Helicopters making sorties a few hundred metres overhead is common enough in these parts of Mumbai for people to not give it a thought. But we live not in regular times. These are surreal days of post-demonetisation. The equations and reactions of the past do not hold good any longer. New responses are being shaped, some prosaic such as waiting for a day in a bank queue to have a few thousands of legal currency in hand, and others fanciful such as the reaction Yadavrao had to the chopper.
A middle-aged autorickshaw driver at the local stand with 23 years in Mumbai, he muttered in Marathi: “In my village near Latur, whenever the helicopter comes around, either an important leader descends or wads of cash and relief material are thrown down at us…I wish this one would toss some valid currency notes.” Yadavrao is in the process of buying a smartphone so he can use a popular mobile wallet. His regret is that the price of this phone would have bought a few months of medicines for the family back home.
The Narendra Modi bhakt brigade urged the rest of us to develop short-term amnesia about the pain of the demonetisation with thoughts of brave soldiers at the country’s borders. This is not easy for common folk because there is so much surrealism in the lived reality: There is a new category of death by waiting one’s turn in bank queues, indelible ink is on a finger not for exercising one’s franchise but for receiving one’s money in legal notes, drivers and maids are being sought out not for work but for their bank accounts, the local neighbourhood grocers who accept the demonetised Rs500 note treat it as Rs400 so people lose a hundred bucks each time they shop for daily necessities, the old notes of Rs 500 and Rs1,000 are made legal to purchase theatre tickets in Maharashtra but the poor and hungry cannot use them to buy food or medicines, and the state government arbitrarily decides when the notes are legal tender and when not.
There is more surrealism: Mumbai’s roads have perceptibly less traffic congestion, the queues at suburban railway stations ticket counters are shorter, seats are available on local BEST buses, most middle-class restaurants’ waiters are willing to pamper customers because tables are relatively unoccupied, Udupi restaurants and vada-pav stalls which between them sustain the majority of Mumbaikars have no waiting time, roadside parking is available in many places including that perennially congested Irla lane, enlarged copies of the Rs500 and Rs1,000 notes are displayed from a clothes line at a local suburban festival and it turns out to be a popular installation. It does not feel like Mumbai.
And the word is that the real estate prices may see a correction, luxury apartments may sport lower price tags, loans in the closed-circuit grey market are going at 5% from a high of 30% rate of interest, hawala and satta markets are temporarily subdued, and the Mahalaxmi race course may not see the usual razzmatazz this season. Okay, but the sleeper cells of terror outfits are hopefully cashless too and terror masterminds across the border have been financially crippled. After all, this was one of the aims of demonetisation.
The demonetisation targeted the cash in circulation conflating all cash with black money though economic data shows that illegal wealth is stored more often as gold, property and investments in stock and commodity markets. In the post-demonetisation days, average citizens with clear financial records are made to feel like hoarders of ill-gotten cash while corrupt stashers remain largely untouched. And banks which will not give honest citizens a few thousands of their own money without documents happily write off thousands of crores of bad loans to industrialists. Bizarre times, indeed. That chopper might just suck out black money from under mattresses in Mumbai’s luxury homes after all.