On the evening when the year was turning, the nation was glued to the television to hear Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s much-awaited address, and though his announcements were many about welfare schemes, his speech fell short of people’s expectations about easing the pains of demonetization. These pains, he says now, are going to continue for some more months. People waited patiently for 50 days, because he had asked people to give him that many days when their woes would be over. If he failed in that, he said, people could try him at any public square and award him whatever “punishment” they thought proper. The currency situation has no doubt eased but the woes have not ended. Trades and businesses are still far from normal. Millions of daily wage workers who were fired by their employers have not got back their jobs. People are still postponing weddings and surgical operations. The weekly withdrawal limit from bank account continues, and there is still a low upper ceiling to ATM withdrawals.
What has gone wrong? Certainly, the planning. There was no planning from the very beginning. Let us begin from the beginning. No one disputes the demonetization decision had to be kept secret. And hence the RBI could not have ordered printing of new notes on a large scale, because it would have leaked out alerting the “black money hoarders.” Fine: but what stopped the RBI from increasing the capacity of the mints, in terms of number of machines, technology, paper and ink and labour, such that the replacement of the rejected currency could have been done within one week or two weeks? There was no need for secrecy about increasing the printing capacity. Was there? It would be too far-fetched to imagine that black money hoarders would have guessed demonetization of 500- and 1,000-rupee notes was coming because the RBI was going in for enhancement of printing capacity. RBI Governor Urjit Patel could have asked Prime Minister Modi, who was eager to announce demonetization, to wait until he was through his printing capacity enhancement. He could have asked Modi to sanction him special funds under a camouflage and equipped his mints with several times more capacity to cope with the withdrawal of 15 lakh crore currency.
Bad planning was to become the hallmark of demonetization. There could not have been more foolish an RBI Governor than Urjit Patel to order printing of new notes in sizes different from the demonetized notes. Had the RBI printed them in the same sizes, ATMs would have been working and there would have been shorter lines at the banks. And yet another foolish decision: they printed 2,000-rupee notes on a large scale before 500-rupee or 100-rupee notes. The result was that people got 2,000-rupee notes from banks or ATMs but could not buy anything with them because there was no smaller currency to receive in change. At times, the whole demonetization looked like a fit of sadism, with the men behind it taking pleasure in inflicting pains on the people. Fifty days later, 500-rupee notes are still in short supply.
But despite all these follies and despite all their miseries, people waited patiently for 50 days because Prime Minister Modi asked them to participate in the “tapasya,” “yajna” and ‘maha sangram’ to eradicate black money, corruption and terrorism. In a way, the Prime Minister compared demonetization to an emergency-like situation in which the country was at war against black money hoarders, the corrupt and terrorists and people must expect some shortages and disruptions and not complain about it, for complaining about it would mean you were not a patriot.
The billions of people who went through the suffering at the Prime Minister’s call were greatly disappointed by his year-end address. They were expecting that the King of Crusaders would give them a report on the progress of his crusade. How much of black money had been unearthed? How many big black money hoarders had been caught? How could terrorists carry out a major attack on yet another military base at Nagrota without the counterfeit notes? How many corrupt politicians and civil servants had been transported to jail? True, Income Tax officials have discovered several cases of undeclared money through data analytics and bank managers’ reports. But the number of cases and the amounts are too few and clearly suggest that the picture of apocalypse presented by the King of Crusaders was over-pitched and melodramatic. At the end of it, the suffering patriots have at least the right to ask him a fundamental question: Could you not have carried out a surgical strike at the few black money hoarders instead of carpet bombing the entire population? Isn’t it like burning a forest to force a few man-eaters out?