Cash Cultures: Risk, Hoarding, and the Futures of Indian Finance

From the Series: Demonetization: Critical Responses to India’s Cash(/less) Experiment

Photo by Kamalakannan PM.

Let us take cash seriously, if cash is what caused the crisis. Let us ask: Who had cash? Who transformed cash? Where did the cash go? And what does this sudden withdrawal of cash mean for the futures of finance in India? To answer these questions, I will analyze examples of cash transactions in real estate and building construction, industries known to transfer and transform cash.

Were there cash hoards across India? Some claim there was no stashed cash, but many verify its existence. It is often hard to believe that there were safes and cupboards across India stuffed with cash, but for those who work in real estate, piles of cash are an everyday sight. They know that ten million rupees in thousand-rupee notes fits in a briefcase, just as they know to convert large amounts of cash into property quickly in case there is an income-tax department raid. Grandmothers hoard cash, contractors pay cash, and developers keep banks of cash. The knowledge of cash exchange and the presence of stashes of cash is as everyday in the construction industry as it is in most business worlds; it is normalized and part of the office and household landscape. Who hoards how much, however, is highly differential.

Moreover, cash does not remain stuffed in safes; it demands movement and transformation. Shilpa’s real estate travails illustrate this point: a young professional working in Delhi, she wanted to buy an apartment for her aging aunt. The aunt had recently sold her Kolkata apartment to move closer to family. On a designated day, two young men show up at Shilpa’s apartment with a duffel bag full of cash. It is part payment for the old apartment delivered through the trust-based system of moving money known as hawala. “We started counting the money, you are not supposed to count the money . . . I did not know what to do with so much cash.” Reluctant to store the cash, Shilpa approached Rameshji, her chartered accountant, who reassured her. On the appointed day, Rameshji converted the rupees to gold. Shilpa entered his office with a duffel bag and emerged clutching a small, heavy bag full of gold. She deposited this in her bank locker. A year later Rameshji would reconvert the gold into cash to pay for a new apartment in Delhi for Shilpa’s aunt.

On November 9, 2016, those stuck with large cash reserves, many times larger than that in the duffel bag, awoke desperate to move it. They turned to existing social infrastructures that traditionally move money. The mediators of money, individuals like Rameshji and the hawala men, rose to the challenge: Chartered accountants converted defunct notes into new cash and check amounts. Jewelers and pawnbrokers, longtime traders within a cash economy, sold gold at high rates, backdating the receipts to a predemonetization moment. Informal money converters exchanged defunct rupees for dollars and sold dollars for rupees at almost double the price, buying and selling from their existing networks. Moneylenders bought five-hundred-rupee notes at four hundred rupees and moved these notes through their channels in the black market. Magical acts of moving money multiplied in the wake of demonetization.

However, this moment also marked a termination in the once circuitous system of exchange. Ultimately, a demonetized note had to reach the bank and 99 percent of the money did, thanks in part to India’s tremendous labor bank. The example of construction demonstrates the nuances of this movement. In the case of construction, a large labor force makes the manipulation of money easier. Construction contractors employ a labor bank of workers and act as cash converters. Practices of doctoring books and manipulating labor or material payments allow conversions from check to cash or vice versa. After November 9, India’s broader labor force came to the rescue. In factories and offices, employees found themselves paid three to four months’ salary in advance in already defunct notes. Where employees had no bank accounts, employers opened accounts for them. Individuals even recruited nearby slum dwellers to deposit their money for a fee. A radically different politics of divide and rule emerged as piles of cash were distributed across low-income earners to further accumulation.

The story of the complicated circuits cash took on its way to the bank offers two lessons on the financial futures of India. First, while demonetization served as an attempt to minimize cash hoardings, the move ironically reinforced the logics of hoarding and benefited those who hoard or help hoard. A classed history of hoarding through the mediums of gold, money, and property is tied, in India, to governmental instability and distrust. The construction of an artificial crisis—produced not only in the moment of demonetization but in the constantly changing regulations that followed, which threatened to audit individual jewelry holdings, tax those who deposit money after a certain date, and disallow individuals from depositing large sums of money—laid the groundwork for creative forms of hoarding to guard against similarly unexpected futures: if not cash, then gold, offshore funds, or real estate in the United States.

Second, the risks of this hoarding still inevitably fall on the backs of those who do not hoard. Widely reported cases of workers who lined up to deposit money that was not theirs speaks to the many individuals in India willing to take on risks to survive economically. The desire for secure and stable financial futures, the constant income precarity that many face, and the increasing costs of education, funerals, and medical treatments force many to bear the risks of others’ illegal practices and tax avoidance schemes. Demonetization has crystallized the acute and constant transference of risk that undergirds business and industrial practices in India every day. This is a practice far more pervasive and problematic than a cash economy ever was or will be.