Wedding woes in the time of demonetisation

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With less than a week to go for her daughter Kavya's marriage, Swapan Nath of Jadavpur, Kolkata, seems a desolate figure in front of a city ATM outlet. With the sudden announcement of demonetisation by the central government, it seems the sky has fallen on the veteran government clerk's head. "A daughter's marriage is still the biggest challenge for a father. We prepared for the big day for months and withdrew cash of rupees two lakhs for emergency payments, only to realise most of that money isn't legal tender anymore," said the helpless father. Whether a fair drive to eradicate black money or not, the Centre's decision to ban the higher-denomination currency notes has put a lot of marriage hopefuls in the same boat. The marriage season in India is in full bloom but with most of the old cash wiped off from people's hands and limited options for withdrawals, couples are finding it tedious to be united in wedlock. For young and independent couples like Payel, a professor of Mathematics at IIT-Ranchi, and Mrinal Jana, an Assistant Professor at Dehradun, the plans for a lavish marriage ceremony has taken a hit amid the present cash crisis. With just a few days to go for their marriage, a lot of preparations were left to be done. But instead, Payel and Mrinal were forced to spend a considerable amount of time at banks to get their cash exchanged. "My dad had to queue up in front of a local bank to first deposit the old cash and then withdraw the necessary amount. There was confusion even among the bankers about the upper limit of cash withdrawal. The government had initially permitted withdrawal of 24 thousand rupees a week, but that is next to nothing for marriage preparations," Payel complained. To balance out the present cash crisis, the government then gave some relief for farmers and families celebrating weddings. In a statement, Economic Affairs Secretary Shaktikanta Das said: "For wedding ceremonies, up to Rs 2.5 lakh can be withdrawn from the bank account by the KYC-complaint customers." But for couples whose marriage is knocking at the door, the new relaxation is of little help. "We are so close to the marriage dates. The functions have already started. The relaxation on withdrawal came in very late for us. But for others who have their marriage planned at the end of the month or next, this surely would help," said Delhi-based Akshay Rohatgi, who is getting married in a couple of days. However, complaints have poured in from many areas that the banks have refused to let the couples or their family members withdraw a lumpsum amount citing either shortage of funds or non-receipt of any order from the Reserve Bank of India. "When I heard the government announcement, I was ecstatic. But my happiness evaporated when I reached the counter. I was told the bank had a cash shortage. So I was asked to withdraw Rs 24,000 every week for the next few weeks. They didn't listen to my pleas," said a retired government employee, whose son is scheduled to marry early next month. A senior manager of a private bank in Jamshedpur expressed dismay over the government's constantly shifting stand. "The day the announcement was made there were people at our gates with their PAN cards and affidavits. They even carried the wedding invites. But how do we allow them to withdraw? The RBI circular was yet to reach us," said the manager on condition of anonymity. The Rs 2.5 lakh withdrawal for weddings itself comes with several tough caveats. The amount, allowed to be withdrawn till December 30, will have to be out of the balances at credit "as of close of business on November 8, 2016". The withdrawal can be made by either of the parents or the person getting married -- only one of them. The withdrawal request has to be accompanied by evidence of the wedding (invitation card) and copies of receipts for advance payments already made -- such as marriage hall booking and advance payments to caterers. There should also be a list of people to whom the money will be paid -- along with a declaration that they do not have bank accounts. Clearly, the conditions are quite tough for the Rs 2.5 lakh withdrawal. In rural India, where people have lesser access to plastic money like e-wallets or online payment, the situation is even more grave. For the families celebrating weddings, the joyous mood has turned into anxiety as they have to make advance payments to caterers and florists in cash. "My bank is far off and the ATM at my village is out of cash. Having paid the decorators and caterers in advance, I don't have money to book the car for the groom. I have come to the bank branch in Kolkata to get the money," said Shamyal Pandit from Bongaon. While people seem to agree that demonetisation is a bold move to get rid of black money and fake currency notes, most of them are taken aback by the abruptness of the announcement. "We are happy that this has been implemented. It is good for the long term but for people with events coming up, this would be a pain," said a harried father. Even wedding planners and shopkeepers are feeling the impact on their businesses amid the nationwide dearth of cash. In many cases, previously lavish arrangements are being scaled down, while some are even getting offers of extra payments if they accept old notes. "Clients are also telling us to cut down on the scale of events if we do not accept old Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes," Subhadeep Banerjee, a Kolkata-based wedding planner, said. (IANS)

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