Demonetisation: I suffered, then realised I was a rich foreigner with privileges

A visiting German journalist in India recounts the last one week when she struggled to exchange/withdraw old currency notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1000.

Written by Petra Sorge | New Delhi | Updated: November 18, 2016 5:26 pm
A foreign tourist takes pictures of people standing in a queue outside a bank to exchange and deposit their old, high denomination banknotes in Kolkata, India (REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri) A foreign tourist takes pictures of people standing in a queue outside a bank to exchange and deposit their old, high denomination banknotes in Kolkata, India (REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri)

Wednesday, November 9

When for the first time, someone sends me this news piece “Rs 500, Rs 1,000 notes scrapped as legal tender: Narendra Modi” via WhatsApp, I don’t really pay attention. I am just following the US elections: Trump has just taken the Midwest. Ohio. Florida. His victory is at arm’s length.

How awful can a day be? I need some coffee.

At the counter, I finally wake up: “No m’am”, the lady tells me, “we don’t accept Rs 500 notes.” The bill is Rs 86 – I have four Rs 500 and four Rs 10 notes in my purse. Yes, a day CAN become more awful. At least I can swipe my credit card.  And my German friend Karola says she knows someone who can help. She collects my four invalid notes.

Thursday, November 10

All ATMs are closed for two days. I am using my last cash for the rickshaw. Then I am broke. I have savings on a German bank account – but what are they worth now? I borrow Rs 100 from an employee of my guesthouse. I feel embarrassed. So far in India, it’s always been me who has given money to somebody.

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Friday, November 11

HSBC Bank, Bank of Maharashtra, Citibank: all ATMs are closed.

I borrow hundred for mobility from one colleague, sixty for lunch from another one. For dinner, I choose a credit card restaurant. My currency is plastic now. In the evening, Karola has a present for me: five Rs 100 bills! Her contact could really exchange some of my old notes. I feel rich!!!

Saturday, November 12

Today, I try the post office. Even before it’s opened, at 11 am, the queues in front of the building are insane. No way.
I try to create a Paytm wallet online. I enter my Indian phone number, the reply: “Mobile number not available please raise a query at paytm.com/care.” No, thanks.

On WhatsApp, my Germans-in-India group is overheating.

Nina, 11:13 am: “I am stuck in Rajasthan without cash and all the ATMs are empty.”
Julia, 1:14 pm: “Can’t you use Ola Money or Paytm?”
Nina: “Ola doesn’t accept my credit card.”
Fabian: “And Uber?”
Nina: “No.”
Julia J.: “I’ve also queued and what did I get: a 2000 bill.”
Fabian, on the bus from Chandigarh to Delhi, at 5:15 pm: “I haven’t eaten or drunken since this morning 11 am.”
At 6:43 pm, “I am constantly seeing these Pepsi banners.”

Whilst my friend is getting severely dehydrated, I can enjoy a fresh beer at Connaught Place. Credit card life is fantastic.

Well, only until I run into this young boy, dark eyes, shabby trousers. He raises his hands to his mouth. He is hungry. I don’t have cash. I stare at his mother: “I REALLY DON’T  HAVE CASH.”

This is getting cynical. Modi wants to target black money? He is hitting the poorest: What are these people on the street doing? Or prostitutes? Will they also introduce Paytm?

Sunday, November 13

The Indian Express runs a story: “Jaipur: Infant dies, father says no cash for ambulance”.

I find more of these stories online: People get turned down at hospitals; senior citizens suffer heart attacks in queues.

Demonetization is killing lives. Why are economists still applauding the BJP government? Billions are hoarded offshore, in Switzerland, Singapore. The rich don’t have their cash at  home. This is an unparalleled social experiment.

Monday, November 14

Banks are closed because of – bank holiday. But Karola is again saving me. She pays me the rest of my Rs 1,500. Her contact has someone working in the bank, and apparently owns three credit cards. I don’t ask any more questions.

Tuesday, November 15

I can pay rickshaws, my trainer, my lunch. A good day.

Wednesday, November 16

In the next days, I will have to make several cash payments. I have to hunt for money now. Karola and I are heading for a German institute – the “Deutsche Bank”. Shouldn’t we  get some cash over the counter here? The manager informs me that unfortunately not: “If you don’t have an account with Deutsche Bank India, we cannot help you.”

But I don’t have an account in India. I’m just a poor foreigner without cash.

On the other side of the bank, there’s a crowd. I queue up. Somebody tells me: “You can go to the lady’s queue.” There’s a lady’s queue? How convenient. That’s Indian courtesy.

I spot this elderly woman; wave to her, let her stand in front of me. Another one is getting furious: “There’s a line for senior citizens over there!” That’s Indian crudely.

In the bank, I am shocked: The ATM is out of order. Outside, somebody had told me it is working. I am losing what’s left of my German reservation. I am shouting, using swear  words.

Or was it yet another language problem? People sometimes don’t understand me in India. One morning, I wanted to try a strange food on the menu: I ordered “Maggi”. I was served – matches. For breakfast. Yummy.

Finally, someone in the bank has pity, and passes me his business card: “Senior Priority Relationship Manager”. He tells me to come back after 7 pm, “I will make sure that you get money at the ATM”.

And indeed: He organizes me a way in, way after the closing hour. For the first time in seven days, I can withdraw Rs 2,500.

The solution is to do it the Indian way: Be emotional – and know someone.

But that’s not the end of the story. Since Karola’s card wasn’t accepted at that bank, we keep roaming the quarter. We stop in front of one agency where two guys carry rifles. An  accountant leaves the office. I ask him: “Has there been violence against the employees?” – “No, but we take precautions.” My friend asks him if there is an ATM working somewhere. “Oh yes, I just withdrew money in there.” – “WHAT??!” Karola tells him how she’d been trying to find an ATM for days desperately.

The accountant stops, whispers in the ear of one guard. He lets us in. Karola can finally withdraw Rs 2,500.

The accountant asks me to withdraw too, and I tell him that I’ve already reached my daily limit. “Try anyway; the situation will still be tense for some weeks.” I enter my card in the  slot. The machine dispenses another 2,500. “How is this possible?” – “You have a foreign credit card. The limit is only for Indian citizens.”

I feel guilty for a second – then withdraw a third time. My purse now carries 85 Rs 100 bills.

I am a rich foreigner with privileges.

(The views expressed by the author are personal.)