Journalist and photographer Vivek Menezes was in Bangladesh for a literature festival a week after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetisation announcement when he came across a curious problem.
He had gone to a souvenir shop a fair distance from his hotel to buy gifts for people back home. Given the chaos at banks just before he left, Menezes had been unable to withdraw foreign exchange from his home in Goa. He had decided to rely on his international debit card, which automatically deducts the transaction charge for converting the Indian currency in Menezes’ account to currencies being dispensed in machines abroad.
When he went to make the transaction, worth 4,500 Bangladeshi takas or around Rs 3,850, the machine declined his card. Puzzled, Menezes went to another store in the same complex, where he also found his card declined. He then decided to withdraw a few thousand takas from an ATM nearby. That transaction failed as well.
“I have a Visa debit card with a chip that I have used all over the world, even as far as Argentina,” Menezes said. “This was the first time this has happened to me.”
He later realised that the cap on withdrawals that had been applied to all Indian debit cards to ration the distribution of cash in the face of a shortage also seemed to apply to withdrawals in foreign currencies – which have not been demonetised and are therefore not in short supply. In the three weeks since the announcement, the limit on withdrawals has shifted from Rs 2,500 each day to Rs 4,500 and now Rs 2,000.
Photographer Dayanita Singh was also caught unawares while in London the week after the declaration of demonetisation. Singh had an international debit card from HDFC with her, along with a credit card. She did not convert currency before leaving India, thinking to rely instead, as she ordinarily does, on her cards for any transactions.
On November 14, she thought to withdraw 200 pounds in cash from her debit card to keep in hand.
“When I went to the ATM, it said that I could not withdraw that amount,” Singh said. “I tried again with 100, 50, 30 and then finally 20 pounds, which the ATM finally accepted. That was when I realised there was a cap on my card.”
Singh was able to withdraw only 20 pounds each day for the rest of her trip, which she said, was “barely enough for a coffee and sandwich for myself, let alone for me to ask others to join me.”
“It was not a big deal for me as I did not get stranded,” Singh said. “But if my credit card had also stopped working, what would I have done?”
The Reserve Bank of India had no explanation for the problem and has forwarded Scroll.in’s emailed query to the government.
“This is a complicated issue,” said Alpana Killawala, chief general manager of the department of communications at the Reserve Bank. “We are consulting the government on this question and will issue a notification on our website when we have some clarity on it.”
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