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.