‘Can’t keep cash at home, can’t leave money in bank’

After the crisis in the small Punjab and Maharashtra Co-operative Bank where many modest wage earners had deposits, there’s widespread panic across sections of society who had never heard of it before

Photo courtesy: Twitter
Photo courtesy: Twitter

Sujata Anandan

In all my growing up years, through many prime ministers and even during the Emergency years, my parents were secure about their modest earnings and savings, sure that their hard-earned money will go nowhere. Taxation was at 97 percent but my father did not worry.

As a government servant, many things like water and electricity bills were taken care of, school fees were not too high and even if my parents could not save much in those highly-inflationary times, there was always the assurance that whatever they had would adequately take care of our needs and requirements.

When Prime Minister Morarji Desai demonetised high value currency notes, no one panicked. I recall my mother laughing and saying she dealt only in tens and hundreds but a neighbour had that rare thousand rupee note. But there was no rush to the bank because ample time was given for the exchange, most of the money was in circulation and there was no restriction on withdrawing your own money from the bank. Life continued as normal without much ado despite the demonetisation.

The last demonetisation in 2016 as everyone knows was very ‘Tughlaq-ian’ wherein 85 percent of our cash became pieces of paper overnight and we did not have access to our own savings for days.

All of us suffered and the memories still trouble us when we think of old infirm pensioners standing in queues, many collapsing and dying, farmers with no money to buy seeds for the Rabi season starting just then losing that while season's crops, small factories shutting down because supply chains were interrupted by cash flow problems, vegetable vendors, housemaids and everyone who dealt with cash were made to learn that a bank account was better and safer.

There were many among these who did not know how to even read the time on the wall clock or dial the numbers on their mobile phones which they kept only as an emergency safety equipment by which families could reach them during a crisis. When asked if he could use a digital mode of transaction, my regular vegetable vendor told me, “I cannot even read the numbers. How can I be sure I am pressing the right buttons?”

But with the help of the young children in the family, he at least learnt how to operate an ATM machine for fast cash and was beginning to feel comfortable with money in the bank untroubled and blissfully ignorant about the impending problem with banks and a steadily tanking economy.

After the crisis in the small Punjab and Maharashtra Co-operative Bank where many modest wage earners had deposits, there now seems to be widespread panic not just among those depositors but also others across sections of society who had never heard of the PMCB before last week.

“If you keep your money at home in cash, it gets demonetised, if you leave it in the bank it gets locked in. What is one supposed to do?” a panicking maid asked me.

I had no answer, for that worry is now also mine and I have no faith in the abilities of this government to make the lives of Indian citizens as safe and secure as it was before 2014 or even in the times of Morarji Desai.

When Narendra Modi came to government in 2014 with the promise of achhe din, I was willing to hold back my scepticism until he delivered on those promises, though not really believing he could do a better job than the previous government. But while it took a while for the government's inefficiencies to unravel in the last term, this term the unmasking has been swifter, brutal and more decisive, leaving them no fig leaves to cover up their incompetence.

However, the government's complete failure to acknowledge and accept its shortcomings, its continued crony capitalism and concessions to the rich, alongside neglect of the poorer masses, is, I am afraid, leading us towards a class war that is going to have disastrous consequences for the nation.

There is a viral video from a PMCB branch showing a desperate sobbing woman who works as a domestic help on monthly wages of Rs 5000, with a lifetime savings of just over Rs 1 lakh in the bank. She asks a reporter through her tears what she should do about retrieving her savings and is so helpless and miserable that her plight has wrenched the hearts of many an Indian.

If it does not similarly touch a nerve with the government, then all that one can say is that there is no longer any hope for the vast multitudes of common people in this country and that the government ignores them at its own peril.

All along these years despite my personal scepticism, I was hopeful of a change either from within the government or without. But now even any hope is giving way to despair and the fear of what might happen next is very real and imminent.

Former Maharashtra deputy chief minister Ramrao Adik, who was also a finance minister, had once given me a valuable lesson in economics. In view of how the first Shiv Sena-BJP government in the state had overstressed its resources, he had said: “Governments should always be run the way households would. You do not spend more than you earn, you never borrow more than you can repay comfortably. You never lend to unreliable friends who might never return your money. And you always put aside for a rainy day.”

Obviously with the way the Union Finance Minister has been going over the past months, all these principles of personal finance have passed the government by.

All that we have been left with is overstretched budgets, collapsing banks and sobbing depositors and more than half a nation in despair. With all of us on the brink of disaster.

Even Morarji Desai was a harsh man without a heart. But at least he had the good sense to spare the poor.

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