Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets of cities throughout India to protest an economic policy you probably haven't heard of before: demonetization.
Three weeks ago, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi surprised his country with an announcement banning 500- and 1,000-rupee notes — worth about $7 and $15 respectively — in a bid to tackle corruption and terrorism.
He estimated that forcing people to exchange the country's largest currency bills for new banknotes would allow the government to crack down on "black money" — unaccounted-for cash holdings that haven't been taxed but, under the law, should be. He also argued that it would strike at domestic terrorist financing operations by capturing counterfeit money and rendering the legitimate cash they kept in the shadows worthless.
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Banning widely used banknotes would have a huge impact on any economy, but in India the policy is transformative. Modi's sudden ban instantly meant that 86 percent of all the cash in circulation in India was no longer considered legal tender, which means that businesses could refuse to accept those bills as a form of payment. And the Indian economy simply runs on cash: It's estimated that between 90 and 98 percent of all transactions in India, measured in terms of volume, involve it.
Unsurprisingly, Modi's demonetization initiative has caused chaos across the country. People want new banknotes, but the current supply of them isn't close to meeting demand. That's created headaches for people as they wait in long lines outside ATMs and banks, which routinely run out of cash. For people who rely on daily cash earnings to survive, it can mean not being able to obtain food.
The temporary shortage of banknotes is having other far-reaching effects. Farmers looking to sow their next set of crops can't buy the full quantity of seeds they need. Property sales, which typically require huge cash investments, are slowing. It's even reshaping cultural life: Weddings, which can cost millions of rupees, are taking a serious hit.
"A lot of marriages are being postponed, and those that are managing are doing so by borrowing from relatives and friends," says Niranjan Sahoo, a senior fellow with the Observer Research Foundation, a think tank in New Delhi.
Modi's agenda to crack down on black money makes sense in theory but it isn't working smoothly in practice. It's hitting individual Indians hard, and the country itself may pay a heavy price: Many economists expect the growth of India's booming economy to slow substantially in the final quarter of 2016.