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At long last the conscientious Indian man of money can stop worrying, and the naughty Indian woman of fancy can continue with her harmless obsession. The highest bank of the nation has declared that writing on currency notes does not invalidate them. In doing so, it is only pursuing its own interest; for if it declared such notes unacceptable, one or both of two things would happen. Either millions of people would be stuck with notes that they suddenly find worthless; or, if the Reserve Bank of India declared a brief amnesty, they would queue up before banks to exchange the script-bearing notes for clean ones, and the banks would, in turn, ask the RBI to allow themselves the same exchange. That would force the RBI to print so many more notes; and while it is not too expensive, printing of notes is not free of cost. The RBI has, first, to import paper made for itself alone and protected by various watermarks and other devices that make it difficult to reproduce. Then it has to cover the notes with obscure designs and scripts to make them difficult to fake. Despite all its cautionary measures, counterfeit notes continue to turn up. It is commonly believed that they come from Pakistan. Whether they are the products of its public or private enterprise cannot be verified; some people think that there is no difference between the two. Whichever it may be, even the government of India is incapable of taking remedial action, for India’s western neighbour is a nuclear power, and cannot be made to give up a lucrative business without a war that cannot be won. Hence, there is no choice but to accept the beautifully printed smuggled notes; after all, they save the RBI the cost of printing that many notes.

Besides, Indian scribblers are pretty modest. Most of them are bank clerks; after counting a bundle of notes, they write the number on the top note. In Spain, where a quarter of the adults are unemployed and emotions are running high, the scribbles are more expressive and more extreme. One scribbler wrote that politicians and bankers were a disgrace to the nation. Another discarded such courtesy and called them thieving sons of female animals of the canine species. A ten-euro note bore the message: “This money is laundered; please don’t circulate.”

Unintendedly, that writer hit the nail on the head. For writing on currency notes would be perfectly all right if the notes could be laundered — not in the commonly accepted sense, but literally. The mistake made by central banks from the outset was that they made currency notes out of paper, which is normally used for writing; no wonder that they are put to that use. Fortunately, sense is beginning to dawn at last: the Bank of England is about to bring out plastic notes.