Notes & Votes: What Do We Value?

Shock. November 9th, 2016 was full of it. On the same day the US election results stunned the entire world the Indian Prime Minister Modi declared an immediate demonitisation initiative (not as a result of the election). The two largest Indian currency notes, 500 rupees and 1,000 rupees, were no longer valid. Banks and ATM’s were closed for two days. A whole can of economic worms opened up.

The demonitisation is aimed to strike at corruption within the economy by removing black market money from circulation. Many counterfeit notes exist which help to fund terrorism, violence, and the drug trade. (However it is estimated that the move will impact a very small percentage of black money, as most black money is already invested in properties and housing.) It also targets money hoarders who evade paying taxes altogether or paying taxes on their true wealth which is stashed under their mattresses or in Swiss bank accounts. Those old notes are not worthless, they can be deposited into a bank account until the end of December or they can be exchanged for the new notes being distributed by the country. These new notes are a different size, color, and have different security features.

The problem is that until you have the opportunity to exchange your current notes or deposit them they are indeed essentially worthless. These large denomination notes account for 86% of the money in circulation. Most shops and restaurants will not accept them as they are unwilling to part with the small change they do have, which is needed for everyday survival expenses. A 100 rupee note is suddenly more valuable to own as it has more value than a 500 rupee note in terms of practical purchasing power, regardless of what the numbers say, because you can actually use it.

So just go the ATM or the bank and get the new money, should be no problem right? Good luck! This is India after all. People have been waiting in line for the ATM for over two hours a day before either being able to withdraw 2,000 rupees at a time (a temporary decrease in the limit from the previous 10,000 rupees per transaction) or more likely turning away in frustration as the ATM runs out of money. All of the ATM’s needed to be re-calibrated to accept the new size and weight of the notes. The ATMs cannot be restocked quickly enough to meet demand and it has severely impacted businesses. Nobody is spending the limited amount of valid small denomination notes they have on non-necessary items. Should I spend these eight 100 rupee notes on a boat trip or guard them with my life to pay for food tomorrow?

For me this has been a minor inconvenience. I’ve had to skip out on attending a workshop or two and am waiting to have proper currency to buy the part I need for my motorcycle. But I’m not starving or stranded without a roof over my head. The same cannot be said for many Indians. mainly the poor and the sick. Hospitals are not accepting old currency and have turned away people in need of urgent medical care who do not possess the new money to pay for the services they so desperately need. People have died because their money is no longer tied to any value. A week ago a man waiting in line for the ATM had a heart attack and collapsed. He laid writhing on the ground for 30 minutes before any help arrived as everyone else in line was unwilling to come to his aid and risk losing their spot in line. He later died in the hospital. Are we as a society so driven by money that we value it higher than saving the life of another? To what degree has money surpassed the value we place on relationships? If cash is king, he is a ruthless ruler indeed.

These recent economic trials have highlighted one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in my travels:

It is better to have friends than money.

In the past month I can fully appreciate the value of friendships. Being known around the community means I can open up tabs on good faith and pay whenever the money becomes available. I have free food and accommodation available due to the nature of my work (food and accommodation are often provided during yoga teacher trainings) and the charity of friends in the restaurant business.

Friends deal in exchange beyond the scope of money. Relationships are not a business deal. When shit hits the proverbial economic fan it may affect the quality of the beer we can afford to drink together but it doesn’t affect the quality of one another’s company.

The value of money is intrinsically tied to how much we as human beings value it. A government can declare all of those bills in your wallet to be worth only the paper they’re printed on. And there’s not much that we can do individually about this. Look at countries with a history of massive hyperinflation, or even modern day Argentina, and you’ll see that the security that having a specific sum of money provides is not quite as ‘secure’ as we tend to think it is. I personally don’t have a lot of money in the bank (that tends to happen when you become a traveling yoga teacher). Yet I feel secure in knowing I have friends that would offer me a helping hand without hesitation if I ever needed one.

We determine what value we place on everything, every day. And I’m not just talking about the cost of milk at the supermarket. The values that we deem important to us are reflected in the decisions we make both about how to spend our money and our time. That milk from the supermarket, is it worth the extra 40 cents for the proper treatment of cows on an organic farm? Do we value that Nestle chocolate bar more than the non-exploitation of child workers? Is that extra hour of overtime pay worth more than an hour spent with friends or family? Is an hour in front of the television worth more than an hour of extra sleep?

In this same mode of thought it is obvious that PM Modi has placed more value on attempting to curb corruption and the funding of terrorism than maintaining short-term economic stability. It is a bold move, one that required a strong adherence to his values in order to execute. Surely many people do not share this same value, especially the poor man who can no longer afford to feed his family. Does he care about corruption? Probably. But not enough to forego food on his family’s table right now. The man who has food on the table might say waiting two hours in the bank line everyday for a week is worth reducing corruption. This demonitisation is a move that will surely impact how people vote when Modi is up for re-election.

My friend Gabe made a very poignant observation following the US election. We vote once every four years for our political leaders. Yet we vote every single day through our consumerism. We want political leaders to take power away from huge corporations, yet we buy their products. We want the president to save the environment yet we buy plastic water bottles each day. Or we don’t. The power of choice is in our hands, and with choice lies the power for change. Vote with your wallet, vote with your actions. Vote for those values you hold dear by putting your money where your mouth is rather than into the mouth of a person or company that doesn’t align with your values.

It seems that we as a society and individuals have placed an exorbitant amount of value on acquiring and spending money. We are coerced into doing so every day by advertisements and the concept of the ‘American Dream’. The American Dream isn’t to have a modest house, be surrounded by friends, and help others to improve their well being. It is to have a massive house that we can show off to our friends, showing how much better off our well being is than theirs. This idea has never been more prevalent than in the choice for our new president. ‘Look Ma! Gold-plated seat belts!” It seems this dream is attainable if we just buy into the system of working to exhaustion and accumulating enough of those magic pieces of paper with numbers printed on them.

But what if demonitisation hit us without any warning? What if we had no access to currency and couldn’t buy food with a credit card? Maybe then our concept of value wouldn’t be glued so tightly to the number on that piece of paper. It certainly isn’t right now for many people in India.