Three Indians, including one person in Mumbai city and two others in the southern state of Kerala, have died waiting in long queues outside banks, after the Indian government unveiled a surprise policy decision to curb black money.
On Tuesday evening, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a surprise announcement, telling millions of Indians that the currency notes for ₹500 and ₹1,000--a whopping 86% of all bank notes in circulation--would become "illegal tender" in four hours. It sent people scrambling to the ATMs across the country, where they waited in long queues only to find that the cash dispensing machines wouldn't necessarily give smaller currency bills like ₹100. There were long lines reported at petrol pumps that night, where people desperately spent their cash before Cinderella hour.
The next day, all national banks remained shut as the massive exercise of replacing the old notes with new ones began, leaving several without any means to obtain cash or to spend their now-illegal tenders. Unless you had debit or credit cards that could be used for your basic needs, or had smaller bills that were still legal, you were trapped. This meant that millions, especially poorer citizens of India, were left without options. These included daily wage labourers, small businessmen, low-income patients at hospitals.
Even as top officials across the country, as well as those at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), applauded PM Modi on his "surgical strike" on black money, and the chief of the Reserve Bank of India assured Indians that they wouldn't face any "disruption" because of the demonetisation--the next few days have been enormously taxing for the common Indian.
Markets plunged on Wednesday, and Friday registered the biggest single day fall in nine months. On Thursday, with ATMs still closed, banks saw unmanageable crowds of people waiting to exchange their outdated bills for new ones. The situation was not much better on Friday, with several ATMs reported to be either closed, or out of cash. Those that were functional had huge lines, with people frequently breaking into fights and even damaging public property. Many complained of waiting for hours on queue to withdraw cash.
It was on one such long queue in Mumbai that 73-year-old Vishwanath Vartak collapsed and died on Friday. He is believed to have suffered from a heart attack, and a postmortem report is awaited.
Around the same time, 75-year-old Karthikeyan was filling out forms in a bank in Kerala to deposit over ₹5 lakh worth of scrapped high denomination notes, when he collapsed and died. Not far away, a 48-year-old man identified as Unni fell to his death as he was filling forms to deposit ₹5.5 lakh he had borrowed from his provident fund account earlier. He was on the second floor of the bank after having stood on the queue for some time. Initial reports suggest it was an accident, and a case of unnatural death has been registered.
There are over two lakh (200,000) ATMs in India, and there are, on an average, 125 transactions daily at every ATM. That's about lakhs of transactions totalling to about ₹10,000 crore (₹100 billion) every single day, on an ordinary day. And these aren't ordinary days.
Even as the wealthier Indians can perhaps find ways around cash transactions, this is a small percentage of the population. In a country where nine out of ten transactions are made in cash, it is the poor who have suffered the brunt of this "surprise" policy decision, which does not have enough alternatives for them, despite government avowals to the contrary. n fact, there are now a slew of petitions at various courts in the country demanding its rollback, even likening it to "economic terrorism".
The government has called it a short-term "minor inconvenience", playing down the unprecedented misery caused by the demonetisation decision aimed to clamp down on "black money".
Take the instance of Swapan Mandal, a labourer, who told Reuters he wanted to withdraw ₹3,000 rupees from an ATM and send it to his family in Kolkata who depend on him for survival, but was unable to do so because of the new rule. "I have only 500 rupees notes at home. I don't know if I will be able to send the money," he said.
Among the various shocking stories trickling in from various parts of the country, was that of an eight-year-old girl in north India's Uttar Pradesh who died after her treatment was delayed--all because her father couldn't buy petrol while on his way to hospital with her. Because he only had a ₹1,000 note. Another woman in the same state was believed to have died of shock after learning of the demonetisation scheme.
On Thursday, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley sought to reassure the public that people depositing small amounts won't face any harassment later. But the source of many people's misery isn't just about the taxman but about getting through day-to-day essential needs that go beyond petrol pumps and tolls, places that are supposedly still accepting the old notes.
Political leaders part of establishment appeared more concerned with the media's negative portrayal of the demonetisation scheme and its effect on common people, than with the actual instances of the people's suffering. Despite reports on the contrary, PM Modi released a statement expressing his "happiness" after Indians "exchange notes in a patient and orderly manner".
"So happy to learn that citizens are expressing their gratitude to bankers & getting notes exchanged in a very patient and orderly manner," he said in an official statement, even as he left for Japan that day.
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