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.