ON LEGS withered by polio, she makes her way to the bank, late by hours, the two queues — one for women, the other for men — already long and bubbling with anger.
Dismayed, she sits outside the closed gates of the Punjab National Bank branch in Pachwas village of Basti district, 40 km east of Faizabad in Uttar Pradesh. A policeman on duty spots her, asks the crowd to let her pass. They refuse. He pushes hard at the gate and the crowd relents. She makes her way in, her passbook, a pen and ID cards in a bag slung around her neck.
Less than 15 minutes later, she is out. Her brother, waiting by a motorcycle, helps her on to the rear seat and they leave quickly, refusing to talk or even identify themselves. The reason is obvious from the comments that follow: “I wish I was like that”; “We have been here for hours and she gets to go inside just like that”. The policeman shames them into silence with a string of expletives.
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On pay day in rural Uttar Pradesh, the bank queues are longer, bank officials nervous and the policemen on guard extra-cautious. At the PNB branch in Pachwas, the first customers started queuing up at 6 am. For the previous 22 days, since the central government withdrew Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes, the queues used to start by 8 am.
“I have run the whole of last month on credit and have several payments to make. I have to withdraw money today at any cost,” says Mahendra Yadav, an assistant at a local mechanic shop.
Yadav says he was being been paid in cash for the last three years but his employer handed him a cheque on Tuesday. “I had to stand in line yesterday to deposit the cheque. Today, I have to withdraw the money,” he says. Yadav gets his chance, three hours later.
But then, getting in is just the first step. In Chawni village, 6 km away, customers are allowed to withdraw only Rs 6,000 each. “The bank staff told me that they have enough money only for a few hundred withdrawals and that they have to ensure cash for as many customers as possible. So much for the Rs 24,000 limit,” says Iqbal Rashid, an employee at a motorcycle showroom, 8 km away.
Rashid says his colleagues have devised a rotation system. “You can either stand in queue or work. My three colleagues and I worked out a system where one of us gets to go to the bank every three hours. Hopefully, I will get some cash today, I need it for my mother’s medicines. She has been having breathing trouble and the medicine is available only in Faizabad,” he says.
According to Rashid, many customers have debit cards, but those are of little use.
“Not a single ATM works between here and Faizabad. I have tried them all. Most have been shut since the November 8 demonetisation announcement,” he says.
On Thursday, the Chawni branch has extra security. Two policemen inside the bank, four more in the compound, where more than 50 women sit on the ground waiting patiently, and two more patrolling outside where the men wait.
On Wednesday morning, four women and a policeman were injured after the agitated crowd forced their way in. “It was bad yesterday.
There were only two policemen on duty and they could not hold the crowd back. We are more prepared today,” says an officer.
Now, only women are allowed inside the compound. “A bank official comes out every two hours and hands out tokens to the men outside. They are allowed in one by one. People have become desperate now. You can watch, they will not leave the bank even if we announce that the money is over,” says the officer.
For Leela Yadav, who walked 2 km from Minauli village before hailing a share autorickshaw for the remaining 12, it is the waiting that’s frustrating. “Nobody really knows what is happening. Nobody knows how much money is in, how much goes out or who gets how much. I came here yesterday and had to leave when the situation became violent. I’m back today because I have no choice. I can withdraw money only from this account at this branch,” she says.
Vidhyadhar has the only laptop in Minauli and runs an SBI customer service point for at least 500 account-holders there. That laptop has remained shut since 10.30 am today.