By Nandini Oza*
Being a Gujarati, the issues affecting non-resident Indians affect me particularly because Gujaratis, for being better placed geographically have a long history in foreign soils, trade and travels. To get an idea of the extent of trade and travels from Gujarat, I quote a paragraph from the book, ‘The Shaping of Modern Gujarat’, by Achyut Yagnik and Suchitra Sheth as follows:
“…Gujarat’s strategic location within Asia and its ports along the northern centre of the Indian Ocean placed it at the interaction of a number of trading sections and proved propitious to Gujarati merchants. They profited from the overland interregional trade of Asia across the subcontinent and within the western region. But their greatest wealth came from maritime trade, both along the coast and across the seas in ships propelled eastwards and westwards by the monsoon winds. One quarter of India’s coastline is in Gujarat…
“Silk from China, horses from Arabia, ivory and slaves from Africa, cloth and indigo from Gujarat itself, opium and grain from the north, spices from southern India and the Far East, to name just a few commodities passed through these ports for centuries. Local communities of skilled ship builders, navigators and craftspeople contributed to the prosperity of enterprising merchants and traders.
“The sweep of this maritime network is summed up by Tome Piers, a fifteenth century Portuguese traveler: ‘Cambay [i.e. Gujarat] chiefly stretches out two arms, with her right arm she reaches out towards Aden and with the other towards Malacca…’
“…Gujarati merchants travelled to West Asia, Africa, South India and eastern edges of the Indian Ocean, creating a diaspora consisting of kith and kin networks in the ports of Indian Ocean littoral…
“Maritime activity goes back almost four millennia to the days of Indus valley civilization…”
The spread of Gujarati community across the globe has been so vast that there is a popular saying in Gujarati – “Jya na pohche koi, tya pohche eek Gujarati”. This means, where no one reaches, it is there that a Gujarati will reach! Gujarati business, trade and travels far and wide has also greatly influenced Gujarati literature and some of the famous writers have based many of their novels and poems on such travels across the seas such as, “Dariyalal, haji kasam tari vijli, dariya na khole, mehraman no mobhi”, and so on.
The non-resident Gujaratis settled all over the world therefore have had far reaching influence and impact on the life and economy of Gujarat for several centuries now.
Like every Gujarati, Mr Narendra Modi is well aware of this fact and is also aware of the extent of the spread and clout of the Indian as well as the Gujarati community across the globe. Hence, soon after becoming the Prime Minister of India, while travelling across the world, Mr Modi, when was given overwhelming welcome by NRIs in general and Gujarati NRIs in particular, these events were highly publicized to his great advantage back home.
Therefore, when in November 2016, Mr Modi announced demonetization, I was sure that proper planning and arrangements must have been made at least for the NRIs to convert the old currency notes unlike the mess the resident Indians had to suffer. However I was in for a rude shock.
As per government rules, NRIs can carry up to Rs 25,000 in Indian currency out of India. So, soon after demonetization when some of my close relatives living abroad asked me what should they do with their old Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes, I was confident and advised them that the Indian embassy or the consulate would most certainly have made some arrangement for the exchange of old notes. Besides, most big cities across the world would also have Indian banks and I thought the Indian Embassy would have tied up with them for the exchange of legitimate money in old currency with the NRIs.
This seemed to me a logical plan and arrangement because I know of some NRIs who had just left India before the demonetization was announced and were not likely to return in the near future- certainly not before the (revised) deadline of June 31st declared by the Government for the exchange of old notes remaining with NRIs.
However, I was reported by my relatives that there is no such arrangement in place! I therefore advised them that the next best thing would be to send the old notes with any relative travelling to India during the short window period where the old notes could be exchanges [up to June 31st in case of NRIs]. Here again I was in for a shock! The rules laid down by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) are such that only an Indian passport holder can bring in the old currency which has to be declared at the customs at the airport, the customs have to issue a certificate on arrival through red channel, which would then have to be submitted at the time of exchange of the notes (click HERE) at the RBI.
This again I think this is totally impractical. I know of many NRIs who have retained their Indian Passport but their spouse or children have not. I also know of NRIs who themselves are not travelling to India before 31st June but their spouse or children are. However, even if a spouse of an NRI or his/her children are travelling to India during the short window period till 31st June granted to exchange old notes, they are not authorized to bring in the old notes for exchange, even if the notes are legitimately in possession of an NRI and the person carrying the notes may have a POI card!
Besides, these old notes can be exchanged only in select five RBI branches of the country – Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai and Nagpur. I know of non-resident Gujaratis who land only at Ahmedabad international airport these days. No facility is made available to them for the exchange of old notes in the Reserve Bank of India branch located in Ahmedabad. Therefore, a non-resident Gujarati travelling for a few days to India has to make a special trip to one of these cities to be able to exchange their old notes of the value of up to Rs 25,000!
Considering all of this, I know of a few close relatives, both Gujaratis and non-Gujaratis living abroad, who are at a complete loss as to what to do with their old notes. It is also very hard for them to dispose of the old currency as, after all, this is hard earned money and while it may not be much in terms of economic value, it is after all considered Laxmi by many Indians in general and most certainly by Gujaratis in particular.
While I have personally gone through inconvenience on account of bad planning of demonetisation, some among my family and relatives living aboard have actually lost legitimate-hard earned money for no fault of theirs.
I wonder how much of the money in old notes not yet recovered still remains with NRIs and how much of it will go down the drain in spite of it being legitimate due to bad planning by the Government? I don’t think the Government cares to know really.
Full-time activist for 12 years with Narmada Bachao Andolan, now an independent researcher and writer. Source: http://nandinioza.blogspot.in/