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On a smoggy November day in New Delhi, Suresh Singh waited with his entire family in a mile-long queue at an ATM machine. His daughter, Geeta, was getting married in five days and the family needed to withdraw roughly $10,000 to pay for wedding expenses. But there was a daily withdrawal limit of 2,500 rupees ($38.50) per person. Suresh had already been waiting for over five hours.
A week before, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced, on the evening of November 8, that it would be taking all 500- and 1,000-rupee notes (about $7.64 and $15.28 respectively) out of circulation the next morning, in an attempt to rid the Indian economy of black money and tackle tax avoidance, corruption, fake currency, and terrorist financing. Modi hoped that in the long term demonetization would turn the largely cash-driven Indian economy into a cashless one. In India, the ratio of cash to GDP is one of the highest in the world at 12 percent in 2014, compared with nine percent in China or four percent in Brazil. Less than five percent of all payments are made electronically.
As a result of demonetization, an estimated 86 percent of the total cash in India’s economy was taken out of circulation, leading to an acute shortage. Modi’s announcement triggered a mad rush to the banks as people tried to deposit notes that had been made defunct and to withdraw new currency that was already in short supply. Only three denominations remained in circulation: 100-rupee, 50-rupee, and 20-rupee notes, equivalent to $1.40, $0.80, and $0.30, respectively. Lines could stretch for miles. Some people fainted because of the long wait in the heat, and a few even died.
One unforeseen victim of demonetization, which was enforced just a few days before the beginning of the auspicious Hindu wedding season known as shukla paksha, was the wedding industry. It is estimated to be worth $14.5 billion and growing at 25 to 30 percent annually—and it is largely run on cash. The wedding industry is unregulated and consists of thousands of small retailers, including wedding bands, large-animal rentals (such as horses and elephants), flower vendors, caterers, and decorators, among others. Black money is also commonly used to pay for wedding expenses. These small-business owners often do not have the means to invest in electronic payment infrastructure. Many people in India do not have bank accounts or even Internet connections to make cashless payments.
Geeta’s father, Suresh, was anxious because Geeta is his only daughter and he is expected to throw a big wedding for her. The family has been waiting to marry her for years, but with demonetization, the wedding hung in the balance. Many families, including Geeta’s, have black money stashed away, but that is now useless.
According to wedding planners and various allied industries, including wedding bands, wedding designers, and wedding caterers, their businesses have suffered. Vikaas Gutgutia, the founder of Ferns and Petals, one of India’s largest wedding-planning companies, said that the wedding industry is one of the worst hit by demonetization. People have reduced the number of festivities, slashed the number of guests, and cut costs across the board. Things will likely take another six months to a year to return to normal—if they ever do. Gayatri Sekhri, the creative head of Pomegranate Event Décor, a Delhi-based event-styling company, also noted a drop in business. She explained that the wedding industry runs on cash, as it is largely dependent on contractual labor working at minimum wages. Because of the cash shortage, families have had to curtail their spending, which has forced them to scale down their weddings and host fewer functions. In the end, for example, Geeta’s family was unable to withdraw all the money they needed, but the wedding did take place, just not with the panache they had planned for.
Families usually save up for years to throw extravagant weddings for their daughters. Paying dowries with cash has been illegal in India since 1961. But through the elaborate weddings that brides’ families offer to marry off their daughters, it remains an integral and almost institutionalized part of marriage, regardless of religion or economic status. So selling ancestral land, dispensing with family jewelry and heirlooms, and taking out bank loans to pay for the wedding are all common practices. It is estimated that on average, a bride’s parents will spend one-fifth of their wealth on a wedding.
While conducting research for my book India in Love: Marriage and Sexuality in the 21st Century, I spent months visiting marriage bureaus across the country. These bureaus are independent businesses, ranging from one-person shops to small or even large operations, that employ brokers to help families arrange both a marriage and a wedding. For the women who come to find a groom at the marriage bureau, it is the amount of money her family is willing to spend on a wedding that will convince the groom’s family to seal the union. One particular broker, A. K. Sharma, known widely as Pandit Sharma, specializes in “100-crore weddings.” This means that 100 crores ($15 million) will be spent on the wedding—most of it from the bride’s side. The “100-crore wedding” has become a must for wealthy families, which often hold weeklong destination weddings in exotic international locales, including French palaces, Italian vineyards, or Middle Eastern resorts. But even Pandit Sharma said his business has been hit. After demonetization, he explained, the black money used to finance weddings is no longer widely available.
Large weddings are common even among the middle and lower classes, for which a typical Indian wedding will last three to five days and include anywhere from 400 to 1,000 guests. Overseas Indians have continued this tradition. Although the average U.S. wedding costs $29,000 and has 140 guests, an Indian wedding in the United States costs $65,000 and hosts 500 guests, according to Ruchir Mewawala, a wedding planner who specializes in Indian ceremonies in the United States.
There is debate on both sides as to whether demonetization has done any good. Perhaps one positive is the downsizing of the big fat Indian wedding, at least for the moment. Young women such as Anjali Verma, 23, who works at a consulting firm in New Delhi, told me how her parents have prioritized marriage over her education. “My parents have stashed up for my wedding: cash, jewelry, electronic items,” she said. “I tell them to give me the money to study abroad, or maybe even just the computer meant for my future husband, but they won’t hear about it.” Her parents, however, treat her brother differently. “They save for his education; they save for my wedding,” she said. Perhaps with demonetization, this could change.