The Supreme Court has given another rap on the knuckles to both the Centre and the Reserve Bank over demonetisation, an exercise lofty in aim (though questioble) but badly maged. Granted that the currency flushout last November is no longer an issue the Opposition can capitalize upon; in fact, the Prime Minister’s sudden move may have benefited the BJP politically, notably in the UP elections. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has admitted as much, that the cash ban may have struck a resonce with the poor. But the apex court has now asked the Central government why people with “genuine reasons” cannot be given a chance to deposit their now invalid Rs 1000 and Rs 500 notes. When Prime Minister rendra Modi scrapped these high denomition notes on November 8 last year, people were given time till December 30, 2016 to deposit their banned notes. The deadline for non-resident Indians (NRIs) was set at 31 March, 2017, which was later extended till June 30 through an ordince. In February this year, Parliament passed the Specified Bank Notes (Cessation of Liabilities) Bill, which prohibits the holding, transferring or receiving of scrapped notes, while making the holding of more than 10 scrapped notes punishable with a minimum fine of Rs 10,000. Meanwhile, several individuals along with a firm representing NRIs petitioned the Supreme Court; they all gave reasons why they could not meet the government’s 50-day deadline to deposit the scrapped notes, like a woman who had just then delivered a baby and another woman coping with a death in her family. Taking serious note of the difficulties such citizens faced, the apex court has asked the government why, despite having powers under the law, it did not create a category for people who couldn’t deposit their demonetised notes before the December 30 deadline. “There can be a situation where a person has lost his/her money for no fault. Suppose a person was in jail during the period... We want to know as to why you chose to bar such persons,” the SC bench asked the Centre’s counsel.
In its affidavit to the Supreme Court, the Centre had contended: “It is most humbly submitted that the Central government took a conscious decision that no necessity or any justifiable reason exists either in law or on facts to invoke its power under section 4(1)(ii) of the Ordince to entitle any person to tender within the grace period the specified bank notes.” Taking a stern view of this stand that the government is not legally bound to give ‘grace period’ to those who are after all citizens, the SC bench countered: “You can’t take away my money if I was termilly ill”. Giving the Centre and the RBI two weeks to decide about giving more time to people with genuine reasons who could not deposit their invalid notes by the stipulated deadline, Chief Justice JS Khehar observed, “If these genuine people are not given a chance, then it is a serious issue.” What has come out clearly in this latest round of hearings is that the government largely ignored the human aspect of people who clutched on to their hard-earned cash due to a variety of reasons — they may have been uware of the deadline, out of the country, were sick or beset with family crises, may have been bestowed with cash by relatives who had passed away, or simply because they happen to be old and infirm. These are all valid reasons why significant numbers of people in a 130 crore population, failed to deposit their suddenly devalued cash within a very tight 50-day window. The apex court has now asked whether a new window can be opened for such citizens deserving of a second chance. Their deposits can be subjected to extra scrutiny so that there is no scope for laundering of tax-evaded money. In any case, these are not going to be large amounts of money, but the relief to the individuals concerned will be great indeed, the SC bench has pointed out. The important point to note is that the government may well be in a hurry to carry out what it perceives to be much-needed reform measures like going cashless or making Aadhaar mandatory — but in such efforts, it may tend to dismiss even genuine objections as dilatory tactics by the Opposition or anti-reformist forces. This it must not do, or else it will end up pelising the weak for no fault of theirs. This is the lesson the highest court of the land has found necessary to drive home again. The Centre has assured the apex court it will examine the “genuineness” of each case involving people still possessing banned currency notes. It needs to formulate a clear and reasoble set of rules this time, so that further harassment is avoided.