Displeasure spilled onto the streets on Sunday as people stood in serpentine queues for hours despite banks working in overdrive to dispense cash following the Narendra Modi-led government’s decision to withdraw large denomination notes.
Tempers frayed as hundreds of thousands queued outside banks and ATMs for a fourth day to swap Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 banknotes after they were abolished in a move to tackle black money. Many said the queues had become longer as more people turned up at the banks and ATMs on Sunday.
The banned bills made up 86% of the currency in circulation, leaving millions of people without cash and threatening to bring much of the cash-driven economy to a halt.
“I have been waiting here since 4am; I don’t even have money to buy food,” a man outside an ATM in Lajpat Nagar told ANI.
Late on Saturday, customers argued and banged the glass doors at a Standard Chartered branch in south Delhi after security guards blocked the entrance, saying there were too many people inside already.
Nearly half of the country’s two lakh ATMs have been shut and those that are operating are quickly running out of the new notes as scores of people descend upon them. Finance minister Arun Jaitley said ATMs had not been adjusted to handle new currency notes prior to the announcement in order to keep it under wraps. “Recalibration of ATMs will be completed within two weeks,” he added.
The political tussle also intensified on Sunday, with the government and the Opposition trading barbs over the issue.
“There are enormous queues, people are lining up, they are screaming because they don’t have food at home. All this, is something that Jaitley, as a responsible minister, has to give a reply to. He can’t shrug his shoulders like that,” Congress leader and former external affairs minister Salman Khurshid told ANI.
He said the “financial chaos” was caused because the government failed to gauge the impact of the decision to withdraw the high-denomination banknotes.
The Congress has decided to raise the demonetisation issue in Parliament. Congress leader Anand Sharma has given a suspension of business notice under Rule 267 in the Rajya Sabha for discussion on the issue.
Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju responded to the notice, saying that the government would give a befitting reply to the Opposition on the matter.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Saturday he would pursue the fight against corruption and tax dodgers even if it meant scanning decades-old records.
He said he recognised people faced difficulties as the transition to the new series of banknotes takes place but was confident they would stand by the decision as part of the war against corruption and to rid India of endemic poverty.
“He is taking bullet train rides in Japan and here you have old people knocking on bank doors for cash,” said Prabhat Kumar, a college student who said he had spent six hours in the queue, told Reuters. “He has made a terrible mistake.”
Referring to inconvenience caused to public, Jaitley earlier said there could be some short-term disruptive cost to the economy due to the demonetisation drive but this would prove positive in the longer term.
Traders in Delhi’s vegetable market said they were considering shutting down the market as cash was running out and banks were dispensing a limited amount.
“We might have to close down until the situation stabilises,” said Metharam Kriplani, president of the Chambers of Azadpur Fruit and Vegetable Traders.
People in Mumbai said grocers were charging 10 times the price of salt in return for accepting the old cash notes.
The government has asked people to exchange the old Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes by December 30. The Reserve Bank of India said there was enough cash available with banks and that it had made arrangements to deliver the new bank notes across the country.
People swapping old notes will have to present proof of identity and depositors of abnormally large sums could be investigated by tax authorities.
Much of India’s rural economy is powered by cash, with few people regularly using a bank account.
In Dudko, about 75 kms (45 miles) from Delhi, villagers said they were finding it difficult to pay for food and fuel four days into the cash crunch.
“Bank officials are saying they will give the money on Monday. How will we make purchases?” said Sunita, a woman who was preparing for her daughter’s wedding later this month.