At about noon on 11 November 2016, outside a Bank of India branch in Green Park, Delhi, a middle-aged man swore incessantly as he extricated himself from a crowd that had been steadily expanding since morning. Chaos reigned. Only half the day was over, but the bank had just closed its doors to the hundreds that stood waiting outside.
It had been three days since Prime Minister Narendra Modi had sprung a surprise on the Indian citizenry. In a televised announcement on the evening of 8 November, Modi had declared that, as of midnight that night, the high-denomination notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 would no longer be legal tender. The prime minister stated that this move was an effort to crack down on black money—one of the issues his government had promised to resolve. Anyone with notes of Rs 500 or Rs 1000 would have until 30 December to exchange the old currency for either Rs 100 notes, or newly issued Rs 2000 notes. New Rs 500 notes would also be issued, he said. Acknowledging that this would cause “some hardships,” the prime minister also announced that banks and ATMs would be closed on 9 November. Banks would resume operations starting 10 November, and ATMs the next day.
Naresh Singh, a trader who had recently bought a goods carrier on loan, was frustrated. He had been waiting for his turn, but the gates were closed before he could enter. Singh told me that he was there neither to exchange nor deposit cash, and had instead come to deposit an installment for a loan payment. It was the last day today, he rued. “Meri gaadi utha ke le jayenge yaar,” he shouted—they’ll take away my car.
When he realised he was speaking to a reporter, hoping that I would be able to help him, he asked, “Do you have some contact with bank officials?” I told him I didn’t. “Go do your work then,” he replied. “Are you doing time-pass with me?”
To exchange their notes, a person was required to fill in their address and currency details in an application that the bank was distributing, and attach a copy of a photo-identity card, before submitting it to bank officials. The person was then issued a token and asked to wait outside. Unsurprisingly, no such procedure was being followed. Many without tokens managed to push their way in, while others waited for their turn with forms in their hands, unaware that they needed to obtain a token. Meanwhile, several people looked confused and unsure, hesitantly asking those around them for help. Nobody knew if their hours of waiting in a queue would yield results.
Once the bank shut its doors, only those who had managed to secure a token were allowed in. A migrant factory worker milled about, and peeped through the grill to find out if the staff was still taking applications for exchange. The customers’ patience ran out soon after, and they surrounded the entrance, demanding to be let in.
On 9 November, the Delhi police had stated in a press release that it would deploy adequate security at each bank branch in the city. As many as 3,400 personnel of paramilitary forces and 2,200 Delhi police officers, along with 200 quick action teams were reportedly deployed in the national capital. The two Delhi police constables deployed at the Green Park branch, though, appeared helpless and unwilling to restrain the crowd—perhaps because a large section of the crowd comprised elderly people and women.
Vali Muhammad, who hails from Barabanki, in Uttar Pradesh, told me that he worked in a garment factory in the city and tailored clothes. On the night that Modi announced the abolishment of the existing high denomination notes, he had just received his salary. “Every month, the day after I got paid, I would send half of my salary home,” Muhammad said. “But it’s already been two days this month.”
By the end of the day, Muhammad had been unsuccessful in transferring his salary. When I asked him if he thought the demonetisation was inconveniencing the poor, he replied that it was obviously causing him inconvenience at the moment. But, he added, “Whatever will happen with everyone, will happen to me. So I’m not worried.”
Jasbir Singh, a businessman, who broke off from the queue and was trying to sneak in to the bank somehow, told me that he was happy with the government’s decision. According to him, the inconvenience was caused due to the banks’ failure in maintaining the crowd.
As was the case in most of the city, the ATMs that were operational in the area had either gone out of service soon after opening, or had been depleted of all the cash they contained, leaving people to throng banks in the locality. I found four ATMs in Green Park—Axis Bank, ICICI, SBI and Corporation Bank—but they were all out of service.
On 9 November, at the National Media Center in Delhi, at least two Hindi newspaper reporters had asked Finance Minister Arun Jaitley during a press conference for details of arrangements being made at the banks to meet the demands of money exchangers.
Each of them had started their questions saying, “Mantri ji, afra-tafri ka mahaul hai”—everything is in disarray. Both times, Jaitley dismissed the assertion, saying that it was mere exaggeration. “Koi afra-tafri ka mahaul nahi hai”—there is no disarray.
Anjuly Chib Duggal, the secretary for the financial services department, also addressed the press conference. When asked about the availability of cash, Chib Duggal had said that, “ATMs will be filled again and again.” She added that she was monitoring the situation constantly.
A former bank manager, who wanted to be identified only by his second name, Nath, said the move had created a lot of chaos and would affect farmers and small-time traders. “In Mandi market, 90 percent transaction is done through cash. Such decision will hit the farmers hard,” he said.
Nath, who had come to the bank to collect his pension, believed that the government’s measure would not curb “black money.” According to him, the term had larger scope than cash. “How would you stop tax evasion? Black money is not something buried somewhere that, in one stroke, you can undo it. It needs a vision and policy change,” Nath said.
Near the entrance, an old woman argued with a tall Sikh man, who has asked her to move from the doorway. The woman, who appeared to have been standing in queue since morning, was shouting that the men had blocked entry for women. Her teenaged daughter was persuading her to leave the queue, but the woman refused. She said she would not budge until she got her money.
By around 4.30 pm, it had become clear that the bank would not be accepting new customers that day. I still stood at the back of the queue, to see if it would move. Two women, who looked to be in their thirties, took positions behind me. One of them turned to me. “Is this where we can get money?” she asked. I saw that they had no forms with them. On enquiry, they told me they had been cashless for two days and needed money to buy food for their young children. They had tried their luck on the first day but, unable to understand the procedure or the paperwork required, they could not exchange their currency. The day was nearly over for the bank, and there was little hope that they would get their money.
As darkness fell, I decided to visit an ICICI bank branch nearby. The situation was no different there. Though the government had decreed that the banks would function till 8 pm, this bank had shut at 5 pm. Nonetheless, a long queue had formed in the waiting area outside.
I asked the security guard, Anil Kumar Tiwari, if cash was still being dispensed. He pointed towards the queue. I said I wanted to try my luck, and that he should let me in. He pretended not to hear me. When I insisted, he fished out an application form for currency exchange from his breast-pocket and said, “I’m waiting since yesterday but they have still not exchanged my money.”
I asked if he was happy about the government’s decision. “Of course I am,” came the reply, although he did not explain what he was happy about.
But Tiwari’s response, similar to the one Jasbir Singh had given me at Bank of India, was a surprisingly common refrain—I found that despite the inconvenience they were undeniably facing, many people firmly stood behind Modi’s decision on demonetisation. I spoke to nearly 40 people during the day, of which a majority told me they saw their inconvenience as a localised one. “Ye toh bank wale hume pareshan kar rahen hai, warna Modi ne toh thik hi kiya hai”—It is the people from the bank who are troubling us, otherwise Modi took the right decision, several said. Many workers and labourers I spoke to, like Muhammad, said the move was painful, but they saw it as a shared burden and didn’t blame the government. “Ab dukh toh sabko ho raha hai. Main akele kya bolun.”—everybody is upset, what can I say alone, an old man said.
Only a handful of people I met openly criticised the government. “Modi ki aisi ki taisi,”—Modi be damned, Vijay Kumar, a retired employee, muttered before storming off from the bank. I asked Kumar what happened. He showed me a list of payments that he had to make: to the tent-wala, decoration wala and cooks, whom he had contracted to work for an event observing his mother’s death anniversary. Starting at about 3pm, Kumar had stood in queue at the Kotak Mahindra Bank’s Green Park branch. “But, as soon as my turn came, they closed,” he said. He then came to the ICICI bank and took his position in another queue. But at about 5pm, before his turn came, the manager announced that the bank would no longer take any new forms. It was past 5.30 pm when he gave up and decided to leave.
Meanwhile, inside the bank, a bank officer had gotten into a quarrel with a customer after the latter objected to an inordinate delay in exchanging notes. The man said his wife had stood in the queue at the bank since morning. He wanted to know what was taking the bank officials time, and why his wife had to wait for so long.
While other customers tried to subdue the man, another argument had broken out in a different part of the bank. An account holder of the bank demanded preference over other customers who had come to get their currency exchanged. The manager tried to explain that there was already a separate line for account holders. The man, unconvinced, left in a huff.
By now, Tiwari had let me inside.
Several women standing nearby were discussing the move with others in the queue. I overheard a woman discussing how she had scraped together money by secretly saving some of her husband’s earnings. “The only bad thing about this move is that my secret was revealed before my husband,” she told a woman standing next to her.
Two other women were also discussing the demonitisation amongst themselves. “You know these days, they’re forwarding a joke that the demonitisation will affect housewives’ economy,” one of them said. “Ab hum ladies toh kartey hain na ye. Mere hi dekh lo itne paise bekar ho gaye,”—We ladies do this, she said, referring to cash savings. I’ve lost so much money myself. “But what fault is there of Modi’s?” the other responded. “They should have had extra stuff on this day. Sabki chuttiyan cancel kar detey.”—they should have cancelled everyone’s holidays. “Jaise wartime mein hota hai”—Like they do during wartime.
Sagar is a staff writer at The Caravan.