Monday, December 5, 2016

Take the demon out of demonetisation

“I haven’t wooed a woman with such unconcealed affection as I’m courting ATMs.”

On the evening of November 8, I was watching television when an acquaintance informed me, “Did you know that Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes are being withdrawn from the market?”

“Where did you hear that?”

“Everyone’s talking about it,” he said.

My antenna went up immediately. I switched over to the news channels, and sure enough, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was announcing the scrapping of the high-value currency effective midnight, and their gradual replacement with new redesigned Rs 500 and Rs 2,000 notes. The unprecedented move, shrouded in secrecy, was being taken ostensibly to crack down on black money, terrorism financing, corruption—and improve our lives. Days later, the government added cashless economy to its demonetisation narrative.

The sudden withdrawal of banknotes we’d got used to created shock and awe across communities and geographies. That same evening, people rushed out of their homes to queue up at the nearest ATMs and withdraw as many hundred rupee notes as they could.

Nearly a month later, people everywhere are still lining up outside banks and ATMs to draw the new currency from their own piffling accounts. And it hasn’t been easy for anyone, not ordinary citizens, poor farmers and villagers, daily wage labourers, traders and shopkeepers, institutions, and not even bank employees who have been at the receiving end of public ire.

The physical and mental strain caused by this unexpected social change is palpable. The loss of manpower and productivity has been incalculable. Many people have died waiting in queues. Others are having sleeping nights. Will I be able to withdraw from my account? Will the ATM dry up before my turn comes? Is my hard-earned money really safe in the bank? And this all-important question—what next? The anxiety and uncertainty is understandable, especially when none other than Finance Minister Arun Jaitley warned that monetary hardships
could last one or two quarters.

“I’m beginning to experience withdrawal symptoms if I don’t wait in ATM queues. I think I’ll sign up for ATMs Anonymous.”

For these and other reasons, here are ways to deal with the stress of demonetisation and the fear that though you have enough cash in the bank, you may not have enough in hand.

Switch off and switch over: Yes, stop reading about new developments on demonetisation in newspapers, on your smartphone and office desktop, and definitely stay off news channels. There’s a lot of fascinating and more pleasant stuff to read and watch. Don’t worry, even if you don’t read about demonetisation, you’ll still hear about it. The less you obsess over it, the less stressed you’ll be.

Swami Kriyananda, a disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda and founder of Ananda, a worldwide movement of spiritual intentional communities, has rightly said: “You go through enough decades of this, and you see that it’s all just nothing. I never watch television, read newspapers, or listen to the radio anymore. People ask me, ‘How do you keep up with news?’ I answer them, ‘If there’s anything of importance that happens, people will tell me.’ I just don’t find it interesting because it all seems like gossip.”

Although he said this in another context, his advice is relevant in any situation where a public event causes individual and collective mental or physical stress, including depression, and affects work and family life. The shock election of Donald Trump is a case in point because nobody expected the racist, sexist, and neo-isolationist Republican candidate to win.

Get back to your normal routine: Remember the Mumbai terror attacks? In less than 48 hours, people were back on their feet and going about their personal and professional lives, even as commandos were flushing out terrorists from the Taj Mahal Hotel and Oberoi Trident. The key is to get back to your routine, even if it means you have to wait in the bank or ATM line. However frustrating, and I know just how frustrating it can be, don’t let it ruin your day. After all, we’re used to standing in all sorts of queues. And this one isn’t going to last very long. Very soon there will be sufficient cash going around.

Don’t be swayed by rumours: The pro- and anti-demonetisation lobbies are fuelling all kinds of stories while politicians of all stripes are adding their two-bits—rousing public opinion and anger, and often pitting one against the other. Both sides have vested interests in keeping the narrative alive. Through all this, the only sufferers are ordinary and law-abiding citizens who have enough troubles already.

For example, the rumour that the government would go after our gold next got people so worked up that many rushed to their banks and withdrew inherited and legally-owned jewellery from their lockers. The government’s clarification that it had no plans to impose restrictions on gold holding failed to convince people who invest in the yellow metal. So think before you act. Don't let your paranoia get the better of you.

Be vary of social media: In my opinion, social media is the biggest cause of anxiety, stress, and burnout. Like the relentless beat of the drums, the 24/7 updates, tweets and messages play on our minds, attack our beliefs, and cause a disconnect with reality. As a result, our overdependence on this porous medium is proving to be more disruptive and less informative and entertaining. And when it comes to politically sensitive and controversial issues, such as demonetisation, for instance, social media can be ruthless in pulling you down—in what often seems like a reenactment of George W. Bush’s famous remark, “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.” It can all be very upsetting.

Moral: Get off social media every now and then. It’s a lot of hot air and posturing, and doesn’t do any good to anyone. If you must use the medium, use it for constructive and meaningful purposes. That way you keep your peace and connectivity.

Today, it is demonetisation. Tomorrow, it could be something else—manmade or natural. Whatever the hardship or calamity, it’s important to stay calm and focused, and keep moving forward. And, more importantly, don’t overreact; instead, try and get a grip on the situation. It'll help you put things into perspective. Things are usually much better than we think.

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