India note ban: Anger mounts as ATMs run dry

A man counts Indian rupee banknotes after withdrawing them from State Bank of India ATM in Kolkata, India, Nov 11, 2016.
A man counts Indian rupee banknotes after withdrawing them from State Bank of India ATM in Kolkata, India, Nov 11, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI (REUTERS) - Anger was rising across India on Saturday (Nov 12) as banks struggled to dispense cash after the government withdrew large denomination notes in a shock move aimed at uncovering billions of dollars of unaccounted wealth hidden from the taxman.

Hundreds of thousands of people stood outside banks for a third day for long hours trying to replace 500 and 1,000 rupee bank notes that were abolished earlier in the week.

These bills made up more than 80 per cent of the currency in circulation, leaving millions of people without cash and threatening to grind large parts of the cash-driven economy to a halt.

"There is chaos everywhere," said Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejrilwal, a bitter foe of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

He said Mr Modi's move had upended the lives of the poor and working while the rich - whose wealth he had sought to target - had found loopholes to get around the new rules.

People argued and banged the glass doors of a branch of Standard Chartered in southern Delhi after the security guards blocked entry, saying there were already too many people inside the bank.

Others turned on Mr Modi, criticising his ongoing visit to Japan while countrymen suffered at home.

"He is taking bullet train rides in Japan and here you have old people knocking on bank doors for cash," said Mr Prabhat Kumar, a college student who said he had spent six hours at the queue. "He has made a terrible mistake."

Nearly half of India's 202,000 ATMs were shut on Friday (Nov 11) and those that operated quickly ran out of the new notes as scores of people descended upon them.

Traders in Delhi's vegetable market said they were considering to shut down the market as cash was running out and banks were dispensing a limited amount.

"We might have to close down until the situation stabilises," said Mr Metharam Kriplani, the president of the Chambers of Azadpur Fruit and Vegetable Traders said.

People in Mumbai said grocers were charging ten times the price of salt in return for accepting the old cash notes and in Benguluru some people were using their old notes to buy one-time insurance policies.

The government has asked people to redeem the old 500 and 1,000 rupees notes by December 30. The central bank said there was enough cash available with banks and that it had made arrangements to deliver the new bank notes all over the country.

But in Dudko, about 75km from Delhi, villagers said they were struggling to pay for food and fuel, four days into the cash crunch.

One family was marrying off their daughter later this month and were worrying about their money stuck in the bank. "Bank officials are saying they will give the money on Monday. How will we make purchases?" asked Sunita, the mother.

Much of India's rural economy is powered by cash transactions, with few people having bank accounts or operating one even if they have an account.

Mr Modi's move was aimed at shrinking the "black economy", the term widely used to describe transactions that take place outside formal channels and which could be as high as 20 per cent of gross domestic product, according to investment firm Ambit.

Bribe and crime proceeds also go into this underground economy. Mr Modi said he also wanted to strike against counterfeit 500 and 1,000 rupee notes that anti-India militants were using to finance acts of violence.