Making Money

Promise and peril in the Indian bitcoin economy

01 March 2017


SOHAIL MERCHANT’S PHONE kept him awake through the night of 8 November. That evening, at 8 pm, Prime Minister Narendra Modi shocked the country by declaring that, from midnight, all Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes would no longer be legal tender. Modi presented this as a way to flush out “black money”—untaxed wealth, part of which is held as unaccounted-for cash. Demonetised notes could either be deposited in bank accounts, exposing their owners to official scrutiny, or left, Modi said, to become “worthless pieces of paper.” Some with stockpiled cash rushed to purchase goods with it, or convert it into other stores of value, while they still could. Jewellers and retailers of luxury goods reported a spike in business that night, and many stayed open late.

The first call came soon after Modi’s announcement. By morning, Merchant had received over 150 of them. They kept coming in the weeks afterwards, too, from all over India. “Everybody was talking in crores,” he said. “‘I want to convert 25 crores, I have 30 crores,’ like that. All in cash.” When he said he was in Mumbai and only handled cash transactions in person, many callers responded, “We are ready to come there.”

Aria Thaker is a journalist who reports on the intersection of technology and politics for Quartz India. She was formerly a copy editor at The Caravan.

Keywords: economy demonetisation Bitcoin cryptocurrency