November 13, 2016

Breathless and cashless

The air we breathe lately is the same as smoking two packs of cigs a day, and we have no cash --seriously.

The Rising Family is genuinely happy in India. Then again, we also knew and accepted there would be challenges that came with the opportunity to experience life here. Let me describe a few of the problems that we face along with everyone else in this huge, vibrant and chaotic land.
Courtesy of Times of India
Physical environment: Misty, smoggy skies, hard to breathe
The World Health Organization recently confirmed that Delhi still tops the list of the world’s most polluted cities. The ranking was based on fine particulate matter (PM2.5) levels that were almost four times above daily safe levels. This past week, a thick, pungent smog settled over Gurgaon. It was a combination of smoke from crop burning in surrounding agricultural states, construction, gigantic fireworks celebrations held on the Hindu festival of Diwali, and accumulated dust. The pollution peaked at 800 micrograms per cubic meter, later decreasing to 423. I now have a new app on my iPhone to track air pollution right next to; have to keep things in perspective, right? 
Courtesy of Times of India
Needless to say, due to the terrible air quality schools closed and the government took certain measures, but it was ultimately Mother Nature that helped bring it down to the present “tolerable” levels of between 250-400. Life goes on, wheezily:
- Lady E. and M.X.’s school was canceled for a few days.
- All the schoolkids are encouraged to wear masks to school. A city of mini-Dr. Lecters!
- Temporary halt to outdoor activities, and an increase of potted plants inside the school.
- At home, Naomi shrewdly had shipped air purifiers from Japan when we moved, and we added a local one this week, so we battened down the hatches of our apartment like a submarine and kept the air purifiers running all the time.

If the cloak of haze and eye-stinging atmosphere weren’t enough, I was genuinely amused to read that sustained exposure to anything over 600 ug/m³ at PM 2.5 is equivalent to smoking 40 cigarettes a day. It was described as the worst smog event in two decades. I’ve been told this is the reality until early spring; typical for this region. Hack, wheeze, and cough. All the more reason to hate winter.

Fiscal environment: Can’t use your cash
Courtesy of AFP
On Nov. 8, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi called a snap press conference and announced that 500 and 1,000 rupee currency notes would no longer be accepted as legal tender as of midnight. Whaaa? Anyway, my WhatsApp started buzzing, and honestly I thought it was a hoax. 500 rupees is about $CAN 10 bucks, 1,000 rupees twenty. Replacing them is the new 2,000 rupee note--“coming soon.” Imagine the Canadian PM saying within a few hours' notice that the $10, $20 and $50 bills were banned, banks will be closed for three days and the country will have to get by on Twoonies until they reopen, and you must exchange all your abolished cash notes to boot. Not a ticket to popularity, that’s for sure.

But this is India. My take is that this very sudden move by the government is focused on culling back the proceeds from tax-evading black market deals, graft, and some political dimension which I will not opine about in this blog because what the hell do I know? I’ve only been here 2½ months.

I do know one thing: cash transactions have wound down to a minimum, credit card and debit card deals have gone up. But for the many exchanges that cannot be done electronically, what do you do? You don’t. In my company’s cafeteria we’ve resorted to I.O.U’s and running a tab for the curry lunch fans among the 200 employees. For any cash actually paid, the change is doled out in candies or packs of chewing gum. It’s like a prison barter economy.

My colleagues have displayed a British-style resigned humor, grin-and-bear-it approach. Yet there is a cash crunch. On Saturday morning, like hundreds of thousands of people across the nation, the Rising Family ventured out to banks in an effort to get some much-needed cash. There were long queues of people all trying get new notes and exchange old ones at every bank and working ATM in Gurgaon. 
There were varying levels of organization and blatant line cutting that happens here. But no riots. Well, one near-riot… 
This is a country of 1.3 billion people. There are people EVERYWHERE, and many of them were agitated to have to try and secure their cash situation.  We went to one sort-of mall with several banks in it but were thwarted at every turn. One matronly-looking lady offered us some advice to try another bank in the mall, but it was saturated and would not exchange money for non-account holders. We ran into the same woman on our dejected slog out. She clearly had been in the line for hours to get her allocation of 4,000 rupees. After she’d heard we’d been unsuccessful this gentle soul immediately offered us her 4,000 rupees broken out into the approved 100 rupee notes, saying she didn’t really need them because her kids were grown up, and she’d exchange more tomorrow. What a display of generosity and selflessness. We were taken aback—did she really mean it? Yes, she did. And frankly we were down to our last few hundred rupees so we thanked her and accepted 25 percent of her offer. Her act was pure altruism, and we have experienced many such wonderful examples of the warmth and kindness of Indians since we arrived here.

The other side of culture coin: people aren’t afraid to argue forcefully in public. Traffic accidents often draw crowds. So as we went around to many bank branches to try to withdraw money from ATMs or deposit all our now no-good cash, we saw some pent-up frustration and yet more rueful resignation. Our final Hail Mary branch visit saw me get to the threshold of the service area when the staff rolled down the steel curtain and told us to wait. We waited. Some line-crashers were verbally accosted. Some people with connections with the bank staff were whisked to the front. The temperature rose in the crowded space. Finally, after some 45 minutes of waiting and sweating (it is still about 30 degrees during the day here), the bank manager came and announced in Hindi and English that the system wasn’t functioning and the bank would be opening on Sunday morning at 10:00, terribly sorry and all that. Again---whaaat tha $#@*!!.  
Then a red-faced and clearly pissed off guy started banging on the steel curtain divider and the security guards came in. This resulted in high-decibel yelling and a brief flurry of mild punches between two silver-haired pugilists—bedlam, baby! I left my place in line for a much-deserved iced Americano. The barista claimed that “business has never been better” as he swiped my debit card with a knowing smile.

...and yet we are happy and are fortunate to be here 
We left without any cash and went home, chalking the experience up to forces beyond our control. It’s something we are getting accustomed to (boo-yah!). Both the air quality and government financial curveballs thrown our way are things we have to take in stride. Part of the adventure. So I suppose we have our own grin-and-bear-it quality, too. And I daresay the entire nation was experiencing similar cases of good and bad behavior as people adjust to the new currency reality and the more dire environmental challenges that await. And yet we all smile, the hazy sun comes up, and life goes on. Namaste! 

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