Ranjona Banerji: Still battling the 'demon'etisation

The anger of farmers, slowing down of the economy, layoffs - we were warned of it all but our cheerleaders kept up their false rah-rahs

I went to nearly 10 ATMs, including the main branch of a gigantic public sector bank. No cash. File pic for representation
I went to nearly 10 ATMs, including the main branch of a gigantic public sector bank. No cash. File pic for representation

This is a personal story. A family member had to undergo a major operation last week. The fault lies with the rest of the family that this person did not have medical insurance. But the surgery had to be done anyway. The doctor is repu­table, known for his brilliance, and an expert in this sort of operation. The speciality hospital was well-staffed and well-equipped.

All good then, what more could someone ask for. There was, however, one glaring problem: if you did not have medical insurance, you had to pay cash. The hospital did not house a cash dispensing machine, did not have any facility for digital transactions or bank transfers and did not accept cheques. I reiterate: only cash was the accepted mode of payment. A day before the patient was admitted, in the first week of June, I ran around four ATMs in the immediate vicinity looking for cash to pay for some pre-operation tests - initially, I had made the mistake of assuming that I could pay using my debit card.

Of the four ATMs, one had its shutter down, two were not working and the last one had no cash. After a half-hour wait outside one of these ATMs, cash arrived. I thought I would be prepared for contingencies after that, so I paid the bulk of the amount in cash while the patient was hospitalised and received a proper receipt. All good, even if more than slightly inconvenient.

Then arrived the day of discharge where the medical bill was much higher than the amount I had been initially told. Back to the ATMs. As it happened, the second week of June is apparently even worse for ATMs in Dehradun. This time I went to nearly 10 ATMs, including one next to the hospital that is the main branch of a gigantic public sector bank. No cash.

A series of ATMs of different banks, public and private, including mine, either had the shutters down or 'no cash' posters stuck on the machines. I counted trips to at least 10 ATMs and then I gave up. Luckily there was cash at the main branch of my bank a few kilometres away. I shudder to think about the new transaction fees I will be charged by my bank for withdrawing my own money 'too many times'.

I have a real fear of keeping too much cash at home after the problems that people ran into after November 8, 2016. Regardless of various justifications since demonetisation of 86 per cent of the currency was announced by the Prime Minister, confusion and discomfort continue.

The current anger of farmers across India is directly due to demonetisation. The State Bank of India, which was once a great supporter of demonetisation, has now spoken against it. The slowing down of the economy, the loss of jobs, the stagnation in investments - we were warned of all this but our cheerleaders continued with their lying rah-rahs.

In my long anecdote, I got three direct takeaways, two linked and one tangential. The first is that the problems of ready cash continue, not just in smaller towns like Dehradun, where I live, but across India. Some banks are worse off than others but most suffer at some point. An ATM used to be a convenience, now it is a huge source of tension and irritation. The second is - and figures bear this out - people have not accepted the push to digitise the economy. Many people prefer to deal in cash. This is not necessarily a fiddle - you receive a proper stamped and itemised bill. But digital transactions are not trusted - not least perhaps because of the new fees imposed on cash machine usage.

The tangential point is one being felt increasingly across India - that private healthcare has become phenomenally expensive without medical insurance. In fact, as spending on public health is going down in India, we will soon find ourselves in the same sort of situation that the USA faces today, which can only mean disaster given our population size and its make-up.

Having several family members in and out of hospital recently, with and without insurance, the costs have been almost prohibitive. For those without adequate resources, the situation can be cat­a­strophic. To deal with health issues without access to your own money, as has happened since demonetisation, only exacerbates an already emotional and painful problem of coping with sick or dying loved ones.

I expect no easy solutions, only useless gratuitous advice. But at some point, we'll have to deal with it head on.

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on Twitter @ranjona. Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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