A foreigner's tale in Delhi: Hunting for an ATM, struggling for cash

I initially thought demonetisation was a radical but courageous step. I have changed my mind.

 |  6-minute read |   17-11-2016
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It must have been a quarter to midnight this chilly Tuesday night. I went out with friends in the buzzing defence colony of Delhi. While we were waiting for our cab to arrive, I browsed through the WhatsApp group I have with German journalists working here in India.

All of a sudden, a message by one those colleagues popped up: “You have 15 minutes to spend your 500 rupee bills...” - adding one of those wide-eyed, scared-looking emoticons and a link to an article by Mint, explaining the decision of the Indian government to declare 500 and 1,000 rupee notes illegal, practically overnight.

I remember my friend and I standing in front of the restaurant we just had dinner in, skimming over the article, but paying not too much attention. We took if for a joke. Nothing serious. What have the crazy Indians come up with again? Being German, we felt that a decision such as demonetisation would be well thought through, announced in advance and yes, definitely not implemented overnight.

Boy, was I wrong! It wasn’t a joke and the following days weren’t funny.

The full consequence of this decision dawned on me very slowly: I won’t be able to use the money which I recently withdrew from an ATM. Of course all of it was 500-rupee notes. It’s banned forever. The past three months I have been in India, I have spent about Rs 90,000 in cash. I paid for everything in cash, my food, water, the cobbler on the street, veggies, fruits, sometimes even the rent for my service apartment.

The following days, I realised I couldn't get change for my 500 notes, because most banks were out of change within hours or simply wouldn’t exchange my money because I don’t have an Indian bank account. I also couldn't withdraw money because ATMs didn’t work at all for the first few days, and after that, there were long queues everywhere I looked.

100-embed_111716065911.jpg The following days, I realised I couldn't get change for my 500-rupee notes. (Photo: Reuters)

Also, some restaurants or shops would refuse my (foreign) visa card. A colleague of mine literally spent his last few rupees on a bus ticket to Delhi to reach an event we had to attend. He didn’t drink or eat for two days because he couldn’t find a working ATM and his credit card wasn’t getting accepted everywhere.

I had a little more luck. Friends and colleagues helped me out, exchanged my 500-rupee bills and I found some sarcastic pleasure in our new hobby - ATM hunting. My friends and I would spent hours driving around the city in the middle of the night, jumping from one ATM to the next to find one which would work.

They could be easily spotted with long queues in front of buildings, snaking their way through the deserted streets. Like animals in the desert searching and fighting for a waterhole, all sorts of people gathered in front of the one working ATM in the neighbourhood. The struggle was real.

But let’s step back for a second and take a closer look at the reason behind this madness. The government imposed this “surgical strike” as a scheme to fight black money and its flourishing industry in India.

Now here’s the twist. Being asked by a colleague, what my take on this action was, I initially thought it was a very radical but possibly courageous step. This was exactly seven days ago, and I have changed my mind.

It was an article by The Citizen that basically outlined and defined the vague term of black money, describing the main problem being more of unaccounted money being saved in foreign tax havens, than the simple stack of piled-up rupee bills hidden in some cellar or under the pillow.

Yes, several Indian friends told me, that there are huge amounts of cash in possession of a minority in India. But then again: Are those cash hoarders the main problem? Don’t they have ways to launder their money too?

Even though a lot of Indians pay in cash to avoid taxes, how can you distinguish the money of those cash hoarders from the money of honest people who just stored some cash at home, because they simply don’t have a bank account?

And isn't high taxation the disease and the black money industry only a symptom? To me, the government trying to fight corruption by banning notes seems more like fishing with dynamite: Yes, it's a way to catch some of the corrupt people, but sure as hell, common people will be hit hard by this strike too.

Last but not least I ask myself, what will keep corrupt people from being corrupt with the new 2,000 rupee note? Those are even better, one could sarcastically assume, now corrupt middlemen would only need to hand over one suitcase full of money with their next purchase of real estate, instead of two.

Now this might not be new for you, but for me it is surprisingly the government itself which wraps up the argument perfectly: In 2014, when the UPA government mentioned the idea of demonetisation, former BJP spokesperson Meenakshi Lekhi stated: "This policy… is only meant for the blue blood and not for the sweating, red-blooded, toiling millions. It is not going to affect those who have numbered accounts in Swiss banks, but will hit those who do not have any bank account even in India.” The video of her speech has gone viral.

For me, being absolutely broke by now, the ATM hunt is still on. This Tuesday, I waited in a queue for one hour, only to see the ATM machine going out of service right in front of my eyes, like so many times before.

I was devastated and about to leave the queue when a very resolute young lady forced me to wait for ten more minutes. The bank assistant shut down and restarted the machine. After the longest ten minutes of my life, I was the first in the queue to withdraw cash.

I am not exaggerating when I say that my hands were shivering. I finally held the money in my hand, felt it, smelt it: fresh, crisp, blue, 100 rupee bills. I hugged and thanked my saviour, and floated out of the bank building on cloud nine.

Just to be sure, I counted the money. Rs 2,000. It felt like a million dollars.

Also read: Forget demonetisation, what about black money at the heart of Indian democracy?


Karola Körber Karola Körber @karokoerb

The writer is a science journalist, author and news producer for German public broadcasting company ZDF.

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