While opening a box of incense sticks for a puja during Navratri—a nine-day Hindu festival—in late March 2017, Shankar Lal discovered Rs 11,500 in old five-hundred-rupee and thousand-rupee notes. These notes were effectively rendered useless on the night of 8 November 2016, when the Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced his surprise demonetisation policy. On 29 March 2017, Lal, a retired 91-year-old school teacher, travelled for five hours from his hometown in Chirawar, Rajasthan to the Reserve Bank of India’s main branch in Delhi. He arrived hoping to convert his money, but when I met him two days later, he was still trying. “I am here all alone,” Lal told me. He broke into tears at multiple points while telling me his story. “I eat dry channa, sleep in the nearby dharamshala and then return the next morning,” he said. He told me his feet were swollen and he had made no progress in exchanging his money. “Someone comes and writes things down,” Lal continued. “They came the day before yesterday, they came yesterday, they came today but nothing has happened.”
In his speech on 8 November, Modi said that anyone could convert or deposit notes of Rs 500 and 1,000 until 30 December 2016. He added that those unable to do so would be able to deposit them at specified branches of the Reserve Bank of India till 31 March 2017. On the same day as Modi’s speech, the RBI issued a press release reiterating the assurance, stating that “any person who is unable to exchange or deposit” their money before 30 December, “shall be given an opportunity to do so at specified offices of the Reserve Bank of India” until a later date. But on 31 December, the RBI issued a notification stating that the March deadline was only applicable for resident Indians who were abroad in November and December. The notification granted non-resident Indians who were abroad in that period until 30 June to deposit their old notes.
In March 2017, I made several trips to the RBI office in Delhi. I found that the confusion over who was eligible to convert the invalidated notes left many exasperated. The frequency and vigour with which the media reported on demonetisation has dipped since the policy’s initial coverage, and with it, so it seems, has the widespread outrage in late 2016. But my trips to the RBI served as a reminder that, for many people, the suffering did not end in December.
Ram Kumar, too, accidentally discovered old notes after the December 2016 deadline. He was searching for his late father’s passbook in order to get access to his pension, when he discovered Rs 41,000 tucked away in a box. When I spoke to him outside the RBI’s Delhi office on 30 March, Kumar was still in shock about the discovery of his father’s money. “He just took the money out of the bank and kept it. We are five sons and he didn’t tell one of us,” he said, referring to his father.
A 42-year-old farmer from Gwalior, in Madhya Pradesh, Kumar first traveled to the RBI office in Bhopal to try and get his money converted. After he met with no success there, he traveled to Delhi. He spent four days in the national capital, but left on 1 April with all his money still in the demonetised notes.
The RBI’s late December notification effectively meant that those such as Lal and Kumar, who happened upon old notes, as well as those with other extenuating circumstances who never left the country, were left with no recourse for converting their money. “When I reached the gate,” Lal told me, “they [the security officials] said, ‘Old man, you go back, this is not for you.’”
Even among those eligible to convert their money, not everyone was successful. The RBI demanded a particular customs form and stamp that individuals were supposed to receive upon re-entering the country. Many people I spoke to outside the RBI office in Delhi complained that they were not aware of this requirement. Among them was a chef at a bakery in Muscat, Oman, who requested not to be identified.
In March 2017, the chef returned to India with Rs 50,000 in old currency notes—almost twice his monthly income. On a hot day, standing in a line outside the RBI office, he learned about the customs certificate requirements but he still decided to try. Three hours later, he was rejected and unable to convert his money. He asked, “What will we do? Nothing. These are the RBI’s rules.” He continued, “Throw [the notes] in the dustbin.” When I spoke to him later in May, he told me that he had returned to Muscat and had been unable to convert his money.
Mohammad Parvez, another Muscat-based Indian, sarcastically offered a different solution for what he would do with the old notes: “In the name of Modi we will keep it at home and conduct aarti with it.” He added, “Every morning we will pray with it.”
Of all the people I spoke to, Parvez appeared to be the angriest. He was working as a plumber in Oman, and had returned to India after 21 months to convert his demonetised money. He was carrying Rs 16,000 in old notes—around one month’s salary for him. “We have to be angry,” he said. “Rs 16,000 is too much for poor people.”
Parvez said he had asked customs officials at the airport for a stamped form that he could show to the RBI. But the officials assured him that he would only need his ticket, his passport and the old notes, and they did not give him the requisite form. “Now I am here and they [the RBI officials] are giving me the runaround,” Parvez said. He added that the RBI’s security officials had announced to the people waiting in the queue outside the bank that “only those who have the documents should stand in line.” Parvez said the security officials told the crowd that if they stood without the documents, “we will turn you away.’”
Parvez also told me that he was approached by a man offering black-market rates for old notes outside the RBI office. The man offered a rate of Rs 6,000 in new currency in exchange for Rs 1 lakh in old notes and Rs 500 for Rs 10,000. An on-looker who overheard Parvez narrate the incident to me angrily suggested that the old notes could instead be used as fertilizer for plants. “No,” Parvez responded, “throw it in front of them [RBI officials].” I tried to contact Parvez several times in the month of May to find out if he was finally able to convert his money, but his phone was unreachable.
On the days I visited the RBI, I saw little in the way of communication between officials and the hundreds of people lined up outside. Most of these people told me that this lack of clear communication about the rules was their biggest frustration. Those in the queue had no choice but to address their questions to police officers and RBI security officials, who were not always equipped to answer them. “If you want an answer come back tomorrow,” I heard a security official addressing an individual within a large group of people. The official added, “If you want to get pickpocketed, come back tomorrow.” In another incident, when a man pushed himself up against a barricade to ask a police officer a question, the officer responded, “Move away! What can I do? Ask them [RBI officials] what you want to know.”
I only saw one official from the central bank emerge from the building to speak to the people in the queue hoping to change their notes. To his credit, on one occasion, I saw him prioritise the cases of the elderly people he spotted in line. But more often than not, he brazenly brushed off queries. Once, when I asked him the difference between the 31 March and 30 June deadlines, he just yelled, “No!”
I contacted Alpana Killawala, an RBI spokesperson, on the phone and by email in April, but she declined to comment. The RBI has previously refused to explain why people were not allowed to convert their notes until 31 March, even in responses to applications under the Right to Information Act. The central bank reportedly responded stating that the reasons behind curtailing the conversion are not within the scope of information that can be provided under the act. It has also stated that providing such information would be against the economic interests of the state. On 21 March, the Supreme Court directed the central government to file a response to a petition challenging the RBI’s refusal to accept demonetised notes after 31 December. The case will continue to be heard once the court resumes functioning after its summer break.
I was unable to contact Lal, the 91-year-old retired school teacher, on the number he gave me to find out whether he was able to exchange his money after our interaction. But on the day we spoke, on 31 March, he ended our conversation on a philosophical note. “The world has changed,” he said. “Nowadays the world is full of dishonesty. There used to be truth, now there is none.” Lal told me that demonetisation and his inability to convert his money despite spending three days in the heat had left him feeling disillusioned with the priorities of modern society. “The whole world wants money,” he said. “Even the children and family members want money—if you have money, they will take care of you, otherwise they won’t,” he continued. “Everything is lost, babuji,” he added, “It’s a big injustice.”
Ashish Malhotra has reported for Deutsche Welle, The Times of London, Vice News and The Atlantic as a freelance journalist. He has previously worked at Al Jazeera English and the Hindustan Times.