It’s 9am in Agra and I’m squashed into a 2mx2m ATM vestibule with 8 other people. We all have our bank cards in our hands and we’re all anxiously watching the guy at the front of the queue as he inputs his PIN number. People close to the ATM machine are actually peering over his shoulder. Those of us at the back are on our tiptoes trying to see over the heads of those in front. A couple of minutes ago another man at the front of the queue requested 2000 rupees (£24) and the screen lit up with the message ‘Currently unable to process your request’. The man shook his head in disappointment and pushed his way through the packed kiosk to leave. Was this unique to him or had, as we all feared, the machine joined the ranks of the thousands of other cash machines in India which just don’t have any money?
Residents and tourists alike are feeling the pinch in India at the moment as the government’s drive to fight counterfeit currency and introduce a cashless economy begins. Back in November it was announced with amazing swiftness that the current 1000 and 500 rupee notes were no longer legal tender and people’s money became worthless overnight. Upon entering India the currency exchange booths were all sporting signs which read ‘From November 9th we will no longer be accepting 500 and 1000 rupee notes as per the government announcement on November 8th’; a notice period of less than 24 hours. Indeed, the announcement on November 8th was followed by all banks being closed on November 9th and then all ATMs being unavailable for some time after.
The situation led to a run on the banks and with a daily withdrawal limit of 2000 rupees, everybody wants money from ATMs regularly enough to ensure long queues and, more often than not, zero cash available.
For us this has meant a fairly stressful trip. India is a cash based society and, as I am soon to write in another post, everybody wants money from you for some small service, whether that is passing you a paper towel in a public bathroom or pouring a dirty bottle of water over your hands to wash them at a temple. These people don’t want much, but the availability of change is currently a problem in India too. Help often isn’t very forthcoming either as people assume that as tourists you are carrying vast reserves of currency both foreign and domestic.
We have found a couple of workarounds but these have involved several ‘merchants’ offering to give us cash if we spent a certain amount in their gem shop, textile outlet or marble workshop. But for the most part, we’ve just had to avoid doing anything that we couldn’t pay for using our card, tip sparingly and keep cash aside for our return trip to the airport.
With 4 days of our trip remaining, we find ourselves effectively trapped in our hotel. We don’t have money for taxis to get anywhere and are relying on charging our meals to our room. Inadvertently then, the shortage of cash has forced us to spend more money in India. Sadly though this money will be going to the big businesses that run the hotels, not the people who put their all into guiding tours, selling street food or making handicrafts and souvenirs.
We didn’t come into this blind. We brought currency to exchange and 4 different cards from 4 different banks. But when the exchange counters and ATMs literally don’t have the cash, what can you do?