Nepali migrant workers unintended victims of India cash crackdown

A vendor counts Indian rupee banknotes at a vegetable wholesale market in Mumbai on Nov 19, 2016.
A vendor counts Indian rupee banknotes at a vegetable wholesale market in Mumbai on Nov 19, 2016.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

KATHMANDU (REUTERS) - When Mr Bishnu Pandey, a Nepali migrant working in India, returned home two weeks ago, he had hoped to clear a loan taken by his family to rebuild its village home with his savings.

But the 35-year-old New Delhi restaurant worker had his dreams shattered after the bank refused to exchange cash worth US$440 (S$629.77) because of a crackdown on "black money" ordered by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The shock announcement to ban 500-rupee (S$10.40) and 1,000-rupee bills seeks to flush out billions of dollars in unaccounted wealth and hit the finances of militants suspected of using fake currency to fund operations.

"I don't think I am the target, but I became a victim," Mr Pandey told Reuters outside a bank branch in Kathmandu, showing stacks of the old Indian notes that are no longer legal tender.

"I have no money now to return to work and I have no way to pay back the family debt," he said, referring to US$275 his father borrowed to repair his house damaged in earthquakes last year that killed 9,000 people and destroyed nearly one million homes.

The tall, lanky Mr Pandey, from Naubise village in Dhading district, 24km from Kathmandu, is one of hundreds of thousands in the desperately poor Himalayan country hit by the currency ban announced two weeks ago.

Families of migrants like Mr Pandey, students seeking admissions in Indian colleges, those seeking medical treatment, pilgrims and those visiting families across the open border have all been hit. Unlike people in India, they can't deposit or swap old notes at banks that will accept them until December 30.

Mr Pashupati Murarka, chief of the Federation of the Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FNCCI), estimates that dud bank notes worth as much as 10 billion Indian rupees may be held by individuals and the informal sector.

Mr Nara Bahadur Thapa, an official at the central bank, said Nepal received 70 billion rupees in remittances from migrant workers in India every year.

Thousands of Gurkha soldiers retired from the Indian army also get their pensions paid in the Indian currency.

Nepali Prime Minister Prachanda, a former Maoist rebel commander, spoke to Mr Modi over the phone last week seeking arrangements for the exchange of Indian cash held in Nepal, his aides said.

Mr Modi pledged to resolve the issue, but no arrangements have been made yet, they said.