It’s been a month since the big “demonetization” here in India, and very little has changed in the intervening weeks. If anything, things have gotten worse. Before, one would see the occasional working ATM, but not anymore. The only way to withdrawal money now is to stand in line at a bank for long hours. But since we don’t have an Indian bank account, that option’s not available to us.
We’re still much better off than most, since we’ve been able to find much of what we need using a credit card. And Farhana’s family has helped when we absolutely needed cash. But the paper is full of horror stories about Indians who aren’t so lucky. For example, on today’s front page of the Times of India:
“Rakesh Chand served in the CRPF [Central Reserve Police Force], surviving a terror attack in J & K [Jammu and Kashmir] in 1990 during which he was shot five times. For the past week, the Agra man had been visiting an SBI [Bank] branch for cash to treat a heart problem, in vain. On Saturday, Chand shot himself.”
Stories about elderly people dying while waiting in lines at banks, or people getting trampled to death in melees when banks announce (to those who had been standing in line for many hours) that there’s no money left, are becoming all too common.
However, unless the papers are keeping it under wraps, there’s no widespread protest movement or visible political danger to Prime Minister Modi, who initiated the move. Opposition parties are rumbling, but it doesn’t seem to amount to much. Most polls still show broad support for both Modi and his money policy. Go figure. I’ve said it before, I’m sure, but I can’t imagine Americans behaving in a similar fashion.
Anyway, there are a couple of things that are still quite difficult to pay for using a credit card – transportation being one of them. There are services like Uber and Ola here, and hypothetically, you can pay for them using credit cards. But drivers like to get cash, and if you indicate that you’re not paying cash for your ride, you might end up waiting a long time. We discovered this the hard way this past weekend. Sophia was going for a movie at a local mall with two friends from school (and Farhana) and there were no drivers available until (surprise, surprise) cash was on the table.
They went to see the new Disney animated movie Moana and everyone seemed to like it (movie theaters almost all take credit cards, so that was fine). India gets the new Hollywood movies at pretty much the same time as they’re released in the US (I think). The new Star Wars movie opens here on Dec. 16, for example, which I think is pretty close to the US release date for the movie.
I’ve only gone to the theaters once since we’ve been here and while it’s essentially the same experience as the US, there are some minor differences. When purchasing tickets, for example, you actually buy a specific seat – like at a concert. And there are different prices for different quality seats. There’s popcorn and soda, of course, but also lots of spicy Indian snacks and food at the concession stands. And before each movie, everyone stands and they play the Indian national anthem while a flag flies on screen. Interestingly, the Indian Supreme Court recently ruled that this playing of the national anthem before movies is required. And that moviegoers must stand as the anthem plays. I wonder how that would go over in the US!
Another place where credit cards don’t work is with respect to police “fines”. The police seem to be as low on cash as the rest of us – at least judging by the increase in “enforcement activity” lately. Here’s how it works: there are lots of laws on the books which are very rarely enforced. For example, there are helmet laws for 2-wheelers, though I’d be surprised if more than 20% of drivers wear them. There’s a law that no more than two people can ride on a 2-wheeler, but families of 5 (or more) are not uncommon. And there are laws about where you can and cannot park.
But there are virtually no signs that tell you where you can and cannot park. And while there are sometimes painted indicators on the road or curb, they’re usually very faded, or covered with dirt. So you basically have to look where other motorcycles are parked and see if you can find a spot among them. This strategy has generally worked fine for me, but has recently run into a snag or two. The first time, I came out of the store I was in and the police were getting ready to load my bike into a truck. Nobody involved spoke much English, but they basically let it be known that if I handed over some cash, I could leave with the bike. I pled poverty (demonetization and all), and pretended like I didn’t understand anything until they had pity on me and just let me take the bike and go.
The second time it happened, I parked near an ATM that I heard was working. I waited in line for about a half hour before discovering it had run out of money and then went back to find that my bike (and about 10 others parked around mine) was missing. a guy standing nearby said the police took them all and so I had to walk to the police station, which was about a mile away. There, they asked for my license and said I’d need to pay 1000 rupees to get the bike back. I had some money in my wallet that was visible when I showed them my license, so there was no pleading poverty this time. But I did only have about 180 rupees on me (the last of my cash). At first they said no way – at least 200 rupees would be required. But when I emptied my pockets and showed them I was really broke, they took the 180 and let me take the bike and go. This is the only way I can successfully haggle, I think – when I have no choice. If I had had the 1000, I would’ve simply handed it over.
Since I’m on break from the university, and since enforcement seems to be increasing, I’ve been trying to stay off the scooter as much as possible. And keeping very little cash on me at any given time – to help me haggle.