Ranjona Banerji: When you run out of cash and hope

By  Ranjona Banerji | Posted  18-Jan-2017

In these times of demonetisation, if you have an ailing family member, you can either nurse the patient or go stand in ATM queues

Queues outside ATMs are still a regular feature across India. Representation pic
Queues outside ATMs are still a regular feature across India. Representation pic

The start of the new year has been disastrous for my family. My mother was in and out of hospital since December, with all the attendant problems and heartache. We are still reeling from the devastation of her death in early January and the empty, hollow nothingness that accompanies the unexpected loss of a much-loved person.

Through dealing with the pain however, we also had to deal with the worst aspects of the diabolical demonetisation scheme imposed on us by this government. As my father put it, you either look after the patient or you stand in an ATM queue for long hours. I can hear all the murmurs from the loyal, if somewhat heartless and brainless, supporters of the Prime Minister: You can pay by card, via mobile wallet, through bank transfer, dance on the streets for coins, die because there is no use living or whatever other remarkable solutions they come up with.

Fact is that no thought, compassion, sensitivity or even common sense has gone into this move and its long and torturous unwinding. The Prime Minister’s speech on December 31 last year told nothing. It did not explain how much black money had been uncovered, if terrorism had stopped or how counterfeit scams had ended. It did not tell us for how long banks would stop us from accessing our own money. Instead, there was some inglorious gloating about how the poor were overjoyed and only the rich were suffering in the country. On the street, there is no evidence of these claims at all.

And certainly not in hospitals, where we ran around like headless chickens trying to deal with our own personal pain as well as sort out the various payment demands and needs of healthcare. Many families camped in the lobby, with bedding and quilts to fight the bitter cold, having come from far afield. One such family, from a town 100 km away, managed to get his ailing mother admitted in this hospital, after trying in vain at four other medical institutions that did not have the required equipment to treat the elderly woman. This hospital had assured the family that the bill won’t exceed R4 lakh, but the final bill amount was more than double of what was stated. They had to scramble and beg to pay the amount. Most people have daily withdrawal limits on their debit and credit cards which do not reach R8 lakh, but the hospital couldn’t care less, as it refused to accept cheque payment. Since cash transactions are not viable anymore and bank transfers take time, all you can do is wait a day or two till you can withdraw adequate cash from ATMs to pay the bill. And that’s when you learn that in those two days, the bill amount has increased again.

Any person with the slightest sense of compassion — not taking into consideration the “experts” on TV, especially those with corporate backgrounds — will understand that families go through hell during times such as this. The practical elements to an illness are bad enough without this added difficulty caused by demonetisation. And god forbid if you are to be discharged on a weekend or a holiday!

Once again, I can see fans of demonetisation gleefully rubbing their hands together and citing their usual “solutions” — because every single Indian has a mobile phone, mobile wallet, bank account, digital access to money, debit card, credit card. For those who don’t, why, you have the right to suffer.

My mother collapsed at home. We called for an ambulance in the hope of saving her. We paid for that ambulance visit by card. But the ambulance sought cash payment to take her to the cremation ground.

The city in which I live has no electric crematorium — I know, I know, how dare we be so stupid to live in such a place that only showcases India’s infrastructural inadequacies, perhaps in a bid to insult the Prime Minister! And, old-style crematoriums operate only with cash.

We had very little currency on us when my mother died because in our skewed sense of prioritisation, we felt providing nursing, care and time to my mother was more significant than standing in bank queues. Therefore, at the end, we put my mother to rest on borrowed money. As if the indignity of the process was not bad enough, we had to put out a begging bowl and depend on the generosity of others — knowing well that everyone else was confined in the same impossible position.

My family’s recovery shall be a long-drawn process, and sadly, I assume, so will be India’s.

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