New Delhi: Outside the Reserve Bank of India building here, it’s 8am and the ban open’s in an hour’s time. More than 300 people have already lined up.
Among them is 60-year-old Mohammad Mustaqeem. He runs a garment shop but hasn’t been able to open it for the last three days. “There’s no business in the market,” he says. “The only thing for us to do now is to stand in these queues for money because without it we can’t even get food.”
“The grocer is now refusing credit so we can’t get milk, we can’t get vegetables and other things,” Mastaqeem says. “I’m a diabetic but I haven’t taken medicine for three days because I can’t pay the chemist. Nobody is accepting the old notes.”
At another bank, 45-year-old Shobha Devi is getting annoyed at the slow pace of withdrawing money. She has been going from bank to bank this morning to get cash and this is the third one. Hopefully, she says, this one will have money.
Since last week, there have been long serpentine lines outside banks, ATMs and post offices across the country. India is reeling from a severe cash crisis after the government’s decision to withdraw high-value currency notes from the country’s financial system. The government has described the move as a “surgical strike” against “black money,” referring to unaccounted for money. The scarcity of cash has thrown daily life in India out of gear.
Millions of people are rushing to change their old currency after the government’s decision to withdraw Rs500 (Dh27) and Rs1,000 notes from circulation.
Severe restrictions have been placed on the amount that can be changed and withdrawn from banks at a time. People who have these notes will have until the end of the year to change them at banks and post offices.
Many economists, financial experts and ordinary citizens have lauded Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the move.
“This is a historical step. We should all support it because we know that 20 to 40 per cent of our economy was in the parallel or black economy,” says Rajiv Kumar of the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research. “The fact is that this is like routing out malignancy from your system and that’s why you have people after people from the middle class praising Modi, because when you have malignancy, you are prepared to bear a bit of the pain of the chemo and radiotherapy that you get.”
But as a financial crisis deepens, the voices of dissent are growing louder.
“I think with every passing day people are losing patience over the scheme. The sentiment that this is a minor convenience for a greater good is reducing by the day,” says journalist Shivam Vij. “The suffering that the people are going through is far from minor inconveniences.”
“There have been till yesterday at least 25 deaths because of demonetisation. This includes suicides, heart attacks and elderly people collapsing in queues,” he says. “That is the kind of suffering. Can you imagine if 25 to 30 people had died in a terrorist attack? We would have been asking for a war with Pakistan.”