There is an imposing white temple in a tony South Delhi colony. Across the road is a branch of a private bank. These days, the bank has a snaking queue outside it every day. The temple, on the other side of the road, has a few pigeons and a forlorn priest. This imagery makes you wonder whether the queues are long and unmanageable at the bank because the government left things to the other side of the road.
Now hold your fire. This is not a debate on whether the currency culling was right or wrong, or effective. Any strike aimed at black money must be welcomed. Here there is the added element of counterfeit currency. Police insiders say they had reached a point where the battle against forged currency appeared to be a losing one. And every citizen will be willing to bear a bit of hardship in national interest – as this newspaper argued, it is short-term pain for long-term gain. The bitter medicine adage comes to mind.
However, a medicine need not be so bitter. How bitter this one is can be seen in the frequency and intensity with which the doctors have been counselling us. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spoken six times about it. Finance minister Arun Jaitley and his secretaries have held eight formal briefings for the media, not to count the numerous informal ones. You need to communicate so much so frequently only if your message is in danger of sounding incoherent.
The din at ATMs and banks is such that any message will sound incoherent. But it does not help that the communication lines have been crackling. We do not yet know when life will return to normal. The best case is that ATMs will be working as they used to in two to three weeks. But that is hardly certain. Perhaps that is the reason the government has been pushing back the date for acceptance of the culled currency and expanding the counters that can accept them.
Perhaps the ATMs could have been recalibrated earlier. Perhaps the banks could have prepared better. Perhaps only one note could have been killed at first – either ₹500 or ₹1,000. The government’s point is taken that this had to be a surprise move and secrecy was therefore important. But estimates say only a small part of the black economy in this country is in cash. We are giving enough notice to those who deal in things other than cash. Mr Modi used a speech to warn of a crackdown on so-called benami properties – where the real owner is someone other than the title holder. It is safe to expect a raft of real estate deals.
Perhaps we could have traded some of the secrecy to buy convenience for the common folk.