Deserted Christmas stalls are seen in Thiruvananthapuram, India, Dec. 11. CNS photo/Anto Akkara

Limit on bank withdrawals dampens Christmas spirit of Christians in India

By  Anto Akkara, Catholic News Service
  • December 17, 2016

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, India – For vendor Elizabeth Antony, who ekes out a living selling fish on the roadside in the heart the capital of Kerala state, the Christmas season is not very festive.

"This Christmas will be the worst in my memory," said Antony, 63.

"Fish sales have gone down to one third. Even if I stay back on the road till 11 p.m., the little fish I bring is not sold," Antony told Catholic News Service, blaming Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the "worst misery" in her life.

Modi shocked India Nov. 8 in an unprecedented and controversial move that saw the banking system withdraw high-valued 500-rupee ($7.30) and 1,000-rupee ($14.60) notes that account for 86 per cent of the currency in circulation. The banned notes could not used for public transactions and tender and could only be deposited in banks.

"All the businesses are down," Antony said. "Many have lost livelihood, and even those who have money cannot withdraw it from the bank. So, even regular customers are not coming forward to buy fish. Among those who come, they buy only cheap fish as they do not have cash to buy expensive fish," said Antony, a Catholic and president of the 3,000-member women's wing of the Fish Workers Federation.

A vendor wearing a rosary, who identified herself only as Agnes, said the government's action has hit the poor the hardest. "What can we do?" she asked. "This is my profession for years."

The mother of four's desperation was evident as a buyer approached. She stopped talking and immediately started shouting, "Fresh fish, fresh fish!"

With reports of more than 100 people nationwide dying in bank lines and even committing suicide because they were unable to withdraw money to meet emergencies, the Catholic Church has begun speaking out the against the demonetization move. Indian economist Amartya Sen, a Nobel laureate, called Modi's action "authoritarian and inhuman."

The fish vendors' concern resonated in a statement from the Kerala Catholic Bishops' Council after its Dec. 5-7 assembly. The council criticized Modi's action, taken to "curb black money and terror funds," saying that it had become an economic catastrophe.

Lamenting that the banking system is being turned into a mechanism for exploitation, the bishops urged the government to step up "to alleviate the sufferings of the common man."

Indian christmas webElizabeth Antony, a Catholic fish vendor, cuts fish on a roadside in Thiruvananthapuram, India Dec. 14. (CNS photo/Anto Akkara)

The government did ease restriction on bank withdrawals weeks after the initial demonetization action. However, bank account holders can withdraw a maximum of 2,000 rupees ($29.20) a day from ATMs and 24,000 rupees a week by check. The limits have led to long lines at banks and ATMs.

Hardly a day passes without reports of people dying for want of cash and hospitals refusing to accept old notes -- as directed by the government. A 72-year-old man died Dec. 15 while standing in line to withdraw money from a bank in northern Kerala, and a young woman committed suicide Dec. 9 after failing to withdraw enough money three days in a row to pay for tuition.

The winter session of Parliament ended Dec. 16 with little discussion of the disruptions and nationwide protests resulting from the demonetization protests. The entire Cabinet of Kerala state, led by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, joined a sit-in at the regional office of Reserve Bank of India in the capital Nov. 18.

With no end to the crisis in sight, India's Supreme Court questioned the government Dec. 15 about how cash was unavailable to ordinary people while the wealthy have millions of rupees in fresh currency with them.

"The economic situation especially of the poor is very bad," Archbishop Maria Kalist Soosa Pakiam of Thiruvananthapuram told CNS.

"Ninety per cent of our 250,000 faithful (in the archdiocese) belong to the fishermen's community. I am getting reports from priests that our people have stopped going to the sea as the price of fish has crashed (due to lack of buyers)," explained the archbishop, who was elected president of the Kerala bishops' council Dec. 7.

Fishermen, Archbishop Pakiam said, "are not getting even the money to buy fuel to run the boats. The impact of the (money) policy has been disastrous for the ordinary people."

The economic crisis was evident at the normally bustling Carmel Book stall, one of the Catholic centres in the capital. It looked deserted instead.

"Our sales have gone down badly. People have little money to spend," explained Carmelite Brother Rocky Pallikkara, who manages the popular stall known for its large stock of Christmas decorations.

"As getting cash (from the bank) is very difficult, even those who have money in the bank are spending less," he said.

Elsewhere, the downward spiral of the economic chaos was evident as well. Hundreds of migrant labourers were waiting with their meager belongings at the Central railway station to return home. Construction and other business sectors that employ thousands of migrant labourers had come to a standstill.

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