The day after the Nov. 8 U.S. presidential election and just a few days before I was to leave for Mumbai, I read a news story about the Indian government invalidating the country’s 500- and 1,000-rupee notes (worth about $7 and $15, respectively) in an attack on corruption. But it didn’t sink in, because I was still trying to comprehend the astounding results of our own election. When I arrived in Mumbai with my PRB colleague Charlotte Feldman-Jacobs on the night of Nov. 12, the hotel staff informed us that they could not exchange our U.S. dollars for local currency. We could try going to a bank but the lines at the banks were so long, we had a slim-to-none chance of getting any valid rupees there. “How about an ATM?” we asked. Worse, we were told, because they ran out of cash even faster than the banks.
We were devastated. How were we going to hold a weeklong seminar for 15 journalists from Nepal, Bangladesh, and throughout India, who were arriving the next day? The seminar was critical because we were launching our new Women’s Edition-Asia program, marking the first time we had divided our global Women’s Edition program into separate regions to extend its reach to more journalists. The seminar was to begin Monday, Nov. 14, and not only did we not have any local currency, we didn’t know if the journalists would have any either. For the seminar, we had planned site visits, including an overnight trip to Pune, a four-hour train ride away, and while the tickets had been purchased in advance, how would we pay for taxis? We were planning to give the journalists per diems in U.S. dollars for meals, but how could they pay without rupees? On my trips to sub-Saharan Africa, I’d often use U.S. dollars if I didn’t have local currency, but that was not the case in India. Other than having a panic attack, what could we do?
As it turned out, the journalists were much more prepared for this currency crisis than Charlotte and I had anticipated—most of them had at least some legal rupees, credit cards, apps that enabled them to pay with their phones, and/or ride-sharing apps like Uber that obviated the need for transport cash. While we used credit cards when we could (and paid the foreign exchange fees most credit cards charge), the journalists graciously paid for taxis and accepted our reimbursement in U.S. dollars. Occasionally, Charlotte’s U.S. Uber app also worked.
We weathered the currency storm and held the seminar, focusing on basic reproductive health and family planning issues, as well use of data and evidence to strengthen news coverage of these topics. We took the journalists to the city’s largest slum, Dharavi, and a hospital serving that area to learn about a project by an NGO called ARMMAN that uses digital technology to improve maternal and child health care. They also visited some of the women in the program at their homes to find out how it was helping them.
We took an early morning train to Pune—where, as it turned out, we could walk from the train station to our hotel and the headquarters of the project we were visiting, so we didn’t need taxis or rupees. There, we met the staff of an NGO called Equal Community Foundation that works with boys ages 13 to 17 to change gender norms in their households and communities. After a briefing on the program, we broke into groups of three and set out in rickshaws, taxis, and motorbikes (paid for with rupees borrowed from the journalists) to various parts of the city to meet boys participating in the program. Seeing how this amazing program was radically changing social constructs was the highlight of the week for most of the journalists. My group met a 14-year-old boy who believed violence against girls was wrong, eagerly helped his mother with household chores, liked to cook, and even insisted on making us tea. The next morning, we rode the train back to Mumbai, where the journalists again used their ride-sharing apps and their rupees to pay for taxis to get us back to the hotel.
The biggest lesson we learned was that while it’s always good to have a “Plan B,” sometimes there’s just nothing you can do to head off a storm.