By Sandeep Sahu
Marriages, they say, are made in heaven. But if you are unfortunate enough to be getting married between now and December 30, 2016, your marriage will be made in the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) boardroom! That, in short, is the key takeaway from the elaborate set of guidelines issued by the RBI on Monday for cash withdrawals of Rs 2.5 lakh permitted by the government.
As everyone knows, Indian marriages are elaborate affairs requiring months of preparation on the part of the families of both the groom and the bride. And the central bank hasn’t made things any easier for them with its stringent guidelines that can make the most persistent parents throw in the towel and go for a no-frills marriage that the groom and the bride are going to rue for the rest of their life.
In a clear indication of the haphazard manner in which the whole matter was dealt with by the central bank, the guidelines came a full five days after the hasty announcement about the raising of the withdrawal limits of Rs 4, 000 a week for marriage purposes. Relieved at the announcement on November 16, Delhi based journalist Sahasranshu Mohapatra reached the Connaught Place branch of ICICI Bank first thing on the morning next day hoping to withdraw money for his marriage scheduled on November 21, only to be told by the branch manager that no ‘instructions’ had been received by the bank in this regard! A desperate Sahasranshu repeated the routine – this time at the Vasundhara Enclave branch of the bank – the next morning, but to no avail again. Ironically, the all-important guidelines came on the day he got married. But given the pace at which these things travel from the RBI to the bank, he would be lucky to get his hands on some badly needed cash before his reception!
Since the RBI took five full days (after the announcement, that is) to deliberate on the matter, one would expect that it has weighed all pros and cons of the issue before announcing the guidelines. But that does not appear to be the case. There is much in the guidelines that one can find fault with. To take just one example, why on earth does one have to submit the printed invitation card to avail cash that rightfully belongs to him/her? What about someone whose marriage is scheduled for late December, but who needs the cash now for sundry pre-marriage expenses now? Besides, since when has an invitation card become mandatory for a marriage? In rural Odisha, for example, people still invite guests offering betel nuts rather than invitation cards, don’t they?
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A careful perusal of the guidelines makes it abundantly clear that the RBI had only urban, middle class marriages in mind while formulating the guidelines. How else does one explain the mandatory requirement of ‘proof’ of advance payments made to marriage halls, caterers and so on? Someone should have told the central bank that in vast swathes of rural India, neither marriage halls are hired nor caterers booked for marriages. The guidelines require a person seeking to withdraw Rs 2.5 lakh to furnish a declaration from the service providers that they don’t have bank accounts. The learned decisions makers of the apex bank obviously didn’t consider a situation where a service provider with a bank account has been paid an advance before November 8. So what does the family do? Ask the caterer to return the advance and start looking for another provider who doesn’t have an account? Things can’t get more ridiculous than this, can they? In any case, the guidelines don’t make it clear what would be acceptable ‘proof’ to avail the amount. Will a hand-written note do or does one have to do it on stamp paper?
The one thing that the guidelines does make clear, however, is that the specially permitted withdrawals would be allowed only from the balance in someone’s bank account on November 8, the day the demonetization decision was announced by the Prime Minister. Now think about the plight of a family, which has a marriage scheduled on November 22, but has withdrawn cash worth say Rs 2 lakhs in denominations of Rs 500 and 1, 000 on November 8 morning to meet some urgent marriage related expenses. On the morning of November 9, he suddenly finds that he has no option but to deposit the amount in his bank account again since no one is going to accept the Rs 500, 1000 notes in his possession by way of payment. But the catch is: even if he deposits the full Rs 2 lakh in the bank, he can’t withdraw more than Rs 4, 000 a week because of the restrictions on withdrawals imposed on November 8. In other words, he would have to keep visiting the bank once every week for the 50 weeks to get his money back because the withdrawal of Rs 2.5 lakh permitted by the RBI can only be made on his balance as on November 8! [In one particular case in Balasore, the bride-to-be, along with other members of the family, had to stand in a queue to withdraw cash a day before her marriage!]
The most ridiculous of the ill thought-out provisions announced by RBI is, of course, the exhortation to bank staff to ‘encourage’ people to make payments through non-cash means like cheques, drafts, internet banking and so on. Already stretched beyond their endurance limits (leading to several deaths, if reports are to be believed) since the announcement of demonetization, bank staff must be seething with anger at this unsolicited advice from the central bank. They are already finding it tough to cope with the seemingly endless queues outside the bank waiting to get their outlawed currencies exchanged or to draw or deposit money. To expect them to spend time counselling parents of would-be grooms and brides on the advisability of non-cash payments is to ask for the moon.
If the idea was to ensure that the families that have a marriage scheduled in the next few weeks don’t face any problems of cash – as the mandarins of the Finance ministry and RBI would have us believe – then the guidelines have done the exact opposite. Given the hassles involved, the family would be well advised to conduct the marriage on a shoe-string budget or – better still – postpone it to sometime in the New Year!