It’s 7am and the sun has barely crept up on a hazy winter sky but Rajeev Kapoor has already finished half his morning walk and is in queue in front of an ATM. The septuagenarian thought he would beat the rush but there are already 20 people in front of him at the Union Bank outlet in south Delhi’s Saket.
“I have come ready with a water bottle and biscuit packets,” he jokes.
There are others in line, notably an elderly Bengali gentleman — Oishik Chaudhury — who says they have come to secure a place in the line, stand in queue for a few hours, and pass the baton to another member of the family who will come ready with “reinforcements”. Mr Chaudhury volunteered for the first shift, a walking stick and a muffler in tow.
This Sunday, the Capital’s otherwise sleepy wintry streets are buzzing with activity at the crack of dawn, courtesy a dramatic government move to scrap high-value currency denominations in a bid to stamp out illegal cash from the economy.
The abrupt decision was aimed at hoarders of “black money” but appear to have hit the middle- and lower-middle classes with snaking queues and panicked consumers across the country.
In Saket, the crowd is more informed than the rest but rumours still abound. A young boy, sent by the family he works for to hold a place in the queue, is excited to check out the chip in the newly introduced Rs 2,000 note. The glint in his eye dims as others mock him, saying there’s no chip and anyway, the ATM in Saket is dispensing Rs 100 notes.
He isn’t the only one. Many well-to-do families sent domestic helps ahead to secure an early place in the line. Some of these helps say they have also offered to deposit cash for their employers.
I wake up the earliest I have done all season and feel pretty accomplished until I reach the kiosk and see nearly 50 people before me.
“I went to four ATMs yesterday but none of them were working. So I didn’t want to take any chances,” says Surbhi Chadda, a college student.
The line lurches forward every few minutes and then stands still for what feels like hours — some people try to sneak in multiple transactions the moment they are inside the kiosk. Only the quick-footed ones succeed, others are bullied out by the waiting legion of people outside, sometimes with profanities. But the general air is calm.
But tempers start fraying as the day rolls on. Skirmishes break out as multiple lines start forming and some people try and use multiple cards. A student fishes out a Rs 2,000 note and a small crowd forms around him — “Yeh note toh nakli lag raha hai, sarkar zaroor withdraw kar legi”.
The cut-off time for this ATM appears to be 12.30pm — withdrawal veterans tell me the counter has run out of money the same time for the past two days. An autorickshaw driver, Manik Kumar, who has been standing in the line two places behind me, panics. He says his auto is almost out of CNG because the pump he goes to has stopped accepting old notes. Why doesn’t he go to the bank, then, I ask. He says there’s no one who is accepting the Rs 2,000 note.
In a three-kilometre stretch in Saket, there are eight ATMs and each has at least 50 people in front of them — housewives, old men, young workers, college and schoolchildren. Many of them say they initially supported Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s crusade against black money but are now tired.
“Bhaad me jaaye black money,” fumes Monica Chadda, a housewife. Others smile wryly — sir, if there was a voting machine alongside the ATM, you would have seen “sarkar palat jati”.
For the full coverage of the government’s crackdown on black money, click here.