Is a flawed monetary system preferable to chaos at banks, ATMs?

That “The perfect can be the enemy of the good” was a phrase popularized by the 18th-century French philosopher Voltaire and something which Barack Obama kept quoting during his 2008 presidential campaign. The perfect can also be the enemy of the not-so-good, as indicated by the televised images of the nation-wide chaos outside India‘s banks and ATMs as people rush to exchange the scrapped 500 and 1,000-rupee notes for valid currency.

Not that the idiot box is the only window to reality. I also had to struggle to reach my bank to withdraw badly-needed money while exchanging eight 500-rupee notes and depositing the remaining 18 which I had kept for paying the salaries of my cook Mona and my maid Mary and for emergency hospital-visits which heart-patients who stay alone like me are prone to and when one may not be in a position to use one’s debit card just before or during medical treatment. All of which is known as contingency planning.

Which makes one wonder whether the Indian government had thought things through, before executing the decision announced by the prime minister on the night of November 8 to immediately scrap the 500 and 1,000-rupee notes.

If the government with all its intelligent and intelligence inputs had concluded that the only way to deal with the twin menace of black money and cross-border terrorism funded by fake currency was to scrap the 500 and 1,000-rupee notes which accounted for the bulk (over 80 per cent, according to one estimate) of the currency in circulation, couldn’t some of the glitches we are now experiencing have been anticipated, given news-reports that the highly-confidential decision had been secretly taken six months ago.

For instance, there is a report in the November 12 edition of The Economic Times that the effort involved in simultaneously replenishing more than two lakh ATMs and reaching notes to about 1,34,000 bank branches is currently proving beyond the capacity of the banking network and the logistics firms and that the problem has also been aggravated by the size of the new notes which can’t properly fit into the ATM dispensers.

The November 12 edition of The Times of India says the 2,000-rupee notes can’t be accepted by the ATMs as the source-code is with the RBI and has to be re-calibrated. TOI also reports that Delhi Police alone received over 3,300 calls from bank branches seeking help to control scuffling crowds. And that is Delhi alone. The chaos would have been magnified to the power of `n’ all over the country and not just in the urban centres tracked by the media. There are also reports in ET that the collection and disbursal system of microfinance institutions at the grassroots in rural India has been paralyzed for the time being. .

Surely, the impact of the demonetization could have been anticipated by those who planned out the execution of the highly confidential decision taken some six months ago. The media reports now tell us that the norms for the currency-carrying and distributing vans will be relaxed to ensure that there is no further delay in reaching the new notes to the customers of each bank.

Even someone like me, who is definitely not a banking expert, wondered whether the free-for-all outside each bank branch could have been mitigated if depositors had been told that they should go to their particular bank or branch. Asking each branch of each bank to help everyone out including those with deposits on other banks can be a recipe for chaos in such situations. Even the poorest of the poor Jan Dhan beneficiaries would have had accounts opened in the bank-branch nearest to them. With reports of three senior citizens succumbing to heart-attacks while standing for hours in the queue, I wondered why separate queues could not have been set up by the bank branches or the police for the elderly and for women carrying small children.

Opposition leaders like Rahul Gandhi quickly stood in the queue outside the Parliament Street branch of the State Bank of India and asked the people there whether they could see any suit-boot karodpati standing with them. Rahul Gandhi also told the TV news-cameras following him that the Modi government was not bothered about the common citizen but only about India’s top ten and top 15 industrialists. Operations at the branch had to be suspended because of the subsequent chaos which was attributed by the ruling-party BJP sources to Rahul’s day-out at the bank.

However, expecting politicians not to behave like politicians is asking for too much. One wonders how the BJP leaders would have behaved if the previous Congress government had taken the demonetization decision. Congress leaders also claimed that the BJP party leaders had been tipped off before the demonetization decision had been taken. The Congress charge does not quite make sense since the BJP’s support has traditionally been among the trading community (shop-keepers, et al) whose daily operations have been devastated because of the demonetization.

In any case, the ruling BJP should have realized that the demonetization decision and the implementation thereof would be critically examined by everyone, including the media, with a leading TV news-channel quoting a leading newspaper report that the NIA (iNational Investigation Agency, the counter-terrorism agency set up by the Government of India in 2009 in the wake of the 26/11 massacre in Mumbai) had estimated that the volume of fake currency was only around 500-crore rupees, or 0.000-whatever of the total currency in circulation. Responding to this, a BJP spokesperson told the news-channel that even one crore of fake currency was one crore too much. The answer to that could be that the death due to a heart-attack of just one elderly person standing for hours in the queue to exchange the scrapped 500 and 1,000-rupee notes was one death too many.

Hopefully, the chaos will subside and normalcy will be restored at the earliest.

The fact remains that whether it is currency or cricket, the perfect can be the enemy of both the good and the not-so-good. In Indian cricket, the Supreme Court has with the best of intentions decided to reform the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). The only problem is that the reform appears to be staggered from hearing to hearing amidst periodic media reports that the ongoing India-England series could be cancelled at any time.

Amidst all this drama, the media keeps quoting sources in the Lodha committee, set up by the Supreme Court, as saying that they will not be responsible if the India-England series is cancelled at any time and that it is the BCCI which is to blame.

The Supreme Court has also been quoted as saying that it has other important things to do, apart from cleaning up the Indian cricket system. Amidst all this, there is a report in the sports page of The Times of India edition dated November 12, 2016, that no daily allowance is being provided to the girls of the Rajasthan under-19 team which has landed at Indore in Madhya Pradesh to participate in a tournament.

The BCCI says it cannot provide funds to state associations without the explicit clearance of the Lodha committee, as per the latest Supreme Court directive. Lodha committee sources say that it is the BCCI which is to blame since the money can be immediately sanctioned if the state associations and the BCCI give an undertaking that they will implement all the reforms proposed by the committee and approved by the Supreme Court.

All of which could sound like not just metaphorically but literally passing the buck to those standing for hours outside India’s bank-branches and ATMs to collect a portion of their hard-earned money. Why, oh why, they must be wondering, can’t those who take the decision to reform the system also take the responsibility for ensuring that the decision is properly implemented so that the common man or woman is not affected. Surely, that is not asking for too much from all the authorities and agencies who keep claiming that they are working round-the-clock for the common man and common woman.