On 11 November, I reported on how the government’s recent decision to declare notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 invalid had resulted in long queues of befuddled people—waiting at banks for hours on end, and often, without success, to exchange the now-illicit currency in their possession. On 13 November, I experienced first-hand, the mayhem that these queues could result in.
That day, a little after 4 pm, I went to a branch of the ICICI bank—an Indian multinational banking and financial services company headquartered in Mumbai—in south Delhi’s Safdarjung Enclave neighbourhood. It had been five days since Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced that notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 would be demonetised. Since then, I had made around ten visits to various ATMs around the area to withdraw money, but each of my attempts had been futile. I took my position in the queue that had formed outside the bank. Those who waited with me were not unlike the people I had met during the course of my reporting a few days earlier—working men and women, senior citizens, migrant workers, students and housewives, all equally tired, confused and irate.
Around ten minutes after I arrived, the bank’s staff locked its glass door. Since there was no announcement of any kind, the people in the queue did not budge in the hope that this was a temporary measure until those inside the bank had completed their transactions. An unresponsive bank official sat on a chair outside the bank, fiddling with his phone and paying little heed to the queries that were being directed his way. An elderly woman, who had been at bank since before I had reached there, became agitated. “Khayal Aapka—Taking care of you—is what they write on their billboard,” she said, referring to an advertising tagline used by ICICI bank. The official did not offer any clarity on whether those waiting outside the bank would be able to withdraw money, only stating that “the server is down” when he was pressed for answers. A middle-aged man retorted by asking why people inside the bank were still withdrawing money if this was the case. The official did not reply. “Fine! There is no cash, you say. But would you take a deposit, please,” said another indignant man, eliciting a glance from the official in response.