“Aya!” This exclamation of haplessness is a common refrain in Nagaland. But it has been heard a little more frequently in the past few days as people struggle to cope with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s startling announcement on Tuesday night that Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes would no longer be legal tender.
From employees to daily-wage earners, youngsters to homemakers, and at roadside eateries to restaurants, neighbourhood kiranas to wholesale shops, the impact has been felt everywhere.
On Wednesday, as people started lining up at banks to deposit and change old notes and get back new ones, an elderly woman reached a State Bank of India counter in Dimapur to exchange a single Rs 500 note. Outside, a restless crowd waited. Only a handful of ATMs in the state’s financial capital were working that day, and those too ran out of cash in no time.
On the weekend, the chaos was even more evident. Most people chose to exchange Rs 4,000 worth of old notes to meet their expenses, at least for a few days. This daily limit has since been raised to Rs 4,500.
At the State Bank of India branch, the queue on Saturday was even longer than on previous days. “I have been standing here for five hours and it will take me another half an hour once I enter the gate,” said a customer, pointing to a barricade set up by security personnel to manage the crowd.
The Morung Express reported that banking officials had held an assessment meeting with the state chief secretary and finance department in Kohima on Friday and a letter had been sent to the Reserve Bank of India with a request for Rs 300 crores worth of low-denomination currency notes for the state. The daily also quoted a State Bank of India official as saying that 70% of ATMs had been configured to dispense the new notes.
However, the lone SBI ATM at the main branch in Dimapur was issuing only Rs 2,000 notes, adding to the frustration of people. Notes of Rs 100 and Rs 50 had run out across establishments by Thursday evening itself.
“It smells of Modi’s arrogance,” said one man outside a Corporation Bank ATM. But he was also relieved as he held up a bunch of crisp Rs 100 notes.
Short on change
The depleting stock of low-denomination notes has lead to a massive shortage of change, prompting shops and eateries to turn away customers. Even multinational food chains were accepting only smaller notes or payment by debit or credit cards.
At neighbourhood kirana shops, residents took supplies on credit on having their old notes rejected.
“I went around the market the whole day to buy a kilo of tomatoes but failed as all the vendors refused to take my old Rs 500,” said Nochet, a housewife, adding in jest that she would iron out the money and keep it as a souvenir.
The same trouble befell those who had new notes. Limasungit, of Mokokchung town in Mokokchung district, said, “I went to the market with the new Rs 2,000 note but the shopkeeper told me, ‘How will I give you the change?’”
The cash crunch has been especially hard on Nagaland’s rural residents. Most of them do not have bank accounts or vehicles to travel to the nearest banks. Adding to their troubles, transportation service providers are no longer accepting old notes.
There is also confusion among many regarding their old currency. Some villagers expressed apprehension about what would happen to their “valueless money”, even those who had bank accounts and had managed to deposit them.
The sudden withdrawal of high-denomination currency and shortage of smaller notes also made travel difficult. Those making their way to Mon, Mokokchung, Tuensang and Longleng districts via neighbouring Assam spoke of hardships on the way. They said some hotels were accepting the old Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes but taking a Rs 100 commission. These reports could not be independently verified. Another Mokokchung resident, however, said many hotels serving travellers had shut for business as a result of the currency crisis.
Even Nagaland State Transport services were hit as tickets could not be issued in some places due to cash shortage.
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