to be non-operational. He too cannot beat the long queues at his bank to deposit the few Rs 1,000, Rs 500 notes he has in possession.
On the sixth day of demonetisation today, the chaiwallah's initial rage against black money/fake currency and the adrenalin rush he experienced throughout seeing the PM's announcement, has begun to abate. That is not deliberate though. It’s just that every time he goes back home and look at the limited resources left in his small room—food or otherwise, he doesn't feel like thinking about the black money issue anymore. His only thought is how to get some cash, if possible in Rs 100 notes.
Ever since the currency ban, the number of customers who come to his stall has slowed down to a trickle. Nobody has any change. One came with a Rs 2,000 note and the chaiwallah had to threaten him to throw hot water on his face if he didn’t stop his argument on why he could not accept the new note for the Rs 6 chai and offer him change.
The chaiwallah heard that people have stopped small spends not just at his tea shop, but even in kirana stores and malls. Cabbies are also having a hard time and so are vegetable vendors. He can of course offer credit to his customers for a day or two, but he also needs money to buy tea powder, sugar and ginger -- the ingredients that go into making his tea. When the suppliers or vendors don't give him credit, he is not at liberty to offer any to his customers.
The chaiwallah had also heard about PM Modi's emotional Goa speech—about how he sacrificed his personal life for the greater good of the nation and his determination to fight against the outlaws in the country. The chaiwallah too wanted to assure the PM that he too hated black money just like him. He despises counterfeit currency notes and those who are involved in this racket. The chaiwallah was with the PM in this battle. But, he now wants the PM do something to make cash available, if possible in Rs 100s at ATMs.
Life is getting very difficult for the chaiwallah every passing day. To add to his worries, he heard the PM asking the public to give the government 50 days time to make ATMs dispense the new currency notes. Even the Finance Minister, Arun Jaitely said that things would not be back to normal before three weeks. But the chaiwallah is seriously worried what will happen in this time gap. Already, there are reports of violence in front of ATM counters and bank branches in Uttar Pradesh and a similar incident in Bhiwandi in Maharashtra. At this rate, if he goes again to join the ATM queue, he fears he may get thrown out by the crowd.
The chaiwallah has a few questions to ask the PM:
First: Why didn't the government print sufficient number of lower denomination notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 in the government Mints, instead of pushing the fancy not-so-useful Rs 2,000 notes into the market? The Rs 2,000 note is a hard nut for the public to use and not more than a showcase item, for now.
Second: Why didn’t the government equip the ATM network to deliver the new currency notes in advance? As of now, ATMs aren’t equipped to deliver anything other than the Rs 100 notes. Fpr the machine to accommodate the new series of notes will take a long time — a process which will further delay the functioning of ATMs. Yes, there was a need for secrecy considering the nature of this operation, but the government could have at least, in every locality recalibrated a limited number of ATMs in advance.
Third: Why didn’t the PM ask the government departments to set up currency kiosks adjacent to bank branches for, say an initial 10 days, rather than directing the entire crowd to the ATMs and bank branches?
Four: Why doesn't the PM respond to the allegations that the government leaked out the currency crackdown plan to BJP leaders and workers in advance? His children showed him pictures of one of the BJP's Punjab unit leader tweeting about the new Rs 2,000 currencey note days much in advance before the PM announced the decision. In the news, the chaiwallah heard the Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal say that bank deposits have surged to a record level in the July-September quarter. What should an aam aadmi like the chaiwallah understand from all these?
The chaiwallah continues to welcome the good intention behind the currency crackdown and appreciate the courage shown by Modi government to take this bold and unpopular decision, but he feels that the government has absolutely failed to think ahead and plan the transition phase properly. Just like the PM is committed to ward off the evil of black money/ fake currency from the economy, he also has an absolute, equal commitment to make sure that the common man's life doesn’t turn stressful in the process. That needs actions from him to solve the cash crunch in the system, not just issuing emotional appeals. The latter doesn’t help at all. The common man needs action to put his lives back to normalcy, thought the chaiwallah.
Unless the PM can make that happen, the chaiwallah thought both an aam aadmi like him and the PM himself are looking at problematic days ahead.
The chaiwallah saw a few customers walking into his shop with loose change. The sight of currency notes in the denomination of Rs 100 and Rs 50, and even Rs 10 notes were a pleasing picture that brought a smile to his face. Finally.