I saw no paisas during my last visits to India. I missed the square round-edged aluminium-magnesium 5 paise coin as I did the 10 paise, not to speak of the cupro-nickel eight-scalloped 10 naye paise dating from well before my time. The Reserve Bank of India in 2011 demonetized the 25 paise coin (or chawanni in old money) and anything below it. The only coin I did hold in my hands (not without nostalgia, already missing it) was the round 8 annas or 50 paise in ferratic stainless steel. Maybe simply because the atthanni was worth something to me even 10 years ago. 5 and 10 rupee coins have of course now taken over other economically empty coinage now consigned to history; flinging a 50 paise today fetches only for a curse from a beggar and prasad from a tender-hearted priest.
Not wanting to keep the change, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada have pitched their pennies. US pennies and Russian kopeks may follow suit. In Canada a cent coin is in fact called a penny and cost the government 11 million Canadian dollars – 1.6 cents to produce every 1 cent. To make things easier, businesses often round off every penny to 5 cents. The Canadian finance minister Jim Flaherty announced the death of his nation’s penny in these terms: “The penny is a currency without any currency. And they take up too much space on our dressers at home. We often store them in jars, throw them away in water fountains or refuse them as change”.
The growing question here in the UK then is: are pennies a waste of time and money? Will it go the way of the farthing in 1961 and that of the half penny in 1984? Punters, including coin dealers, today don’t even count their pennies. They go straight to the charity box, ubiquitous in a nation which made the Fabian Bernard Shaw grunt: “Charity is no substitute for social justice”.
Expensive to make, helpful only in producing a bulge in the wallet, a hole in the pocket, or a clog the vacuum cleaner? According to a survey for the Prudential insurance group, a good one-third of the youth here unequivocally admit to chucking away their small change. Having lost several hundred per cent of its exchange value in the last twenty years, getting rid of coins altogether the Federation of Small Businesses (representing 200,000 companies) believes is progress. Particularly for smaller firms dealing with large numbers of coins, it would render unnecessary visiting the local bank, especially at a time when many of them are closing anyway.
Numismatists hold that abandoning the copper would be a great pity. The copper is, after all, one of the iconic coins of Britain introduced in silver into England by King Offa in 780 CE. It is also the only coin that was issued until the 14th century although in its current decimal form it only goes back to 41 years. Forming the base unit of British currency, Its metallic feel is largely due to copper-plated steel as the original bronze (with copper, zinc and tin amalgam) got replaced in 1992. The British Museum estimates that with last year’s supplies by the Royal Mint, there are 11.2 billion pennies in circulation. Valuewise, they may not generate a high velocity of revolution, but critics point out that while inflation is high, abolishing the penny would hardly hinder shopkeepers and service providers from rounding off upwards, adding further to inflationary pressure.
Children categorically are prone to the lure of foreign coins and notes; perhaps because they are not yet part of the cashless society. They expect me to conjure up such currency from my carry-on every time I arrive in India. The humble yellow pound with a younger Queen embossed on one side is then quickly translated as eighty times dearer than our own rupee. They are aporetic when I report that that denomination cannot even get me a dodgy cup of tea here.
That is when the penny drops.