At noon on Thursday, the crowd outside Indian Bank was spilling onto a narrow service lane in Thoraipakkam, South Chennai. Sitting on the floor outside the bank with other women from her neighbourhood, domestic worker V Prerna was waiting to get her money exchanged for new currency notes.

Prerna had arrived at 6 am, a good three hours before the bank was to officially open. Two hours later, when she was tenth in a queue of 30 people, she borrowed money from a friend to go home and eat. “When I returned an hour later, there was a huge crowd and I was handed the token number 113,” she said.

Outside Indian Bank in Thoraipakkam, Chennai. Photo: Vinita Govindarajan

On Tuesday morning, a day after Prerna received her salary of Rs 8,000 in her account, she withdrew the entire amount as usual. But with the central government’s overnight demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 currency notes, Prerna’s money was useless. “For the last two days, we have all been managing by borrowing Rs 10 or Rs 20 from our neighbours,” she said.

At noon, after six hours of waiting, Indian Bank had not yet started exchanging notes and was only allowing customers to deposit money into their accounts. “If my notes are not exchanged today, I will have to take yet another day off from work,” said Prerna.

No queue for senior citizens

On Day Two of the government’s unprecedented crack down on black money, citizens across the country queued up at banks and post offices, waiting for hours to get much-needed exchange for their now-invalid notes. Many waited patiently, others grumbled about having to miss work and some broke into arguments and fights with bank security guards over various logistical glitches.

For bank staff, who worked overtime on Thursday and will work through the coming weekend, the strain of this mammoth public project will continue to test them till December 30.

“Madam, please understand, today is an unusual day even for us,” said a harrowed staff member of a Central Bank branch in South Mumbai, pleading to a senior citizen in the crowd outside the bank’s door.

The senior citizen, Gover Irani, suffers from Parkinson’s disease and had spent 30 minutes standing in the sun trying to convince the security guards to start a separate queue for the elderly. “The general line is so long, by the time we reach the counter, seniors like me might collapse,” said Irani.

The bank staffer, however, had a defence: “We are such a small branch, we don’t have space to put chairs for seniors. And if we start separate queues for seniors and women and people with children, we would need to have extra counters, for which we have neither space nor manpower.”

Gover Irani tried to convince a Mumbai bank to have a separate queue for senior citizens. Photo: Aarefa Johari

Running short of small notes

At Mumbai’s General Post Office, too, there were no separate lines for seniors waiting to get their notes exchanged. Many of the citizens in the long queue had been waiting for three or four hours, because the Reserve Bank of India’s shipment of new notes to the head post office had been delayed. The delay had led to agitated protests that the police had to contain, but by 3 pm, things were calm again. Police personnel were sharing jokes with some people in the queue, while a post office staff member allowed an elderly dengue patient to break the queue and head to the counter.

Outside Mumbai's General Post Office.

While the postal headquarters in Mumbai had a late start to the day because of the late arrival of currency notes, many banks had to pause note-exchange operations because they ran out of currency to give the public. Other banks downed their shutters even before 4 pm after they completely ran out of small cash.

“It’s hard to keep up with a ten-fold surge in demand for smaller notes, and we’ve asked people to return at 4 or 5 pm once we’ve replenished our stock,” said a spokesperson at Citibank’s Fort branch in Mumbai.

In Chennai’s Thiruvanmiyur, State Bank of India had already received remittances twice by 1 pm, and their stock of new notes was fast depleting. Because of the shortage of notes, customer T Fernandes could only withdraw Rs 2,000 from his own account, against the withdrawal limit of Rs 10,000. “In the morning a lot of people panicked and everyone withdrew Rs 10,000 in cash from their accounts,” said Fernandes.

Postal agents tense

Post offices across Chennai were not as crowded as the banks. But at the Thiruvanmiyur Post Office, it was a stressful morning for postal agents, who usually help customers to deposit and withdraw their money from various schemes at the post office.

“We found out just this morning that we are supposed to deposit all the old notes that we have collected from our clients by today itself,” said R Tamaraiselvi, a postal agent for 20 years with over 300 clients. “This takes a lot of time because we have to prepare deposit statements for each of our clients and file it on the post office website.”

Postal agents usually file each month’s statement between the first and the 15th of the month. But now, since they have been ordered to deposit all old notes within a day, many had to return the money to their clients, unable to file deposit statements for all of them.

“We were given these orders only orally by the post office,” said Tamaraiselvi. “Everybody has the rights to turn in the money in their accounts till December 30. Why is this only for us? What if I were out of town, or at a function? How would I be able to file this?”

In line for an hour, without a form

Misinformation was another problem for some citizens, like Sanjeevrao Pappu, a ship labourer in Mumbai. “This morning I waited for two hours but was turned away from a small bank in the suburbs, because they said they were only exchanging notes for their account-holders,” said Pappu, who eventually travelled to his own bank to get his money exchanged. “I was forced to miss work and take a train all the way to South Mumbai to go to my bank. Only later I found out that the suburban bank was wrong.”

Sanjeevrao Pappu travelled across the length of Mumbai to get his notes exchanged.

Several banks made an effort to help confused citizens by appointing special staff to guide people in filling the required form. To make the long lines move faster, Union Bank of India’s Grant Road branch in Mumbai had set up as many as five cash exchange counters for the public. The branch manager’s own cabin had been converted into a counter on Thursday, with the manager himself manning it.

Outside the grilled door of the same bank branch, however, there was complete chaos among waiting citizens. While the official queue for cash exchange ran down the length of the pavement outside the bank, a small mob outside the door was shouting at the security guards. “We have been waiting for an hour demanding forms to fill, so that we can stand in the official line. But they still haven’t given us the forms,” said Irfan Sheikh, a shoe shop salesman who had taken an hour off from work to exchange his money.

Sheikh’s agitation paled in comparison to the rage of Vinod Bafna, a businessman who had been trying to enter the bank to transfer an urgent cheque. “I haven’t come here for money exchange, I just want to do my regular bank work from my account,” said Bafna. “And yet for two hours they haven’t even let me even near the door! Do the RBI rules say that banks have to stop all their daily work because of this note exchange?”

Vinod Bafna was not allowed to enter the branch of the Union Bank at which he has an account.

‘How do we catch our flight?’

Down the road from Bafna, outside a Central Bank branch, Santosh Kumar and his four colleagues from Coimbatore stood nervously in the long line, glancing at their watches every two minutes. The five Tamil Nadu youths were visiting Delhi and Mumbai to buy laptop spare parts for their electronics business. When their train from Delhi pulled into Mumbai on the morning of November 10, they realised they had just Rs 150 in valid currency. They didn’t even have notes of Rs 500 or Rs 1,000, because they planned to rely on ATMs.

“All the ATMs were shut and we were forced to check into a hotel beyond our budget so that we could pay by card,” said Kumar. “Now we have a flight back home in five hours, and the hotel’s card machine isn’t working. So they won’t let us check out till we have settled our room and food bills in cash.”

On a desperate hunt for cash, Kumar and his friends finally found a shopkeeper who sold them five Rs 1,000 notes with 8% interest, allowing them to pay by card. “We’ve now been in this bank queue for four hours hoping to exchange this money for usable notes, but the line just isn’t moving forward,” he said. “How are we supposed to catch our flight?”

Santosh Kumar (right) and his colleague from Coimbatore were stuck in Mumbai.