For the second time in a week, the Centre has faced tough questions on the notes ban from the Supreme Court, which cautioned on Friday: “We will have riots on the streets.”
The Supreme Court today declined the request of the central government that it stay all petitions against demonetisation pending in various high courts and other forums stating that people have a right to approach courts when they have grievances.
Chief Justice of India TS Thakur said petitions challenging the ban on Rs. 500 and Rs. 1,000 notes indicate the magnitude of the problem.
“You have scrapped 500 and 1,000, but what happened to the 100 rupee note?” the Chief Justice asked the government, referring to the daily scramble for cash across the country and the punishing queues outside banks and ATMs.
ATMs, the government replied, need to be recalibrated because they have a “single drawer” for Rs. 100 notes. For thousands, this has meant that cash dried up long before they could reach the top of the line after several hours.
The court had more questions on the currency ban announced suddenly by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on November 8 to check tax evasion and black or untaxed money. In the past 10 days, there have been several additional announcements to ease the crisis for people.
“The last time you said you are working out relief but you have reduced the withdrawal amount to 2,000. What’s the problem? Is it a printing problem?” Justice Thakur asked the government.
The government earlier this week reduced the Rs. 4,500 limit for the exchange of notes at banks to Rs. 2,000, saying it would enable more people to get cash.
Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi said: “Not only printing… it has to be transported to lakhs of branches across the country and ATMs have to re-calibrated.”
Mr Rohatgi added that the government did grant relief to farmers, families planning weddings and small traders.
Representing one of the petitioners, senior lawyer Kapil Sibal, a senior Congress leader, alleged that people in villages and in the northeastern states are unable to withdraw money.
The government lawyer retorted: “Mr Sibal is making a political issue here. You can’t convert this court into a political platform. Let him go outside and address people as a Congress person.”
There was a verbal duel between Rohatgi and Kapil Sibal, who represented one of the several petitioners. While Sibal said that the ordinary people have been put in miserable situation, the Attorney General alleged that Sibal was politicising the issue for the benefit of his party.
The court then asked both parties to submit data justifying their claims — that the situation was easing as claimed by the government and it was as bad as ever as claimed by the petitioners. The court will examine the data next Friday.