View from the Frontline

On November 8, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on national television, the Government’s decision to scrap old 500 and 1000 Indian currency notes. He declared that while these would be accepted at hospitals, petrol pumps and a few select places, they would cease to be legal tender from that midnight on. The following is my personal experience sitting in the frontline counter handling public in the last four days.

I had reached home, had my evening snacks and was going to settle down for a quiet evening with my wife when a WhatsApp (that harbinger of news) notification from Pranav alerted me to the news. I didn’t believe him. To which he asked me to turn on the television.

The television reportage ensured that the people panicked overnight. No reporter seems to know (or frankly, care) about what was accurate. Online, people were debating the merits and demerits of the news rather than what would happen on the ground. How do you pay for milk, dhobiwala or even the wada pav in one or two days, once the current stash of cash was over. There were rumors about GPS chips on currency notes to find hidden cash and about how the government was to roll out the new currency notes. Luckily, banks would be closed for the public on the next day. It gave the banks some breathing space to down ATM shutters, remove 500 and 1000 currency notes in bank vaults and prepare for the upcoming storm to hit the banks.

We waited for instructions from superiors, cash was moved out, stationery was ordered and retired personnel were called back in to meet the unexpected surge in customers on the next day.

The next day (Thursday) there was a surge in panic and people came in huge numbers. In the long queue outside my branch, they would not let me in, asking me to stand in queue. I informed them that I was a bank employee and I would be needed indoors for the queue to move. At the open of business hours, people standing in queue without tokens reminded me of the days when I used to sit in my mother’s bank when banking happened in bank ledgers and paper. People were confused and had questions about exchange of money and the newly set withdrawal limits. There were people trying to deposit money in small accounts, PPF accounts or any account that would deposit their money. There was confusion about whether they could deposit money anywhere they wanted or only in their home branches. Some customers from other banks also wanted to know if their money could be deposited. The confusion showed that the information flows through the media (especially regional and English newspapers) was not good enough. We worked for extended working hours handling the rush of customers on that first day. We tried to remain calm and work through the situation as fresh instructions continued to pour in. Customers from nearby stores got us water. Traffic policemen bought in a bottle of Frooti and there were rare instances of shared brotherhood among people in the queues that restored my faith in humanity.

The second day (Friday) that the banks opened for work, the line swelled. Rumors spread by people who did not get their money changed on the first day led to more panic. Also, depositors added to the lines leading us to temporarily suspend other bank business. This day we began to see more understanding customers. They waited calmly in lines. The banks also provided enclosures and drinking water to people outside after news of deaths of at least 2 people waiting in queues. This day we had to turn a deaf ear to people pleading for more money than 4000 in exchange and more than 10000 in withdrawal daily limits set in place. Many people needed the money to fulfill their daily requirements, to pay fees, for marriages and birthday parties and hospital emergencies. Some private hospitals continued to refuse to accept 500 and 1000 notes despite the Government allowing them to.

Saturday began with confirmation of some of the things we heard from customers on the previous day about hospitals not accepting the scraped notes. Banks were to be closed for an extended 3 day weekend. The news meant that this would be cancelled and banks would work for normal working hours on Saturday and Sunday. While customers knew that banks would remain open they did not know that the banks had returned to normal working hours. We continued working till about two hours after closing hours and later that day operationalised the ATM machine. Coupons were given for entry on the next day while the lines stayed for accessing the ATM. I found the air removed from my bike while returning home after a long day’s work. I had it refilled from a nearby tyre shop and was on my way home around 8 that night.

My back pained in the night and my wife massaged my back before I could go to sleep to get ready to get back to work for the eighth straight day.

Sunday was much better because both customers and staff knew what was happening – all the rules were now clear. We had lesser interruptions of people asking us about the rules, verifying what they had heard from other bank officials and people. The line ran more smoothly. On this day, they were also aware of the working hours and hence people paced themselves or made alternate arrangements from banks and branches that were less crowded.

I guess we were part of a wonderful team effort, colleagues helping each other out, officers standing behind their staff and handling situations when they sometimes got out of hand, police members working long hours handling customers and the customers themselves waiting patiently and behaving with extraordinary restraint. There were lessons for me in pacing myself, learning patience, learning a new job (have not sat in cash for such a sustained period of time) and being a part of a team.

It was wonderful to think back on the last four days, resting at home today and thought I’d share it with all of you. A rare glimpse of the scene from the people who manned the counters.


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