I was sitting in my brother’s house, in Trichy, and asking him nicely if he’ll lend me some money. He immediately did. ‘Do you have any change?’ I asked, knowing well what his answer would be. Then again, nobody had any. Overnight, 86% of India’s currency ceased to be legal tender. On the evening of 8th November, Prime Minister Modi appeared on television and told the country that from midnight, all 500 and 1000 rupee notes were invalid. It shocked everybody, sent them scrambling. And it gave not just those who had happily hoarded black money, but also the very people the move sought to protect – the poor and marginalised – one long sleepless night.
I was in Tamil Nadu on a reporting/ documenting trip, and had brought with me three 1000 rupee notes. I had planned on withdrawing from ATMs as I travelled. But my plans were smashed by the demonitisation drive. Banks were closed the next day. So were ATMs, for at least a couple. I had no legal tender, and without a cheque book, no access to my money, even if the bank opened. And so, I visited my brother…
Not everybody was lucky. Stories began to trickle in of the chaos and the queues (on Thursday, when the banks opened); those who went to change money got hold of the bright and beautiful 2000 rupee notes. I saw my first in Madurai, just before I left for Chidambaram, after pleading with the taxi owner to allow me to pay with the old 1000 rupee notes. He agreed.
By the time I reached the hotel late on Thursday (10th) night – after a long and dark search on deserted roads – the panic had set in. I was greeted with stories of extremely long queues, banks swiftly running out of cash, and if at all any currency was being given out, it was the pink 2000 rupee notes. Women from Killai, Cuddalore district told me, ‘yes, they are giving us 2000 rupee notes. Tell me, what do I do with it? Can I go a shop and buy a kilo of sugar, when the shopkeeper has no change?’
By the next morning (11th November), cash was traded in the black market. Cuts ranged from 10 to 20%. In Cuddalore, I was told the going rate of ‘exchange’ was 4*100 for an old 500 rupee note. Fisher women – who retail fish, buying for 500, making 150 bucks profit on a good day – were stuck at home for the last two days. The reason? Fishermen did not go to sea, explained Kavitha, from the fishing community, who now works in an office. Because there was no money to buy diesel. No ATMs were working. Banks (few, far between) had very long queues.
On 12th (Saturday), early evening, I was on my way to Chennai. Every town we passed through had long queues outside banks. ATMs were mostly shuttered. Karthi, the taxi driver told me that morning, at a bank in Chidambaram he went to deposit 2000 rupees (in old denomination notes) into his son’s account. He was told to bring the account holder and an ID proof for him. Or else, to get an authorization letter, with his signature. Did you go back, I asked him. ‘My son is six years old! He has no ‘signature’ yet! I opened a savings account for him and I put in whatever I can spare… I wasted so much time this morning… Am not going back!’
Like him, many spoke of the awful waste of time. And lamented that it was only the beginning. There were worries on where the weekly and daily wage would come from, if they’d have any cash for kitchen and medical supplies. Living several kilometres from the nearest ATM or bank – often the only one in many miles – meant frequent trips, taking infrequent bus services to exchange the old 500 and 1000 rupee notes or withdraw from their savings. Who would reimburse the people for the wages they’d lose when they were standing in a queue? In Paapapatti village, Madurai district – where the nearest ATM was nine winding kilometres away, and the bank further still – there were three grand weddings the day after the Prime Minister announced the demonitisation move. I asked the women there what they planned to do, how they’d conduct the weddings. ‘Well, we cannot stop accepting moi [a gift of money for the bride and groom]. We will take the 500 and 1000, we have to change it later, what to do…’
On Sunday morning, in Chennai, Alamelu, who works in a saree showroom, asked me, ‘You’re in the media, you tell me, will anybody vote for this government again? Even in their sleep they won’t. Who asked them to do this [demonitisation]? Do you know, outside hospitals, there are people from Nepal and North East… They have no food! Pregnant women can’t have a coffee. If I’m known in the neighbourhood, they will give it to me on loan… But if I go somewhere else? Who will trust me?’