Rural Indians hit hard by rupee crisis

An activist from the youth wing of the opposition Congress party being detained by police during a protest against the government's decision to withdraw 500 and 1,000 rupee banknotes from circulation.
An activist from the youth wing of the opposition Congress party being detained by police during a protest against the government's decision to withdraw 500 and 1,000 rupee banknotes from circulation.PHOTO: REUTERS

Most depend on cash, but banks are located far away and have yet to get the new notes

BULANDSHAHR (India) • Indian farmer Zakir Khan should be sowing his winter crops now. Instead, he is stuck at home after the government's shock move to pull high-value notes out of circulation left him with no money to pay for seeds - or feed his family.

Like millions of Indians living in the rural areas, Mr Khan lives far from a bank and relies almost entirely on cash to pay for food and the seeds and fertiliser he needs. Most of his notes are now worthless unless he can switch them for new ones or deposit them with a rural bank - many of which have yet to receive the new cash.

India's government asked its citizens to put up with what it called a "short-term inconvenience" when it announced the move to withdraw 500 and 1,000 rupee banknotes, which made up 85 per cent of currency in circulation, in a bid to tackle widespread tax evasion.

But for Mr Khan, left with just 80 rupees (S$1.67) in cash and, with no more food in the house, it means a lot more than inconvenience.

"The government is saying these hardships are temporary, but if we are unable to sow our crops this month, we won't have anything to eat next year," the 42-year-old said in his village in Bulandshahr district in the impoverished northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

Huge queues have formed outside banks and ATMs in cities across India as people try to swop their old notes for new ones, while many are finding ways to carry out their daily transactions online. In rural areas, though, none of that is possible.

To add to farmers' woes, the prices of vegetables and other staples have plummeted as a lack of cash in circulation hit demand.

Traders at New Delhi's main produce wholesale market Azadpur Mandi said business was down by as much as 50 per cent.

To try to ease the problems, the government this week announced it would boost a network of mobile ATMs in vans and public-sector bank representatives, known in India as correspondents, who provide rural communities with access to bank services.

They are part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ambitious plan to bring banking to India's rural masses, where many have no choice but to rely on private moneylenders who charge usurious interest.

But Mr Mohammad Imran, who works as a banking correspondent in a village of 4,000 people, said he had barely received any new currency since the Nov 8 announcement.

"People are angry and often hurl abuse at me for not giving them cash. But I am as helpless as they are," he said.

Meanwhile, a worker at one government-owned rural bank said it still had no cash, 10 days after the announcement. "This is simply a rash decision," he said on condition of anonymity.

In New Delhi, youth wing members of the main opposition Congress party clashed with police yesterday during a protest against the government's move to withdraw the rupee bills.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 19, 2016, with the headline 'Rural Indians hit hard by rupee crisis'. Print Edition | Subscribe