Written by my dear NRI friend.
For weeks I read about and watched as the lines snaked past ATMâ€™s and bank counters. I felt it was unconscionable that overnight one was being forced to stand for hours to access their own resources, and then were dictated to how much they could withdraw, and be forced to adopt a lifestyle of daily inconvenience. It was â€˜for the greater goodâ€™ we were told, and the hoards of unaccounted wealth would now be accounted for.
Arriving into India (Bengaluru) on Dec 30, I had a sense of relief that the Dec 30 deadline for exchange of demonetized notes was at hand, and a new order would emerge for those who had been out of the country, NRIâ€™s and OCI/PIO holders with foreign passports like myself.
Our family of four had visited a year ago, and like we always do at the end of a visit had in hand a carefully preserved bundle of left over currency, to serve us well on our next arrival. Needless to say this bundle consisted mostly of notes in the 500 and 1,000 denominations, now of no value. I was thankful Mr. Modi had put in place an extended period until March 31, for those like myself not in the country during the initial period for exchanges. I figured it would require the trip to RBI, stand in line, and hopefully walk out with my old notes exchanged. The limited information available online provided details that were sparse and left more questions than answers.
Would anyone who was unable to make the exchange before Dec 30 be allowed the grace period? The generality of the exception seemed to say this was â€˜yesâ€™. Or did this elite group only include those who were out of the country, or traveling? Did it only include those with Indian passports? What about the foreign passport holder who visited every year and had no plans to make a return visit prior to March 31st?
1. Two steps forward, one step back…..cha cha cha…
Two trips to the RBI Chennai later (Jan 4, & 6) , I had tangoed through almost 10 uniformed officers at the gate, about 6 officers at the check in booth inside the gate, security staff and bag scanning inside the secure area, and then directed to a polite gentleman being mobbed for â€˜latest informationâ€™. I felt confident I had what I knew to be required; passport, PAN card, OCI document, proof of arrival on or after Dec 30, valueless notes. I was ready to fill the forms, receive a deposit into my NRO account, and leave burden free. At the very sight of my documents the kind gentleman, who had the unenviable task of delivering a steady stream of bad news, greeted me along with several foreign passport holders, mostly US citizens, with an immediate dismissal. â€œNot possible! OCI/PIO, not possible!
US passport, not allowed!â€
Not allowed? If the US passport was not entirely palatable, then what did my OCI document represent? Another fiasco inflicted on Indian citizens around the globe, who might otherwise have desired to hold onto dual citizenship. This was the bone we were thrown; the OCI…or the PIO…or the OCI…depending on the time of day. You are not really our citizen, but you can still be Indian ;). India loves our investments, and likes to see us return, I hope….but my feeling is the Indian government doesnâ€™t quite know what to do with us â€˜mixed breeds?â€™ Several of us remained huddled to the side. What next? Our reactions bordered between bewilderment, frustration, helplessness, to hilarity. We decided that the best way to celebrate the Indian government dismissal and disdain for our hard earned cash, was with a bonfire party. It wasnâ€™t quite the 4th of July. The notes would provide warmth or fuel if nothing else.
Apparently the staff had â€˜just got clarificationâ€™, on Friday Jan 06, and it only provided NRIâ€™s with Indian passports the opportunity to exchange demonetized notes at this time. Where was this spelled out for the general public? Why had I wasted my time and effort? What were my alternatives? None. Well, none yet…..they are still awaiting the next â€˜clarificationâ€™.
2. A customs form?
Since my RBI visits I have tried to scour the headlines daily for any updates. I have seen none. I did however discover, over the last few days, that I was apparently required to â€˜declare my illegal notes on arrival to the customs official and receive a stamp on a form to indicate these notes had entered the country.â€™
Here is an update from Jan 04…..several days AFTER my arrival on Dec 30. This infuriated me further.
Here is an excerpt from the guidelines requiring a customs declaration form:
â€œAt the airport/land Customs stations etc on entry, Customs stamp on the said forms shall be affixed and the same shall be submitted along with other documents to RBI offices.â€ A one-page form has been worked out for the purpose.
And from the same guidelines:
The ministry said since it is a facilitation step to enable resident and non-resident Indians to deposit SBNs when they arrive in India, measures should be taken to make passengers and airlines aware of the new dispensation. â€œWhile discharging the above task, care may be taken that due courtesy is extended to the declarants and that no unnecessary inconvenience is caused,â€ it said.
Let me establish something. NO such form was mentioned or provided to passengers on arrival. Aboard the aircraft I specifically requested for a customs form, as had been customary on past visits. I was informed that there was no such form available, and none needed! I walked through the green channel like almost every other passenger on my flight. I glanced at the Red channel and saw no one, let alone anyone filling out or handing in a form. Where then was this form and procedure to declare currency over Rs 15,000? Nowhere to be seen! Was anyone going to make an announcement about it at any point, aboard the aircraft,or in the arrival hall? Nobody did! Was there any single sign directing arriving passengers to declare their demonetized currency via a walk through the red channel? NO!
No unnecessary inconvenience……hmmm…..
To give you an idea of how â€˜helpfulâ€™ the available information can be, run your eyes down items 2-
3. Only Rs 25,000 can be exchanged. This is the amount that can be legally brought into the country. However, some guidelines floating around the internet indicate that one is allowed to carry currency on behalf of a family member along with an authorization letter granting permission to convert on their behalf. So is it still a limit of Rs 25,000? Or more allowed with a letter? And how much more? Was my family required to purchase several round trip tickets in order to exchange now valueless notes that did not amount to the cost of several round trip tickets? Maybe a clarification is on the way….
Here is what an NRI legal service had to advise:
In their defense, here is their disclaimer:
â€œNotifications and updates are coming in daily . While we are trying our best to bring you the most accurate and updated Information on this subject it is a possibility that by the time we relay the information it might have been changed. Please verify from the official site of RBI before taking any action (https://www.rbi.org.in/) â€œ
UNFORTUNATELY the rbi site mentioned provides even less information.
4. I can be fined!
I find this the most troubling guideline of all. If demonetized notes are found with you, one can be fined. â€œThe ordinance imposes penal liabilities on the holders of SBNs after the specified date,â€ the RBI notification said. It makes holding, transfer and receiving of the demonetised notes a criminal offence, punishable with a fine of Rs 10,000 or five times the cash held, whichever is higher.
Let me take a moment to understand this. They made my hard earned assets valueless. They wont allow me to exchange it. Then I get fined for not having my bonfire party soon enough? And will I be fined with valueless notes? (We do need to get them off the streets, fast!) Or with the new cartoon currency? And where will I get enough of the prized pink stuff to pay my â€˜large fineâ€™? Because I might soon reach my weekly limit.
I stay tuned. Maybe I should light up my grill….. I have some fine tinder tender…..
This is my India. Jai Hind!