On Thursday morning, men and women emerged from UCO Bank’s Fort branch in Mumbai with new bank notes in their pockets and a fresh mark of black ink on their index fingers. The queue of men and women outside the bank filled up most of the footpath on the block, but the bank staff indoors looked unperturbed.

“Now that we are being able to use ink, things are going to start getting better,” said a senior staff member of the bank, while supervising his colleague inspect a young woman’s identity card and paint a thin line of indelible ink on her fingernail. “There is no doubt about it – the ink will definitely help reduce the crowds outside all the banks from tomorrow.”

In Crawford Market area, meanwhile, a security guard from the first-floor branch of Syndicate Bank repeatedly shouted to the queue of people snaking down the stairs and onto the pavement: “No one with ink on their finger will be allowed to enter the bank again, please take note!”

Two days after the central government issued a notification asking all banks to mark citizens with election-style indelible ink for the over-the-counter exchange of Rs 4,500, only a handful of banks in the country’s financial capital were able to procure 5 ml bottles of ink for the purpose. While these banks were distinctly relieved, other banks expecting to receive their bottles of ink by Friday or Monday seemed confident that the move would help alleviate their high stress levels.

No cheating

Ever since the central government made the sudden move of demonetising Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes on November 9, citizens across the country have had limited means of accessing their own legitimate cash. Many ATM machines are yet to be recalibrated to be able to dispense new Rs 2,000 notes. People with bank accounts have been able to deposit their old notes in their accounts and withdraw up to Rs 20,000 a week in new currency. But in the past week, almost everywhere, queues for cash deposit and withdrawal have been shorter than the queues for exchanging money over the counter.

In the first week of demonetisation, the government was not clear about whether citizens were allowed to exchange old notes worth Rs 4,000 (raised to Rs 4,500 and now reduced to Rs 2,000) for new notes just once, or multiple times. Suspecting, however, that black money hoarders could easily exchange currency multiple times over the counter, the government issued the order about using indelible ink.

The ink, typically used to prevent repeat-voting during elections, is meant to ensure that the same citizens do not keep visiting banks to exchange large amounts of currency on the same identity card. However, access to the small bottles of indelible ink, has proved to be as much of a logistical difficulty as demonetisation itself. There is currently just one company in India recognised as a manufacturer of indelible ink – Mysore Paints and Varnish Ltd run by the Karnataka government – and the firm is struggling to meet the sudden demand for ink.

Making a difference

“We will get our bottles of ink only on Monday, but at least then we will be able to prevent people from taking new notes repeatedly,” said a representative from Crawford Market’s Federal Bank in Mumbai. “This is a good initiative.”

Citizens seated in line outside a bank at Crawford Market, Mumbai.
Citizens seated in line outside a bank at Crawford Market, Mumbai.

Down the road, a small branch of ICICI Bank began applying indelible ink to citizens on Thursday, and claimed it was already proving to be of help. “There were some people who would try to get notes exchanged two or three times a day,” said a staff member manning the crowded to the bank. With long queues of customers to attend to, bank clerks were not always able to cross-check repeat exchanges through identity card numbers. “But the ink on the finger is making it easier for us.”

Most citizens, meanwhile, seemed indifferent to the ink being applied on their fingers. “Once I exchange Rs 4,000 it will last me for a good two weeks, so I am not worried,” said Mukhtar Kureshi, a butcher who was in line for money outside a bank in Bandra, Mumbai. “I am happy if this brings back all the black money that the rich hoard.”