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.