It is 1.20am. The temperature has dipped to 13 degrees. Dressed in a cotton salwar-kameez, Noor Jehan is huddled at the gates of a bank, clutching on to some documents and a wedding invite. She is visibly cold.
Noor, 52, asks for a shawl from a woman sleeping next to her. Shama extends her blanket and the two sit together, sharing it. They do not know each other by name, but have been meeting at this spot in Azad Market for the past three days, hoping to get some money, spending up to 12 hours together. Their suffering binds them to each other.
Ten days after demonetisation of high-value banknotes, the queues outside banks and ATMs continue to be serpentine, even in the dead of the night.
Some families go around the Capital, scouting different areas in search of an ATM — to arrange enough cash to pay for medicines for ailing children, to make arrangements for the weddings of their daughters or to buy food to get through the next few days. Some others throw sheets on the pavement and camp outside banks.
On the night of November 18, between 1am and 6am, this reporter travelled 96 kms across Delhi to talk to people who are queuing up outside banks and ATMs, hoping to be among the lucky few who can make a withdrawal before the ATMs run out of cash.
This is their story.
1.20am : Azad Market
Noor Jahan is a single mother. Her husband died eight years ago and she raised her four daughters all by herself. For the last three years, she had been working overtime, in offices and factories, just to collect enough money for her daughter’s wedding on December 5.
Today, she has no cash in hand to pay for her daughter’s wedding dress, the caterers and the venue decorators. Her daughter’s to be in- laws have told her that the ceremony will be cancelled if the arrangements are not made in time. For the last three days, she has been queuing up outside a bank in Azad Market, hoping to get her savings exchanged.
“I stood for 14 hours yesterday (on Thursday) and 12 hours a day before that (on Wednesday). What if my daughter’s wedding gets cancelled? I will not be able to take the humiliation. I have never felt so helpless “She says, extending the wedding invite that she is carrying as a proof.
Besides her sits Shama, who has just recovered from chikungunya. Both her daughters aged 3 and 9 years, also suffering from chikungunya, are still down with high fever. The doctors at the private dispensary discharged them as she could not pay the treatment fees. She has not been able to but the required medicines or groceries for the past three days.
“I came here at 9pm and will stand till the bank opens at 10 am. I do not have a single rupee to buy medicines. Why is the government saying that the doctors and medical stores are accepting old notes when they are not? Is there a check to ensure that they accept old notes? No. I have been giving my daughters water and stale biscuits at a time when they need proper nutrition to recover from the illness. I myself recovered a few days ago, I can’t walk as my joints pain, but I am still queuing up each day,” she says.
In Naraina, Vijay Pal, 67, has to pay his daughter’s fee. She studies in a private institute in Noida.
“The bank downs its shutters before time each day, making me wait for extra hours. I have been coming here for the past four days. I have to pay the fee. My daughter needs money as she stays alone. I can’t stand for long, so I have made a little space here for myself,” he says.
Pal also alleges that the banks are not working as per the hours advertised by the government when the PM announced the demonetisation move.
“In the afternoon the bank draws the shutter for more than two hours. They are supposed to function till 8 pm, but they close down at 5:30 pm. For how long can we wait?” he asks.
Roshan managed to get inside the ATM booth after a threehour wait yesterday. The machine pushed out a 2,000 rupee note.
“All I had in my account was this. Why did the government issue a 2000 rupee note?” he asks.
“Are they making fun of us? What do I do with this? I have to go back to my village in Bihar because my mother is sick. I gave the bus conductor this note, he refused to take it. The vegetable vendor refused it. The grocery shop owner turned it away. He told me that if I need change I will have to buy stuff worth at least ?600,” says Roshan, with many standing beside him nodding in agreement.
“How can a person who earns Rs 2,000 a day afford to buy stuff worth Rs 500 in one go?” he asks.
Roshan has another question. “Where are all the rich exchanging their money? I have been queuing up for the past five days and have not seen a single one of them. Is this demonetisation just for the poor?”
3.19am: Defence Colony
Jafrabad and Defence Colony are a world apart. One is a densely populated resettlement colony in northeast Delhi with illegal structures. The other is one of Delhi’s most posh neighbourhoods with bungalows, parks and high-end stores.
A group of eight youths have come from Jafrabad to Defence Colony, 20km away, to look for cash in an ATM. Why Defence Colony? “Most of the people use plastic money here so there would be shorter queues here,” explains Javed, who lives in Jafarabad.
“In Jafarabad, people start queuing up from 6 pm for the next day. They have dug up tents and have started living there. We knew we could never get cash there so we planned to come here. My mother has threatened to harm herself if I return home without cash today,” says Javed.
Despite the trouble, many have found out ways to ease out the stress. A group of three men are sitting tucked in a blanket, inside their car that they have parked outside a bank, waiting for it to open.
For their entertainment, they have put on Bhojpuri songs and are playing cards. “For how long can we get angry? That phase is now over. I need at least Rs 5 lakh for my sister’s wedding which is next week, but till now I have been able to arrange only Rs 75,000. But I know there is no point getting frustrated. Thanks to these cards and my music CDs,” Ajay smiles.
4.05am: East of Kailash
Almost 24km away in East of Kailash, in another long queue, stands 68-year-old Vachan Singh. A sweeper at a private company, Singh has to pay his rent. His landlord has threatened to throw him out, if he fails to pay in the next two days. His wife is bed-ridden and three children are settled in different states.
“My landlord threw my stuff out of the house because I have not paid the rent. I gave him the old notes but he did not accept. I had to beg him to give me two more days. My wife is bed-ridden so I have to queue up each day. I come at 8 pm and wait for as long as 14 hours for my turn,” he says.
“I have no money to buy my wife’s medicines. Instead of going home after the bank closed, I slept on the road. The next morning, when my turn was about to come, the security guard pushed me away and closed the shutter. He said the cash was over. Where should I go?” his eyes well up.
Javed also needs money to house rent. He has to pay Rs 5,000 but the note exchange limit has been reduced to Rs 2,000. The possibility to reach the bank window is bleak.
“I have been able to exchange Rs 2,000 after standing in a queue for three days. My landlord is after my life. My kids have not eaten for the past four days,” says Javed.
Some families have started a shift system. Kavita, 11, has been waiting in a queue for her mother for the past four hours while she has gone to catch some sleep.
After an hour, her father will come and join the queue and Kavita will return home. “I am missing my school,” she says.
Reshu Aggarwal works at a software company in Noida. He and his friends come to Delhi each night in search of ATMs to withdraw cash. Whoever finds cash, shares the location on WhatsApp and the others follow the route on GPS. Today, they got cash in Govindpuri.
“My father’s friend had a bypass surgery in Medanta, Gurgaon. We paid through credit card and exhausted the limit. Now, we have no money. How do we pay the physiotherapist? The doctors prescribed a specific diet, which we cannot buy since we do not have cash. Medicine shops are not accepting old notes,” says Reshu.
There are many like Reshu who have had medical emergencies and exhausted their credit card limit.
A few steps away, Rakhi Saini, a resident of Madangir, is trying to keep her 10-year-old daughter awake. As the kid throws a tantrum, she scolds her. “I left home at 9 pm with my husband in search of an ATM and found it here, at 1:30 am. I have to pay my daughter’s fees and buy groceries. We have been roaming across the city for the past four days,” she says.
“After this, I will queue up at the bank. Hopefully, I will get some money ,” she says.
Those queuing up before a bank in Badarpur have put a water tanker on standby. Furious that they are not getting the money, they threatened to flood the bank if they are turned away one more time.
“I have two children, 2 and 3 years old. They have been sleeping on empty stomach for the past three nights as I have not been able to buy milk for them,” says a fuming Nadeem.
“I queue up every day for 9 hours and still don’t get money. I will not return home without money today. I will not ask my children to have water and sleep for another night. If I won’t get money, I will flood this bank,” says a fuming Nadeem.
Laxman looks fatigued, defeated. He knows that getting angry will not help.
Last week, his sister had paralysis. He rushed her to the hospital and had been shuttling between home and hospital since.
The chemists have refused to accept his old notes, claimed Laxman.
“No private hospital is taking the old notes. The government is lying. No chemist is accepting the old 500 rupee notes.” says Laxman.
“I go to the hospital in the morning and then come straight to join the queue here,” he said.
“Despite waiting for almost 15 hours, I did not get money in the past four days. I have to buy food, pay for the auto ride, arrange for medicines. I have never felt so defeated and helpless,” he says.
He also complains about the reduction in the limit for exchanging old notes.
“I don’t why they had to reduce the limit. It was already less. The ATMs are doling out Rs 2000 notes, which are of no use since nobody has change for Rs 2000,” he says.