“Surgical Strike or Carpet Bombing” – Supreme Court’s remark on people’s suffering due to demonetization

New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Tuesday asked the Centre to explain the steps it has taken or will take to deal with chaos outside banks and ATMs following the demonetisation move and observed that people should not suffer.

Asking the Centre to file a reply without formally issuing notice, a bench of Chief Justice T.S. Thakur and Justice D.Y. Chandrachud said they will not interfere with the government policy but said standing in queues for hours was traumatic.

Refusing to stay the November 8 decision to demonetise Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 currency, as sought by one the four petitioners, Chief Justice Thakur told Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi: ” …instead of forcing citizens to stand in queues for their own money, why can’t you raise their cash withdrawal to a reasonable limit? It is traumatic for people to stand in lines for hours doing nothing.”

“We are wondering if you can do something to reduce the trauma of the common people,” the bench said as senior counsel Kapil Sibal told the bench that it was the small sellers or street vendors who were suffering the most as they are dependent on cash transactions.

Sibal, appearing for one of the petitioners, described demonetisation as a “surgical strike against the common man”.

Pointing to hardships faced by the people and provisions of the law governing demonetisation of notes, Sibal said: “You can have surgical strikes against black money but you can’t have surgical strikes against the common people.”

Chief Justice Thakur observed: “What Attorney General says is a surgical strike; what you say is carpet bombing.”

Makings it clear that he was not seeking a stay on the government decision, Sibal said: “We are with the government in curbing black money; but the inconvenience it is causing to the public is not reasonable. It is jeopardising their lives.”

Pointing out that 86 per cent of the currency had gone out of circulation, the petitioner’s counsel said: “It is my money. It is legitimate money, tax paid. Under what law of the land can you restrict my right to withdraw my money?”

Defending the demonetisation decision as conforming with legal provisions, Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi admitted that the government decision of such magnitude would cause some pain and urged the court not to interfere as “these are the matters of economic policy”.

At this, Chief Justice Thakur observed: “We are not interfering in your policy matters.”

Contesting Sibal’s contention that the government did not follow the law before demonetisation, Rohatgi said: “You can’t pass a law saying we are going to issue a notification for the demonetisation of currency notes of certain denomination….”

Saying there will be “some pain (to common people) if there is a surgical strike against black money”, Rohatgi said there were pains “in the past too for getting a scooter (two-wheeler), Fiat car, telephone, ration …”

Telling the court that the aim was to flush out black money and stop terror funding, the Attorney General said: “Some collateral damage will take place. I could not calibrate the two lakh ATMs (in the country) as that would have brought the cat out of the bag.” This position has been articulated by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley.

The Attorney General said Rs 3.25 lakh crore in Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes had been deposited since demonetisation. He said it was out of the Rs 15 to Rs 16 lakh crore that is in circulation. He said the government expected Rs 10 to 11 lakh crore to come to banks.

Addressing the concerns shown by the court, the Attorney General said every day we are adding Rs 10,000 crore to the economy and said that inconvenience alone could not be a ground against demonetisation.