The engineer was in the middle of his evening meditation session when a colleague called and told him to turn on the television. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was saying most of India’s cash would hold no value from midnight.
The objective was to rid the country of black money for which taxes had not been paid. Money often associated with illegal activity such as bribery. Money like the Rs 48 lakh stashed in a steel trunk, under a makeshift settee, in the engineer’s bedroom.
“For first few minutes I could not understand,” the engineer said, speaking to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity for fear of prosecution.
The engineer, employed by the public works department of northern Uttar Pradesh, and many of his colleagues had amassed piles of cash by taking bribes for public contracts — a practice so common it has become accepted by many as part of the price of doing business in India. They felt confused — even betrayed — by the government cracking down.
“A bribe is not a taboo in a government job,” the engineer said. Modi, in his November 8 televised address, announced the demonetisation of India’s Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes, which made up 86% of the country’s currency. He said it would wipe out rampant corruption, though in a country of 1.3 billion where most people don’t have bank accounts, it also affected legally collected savings.
“With this decision we have, in one stroke, hit at the root of the sources of corruption,” finance minister Arun Jaitley told TV channel Doordarshan a day after Modi announced the demonetisation. “We have freed up the country from these sources of corruption.”
Demonetised currency can be deposited in banks, but immediate access to those funds is severely limited and the government said it will severely penalize those who deposit amounts that don’t match their income. Anyone depositing more than Rs 2.5 lakh over the next two months will be flagged for tax inspection.
On the phone with friends, the engineer said, “I sensed desperation in their voices. I knew they also had bribe money” in amounts high enough to raise red flags.
Did he feel shame, or guilt? No. “Taking this extra money as commission is a necessity” just to meet expected payments and to advance in one’s field, he said while calmly sipping whisky and adjusting the light from an overhead chandelier by remote in his home in Lucknow, the state capital.