“It is a banking apocalypse out there,” joked my mother as she returned home on Friday. Lines of exhaustion were visible on her 55-year-old face, after putting in 12 hours of work at the South Mumbai branch of the nationalised bank in which she works. Her voice had cracked with the strain of placating frustrated customers bawling at bank employees.
“When people standing in a queue for over four hours are told that they cannot withdraw more than a certain amount due to the shortage of cash, tempers flare and voices are raised,” she said. “Everyone takes out their frustration at us even though we are doing our best to help them out.”
The crisis had been looming since Tuesday evening, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a surprise announcement on television that Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes would cease to be legal tender from midnight. Banks and Automated Teller Machines were shut on Wednesday to allow them to be restocked with new notes – especially the Rs 2,000 note that was introduced last week.
When the shutters were pulled up on Thursday, millions of Indians, cutting across class lines, rushed to banks to deposit or exchange their newly worthless currency, and to withdraw valid banknotes to buy household supplies, pay their creditors, and purchase stock for their businesses.
No one imagined it was going to be easy, but, as my mother reported, some tempers were running high. The supply of new notes by the government simply hasn’t kept up with demand, she said, and bank employees are bearing the brunt of dashed expectations.
Her colleague, who works in a bank in suburban Mumbai, and who does not wish to be identified, said that angry customers have displayed a frightening aggression towards bank employees.
“For better management of queues, we let people in [to the bank] in groups of 10,” she said. “The moment we open the door, people rush in like a herd of bulls. They push each other to move ahead and shout at us for not letting them in immediately. If we don’t follow an organised system, the entire branch will fall into chaos. But not everybody is willing to listen.”
Rs 100 notes in demand
Given the surprise demonetisation of two high-value denominations, bankers report a loss of faith in the new Rs 2,000 banknote by some customers, who demand only Rs 100 notes.
Though bank employees empathise with this demand as they realise that change is difficult to get these days, they say they cannot give everyone only small denominations.
“I see a barrage of customers demanding Rs 100 notes for daily use,” said my mother. “Some of them beg us to help them and many of them yell. But we have been instructed to deploy Rs 100 notes judiciously as they could easily fall into shortage. We all want to ease their worry, but we’re just as helpless.”
The anger and panic among customers has also led to instances of classist behaviour, say bank employees.
“A few customers from high-income groups were being unruly and classist towards those from low-income groups by dismissing the latter’s urgency,” said an employee of a nationalised bank in Mumbai, who wanted to remain anonymous.
The employee added that customers holding a large amount of expired cash to deposit said that since potential deposits by low-income groups were comparatively low, it was less important. “A couple of brawls broke out amongst customers because of this attitude,” said the employee.
Sometimes the situation can escalate rapidly, leading to the police being summoned. On Saturday, the Delhi police had been called in to deal with 4,500 incidents at banks.
The day before, at a branch of a nationalised bank in Thane, adjacent to Mumbai, a frustrated customer threatened bank employees with violence.
“He wanted to exchange his cash only for Rs 100 notes,” said the bank manager, who did not want to be identified. “When we refused, he yelled profanities at the top of his voice at female employees at my branch. He is not the first customer to have had a screaming match, but I called for police protection as a precautionary measure.”
In Jamshedpur in Jharkhand, employees of a nationalised bank at a branch panicked on Saturday when some customers broke open the main door after the branch had closed for the day.
“We have extended our customer service hours from 4 pm to 6 pm,” said an employee of the bank. “But a few of them, mistaking the extension to be up to 8 pm, broke the door open and barged in after they were denied entry. Fearing an outbreak of violence, we had to call in the police to control the situation. It was scary.”
The anger of customers adds to the stress of bank employees who are already working long hours, and on weekends, to ensure people can access their money.
“Many of our employees are women and by the time we finish tallying the cash and go back home, it is 12.30 am,” said the employee. “This kind of behaviour makes our already tough job tougher and raises concerns for safety.”
When she returned late on Sunday night, having worked through the weekend, my mother collapsed into bed without a word. Luckily for her, the banks will be shut on Monday for the Gurpurab holiday. She will leave again at 8 on Tuesday morning, hoping to find that her bank has become a calmer place – though she knows that is unlikely.
“We are all prepared to handle more flaring tempers because we understand that times are difficult for the common man right now,” she said. “I don’t know how far demonetisation will go in eliminating black money, but it’s an effective move to take out fake notes from the market. However, the collateral damage this move has caused on people’s psyche cannot be measured monetarily.”
She does not expect to return home before 11 pm anytime soon.