ATM Chaos: When Narendra Modi's crackdown on black money made me feel like a criminal

Indian banks are supposed to have already received 2 trillion rupees of cash post the government’s 8 November “surgical strike” on high-denomination banknotes to turn the economy squeaky clean.

The State Bank of India alone, the country’s largest bank accounting for 20-25 percent of the nation’s banking system along with its associates, got deposits worth 478.68 billion rupees, or so the Union finance minister Arun Jaitley proudly informed the press on Saturday.

The sudden move to demonetise was doing what it was meant to and had already begun to bear fruit. India, it was implied, was well on its way to being cleansed and purified.

But I, a senior citizen, who have spent what I had thought was a blameless life, working only in jobs where tax was deducted at source, opting to forego holidays rather than buy train tickets “on the black”, forswearing first day first shows rather than enrich scalpers, is feeling soiled and besmirched.

Because an infinitesimal portion of those supposedly ebony-hued trillions waiting for a gigantic bonfire to be lit by the prime minister on some auspicious day, belonged to me. Money earned through sincere labour if not very hard labour (journalism does not demand much sweat of one’s brow, not in the way it is practised in brightly lit, air conditioned offices).

ATM Chaos: When Narendra Modis crackdown on black money made me feel like a criminal

People wait to exchange their old Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes and deposit cash at the banks. PTI

Money that employers had deposited straight into my account and were withdrawn by me as and when and kept in the Godrej almirah in the bedroom because I have an even more elderly mother at home and medical emergencies can come unannounced at unearthly hours and Kolkata’s declining fortunes have driven most family members to greener pastures far away.

Yes, I do have credit cards and debit cards and cheque books (more than one of each in fact), but experience, bitter experience, has taught me not to rely wholly on the digital way of life in India. So, a stash of money for emergencies had seemed like a wise and practical thing to do.

But come 8 November and I found myself the mortified possessor of what in sarkari parlance was deemed “black money”. Overnight, I was no different from those fatcats and filmstars and pols we had looked down upon as “corrupt” and hence reprehensible.

True, my crisis cache was well below the “small amounts” the finance minister promised would be beneath the taxmen’s contempt but still, it did open one up to the prospect of unwelcome brushes with the authorities to “explain away the unaccounted money”.

With one “audacious” and “visionary” announcement (going by bhaktspeak), Narendra Modi had turned me into a criminal or at least made me feel like one. And even if I knew I wasn’t one and the government would not find me to be one, I was furious to be made to feel like one even for a split second.

Yes, the prime minister and his team have reassured me that “the innocents” would not be penalised but why should I even have to prove my innocence to anyone? And would they be convinced? How does one do that? Would I have to provide “documents”? What documents? Not the most organised of persons, I’ve never bothered to save any for such an eventuality.

Those five hundred and thousand rupee notes seemed to acquire a life of their own, wriggling and writhing in my cupboard like some revolting insects. I couldn’t wait to get rid of them, put them into the bank asap and cleanse my home of such polluting, tainted stuff.

I couldn’t bring myself to wait longer, to heed the finance minister’s voice of sweet reason advising us “not to flock the banks rightaway” but “stagger it over the 50-day window provided by the government for the purpose.” Instead, I gamely queued up at my bank branch even though I could see the queue had snaked out of the premises and was winding down an adjacent lane.

The guard at the door took pity on my grey hair and asked me if I was a “customer”. On being told yes, I am, he opened the door a fraction and allowed me to slip inside. Indoors, it was all calm and orderly with a separate queue for “priority customers” of which I happened to be one.

And, wonder of wonders, there were only a handful of people in that queue. The fortunate are always few. The milling crowds were in the two other queues made up of the bank’s non-priority customers or non-customers.

My business was quickly done, I felt lighter, ready again to hold my head high (though a niggling fear remained about unspecified future consequences). But as I walked past the anxious, tired faces of the unfortunate many I felt guilty again, at how easy it all was for me. Even though these men and women, waiting patiently for their turn, did not look enviously at me but were, as always, resigned to their lot in life.

The bhakts blessed with the ability to see the bigger picture may ridicule us (e.g. “onrush of concern among the chattering classes for their maids and maalis,” in the words of one such in today’s Times of India) but they still haven’t explained why men with such foresight couldn’t have managed things better. For us and them.

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Updated Date: Nov 13, 2016 16:55:04 IST

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