As the temperature dipped on Tuesday night, 68-year-old Joginder Singh took a blanket from his home in Burari, walked 600 metres and sat on the steps of an Axis Bank branch. Thirteen years ago, Singh had sustained a back injury while working at a construction site. Now, he cannot stand for more than half-an-hour.
“We ran out of cash and shops are no longer willing to give us milk and groceries on credit. I have been sitting here since 9 pm, and I will wait till the bank opens in the morning. I have Rs 4,000 in Rs 500 notes,” Singh said at 1.15 am on Wednesday.
Burari, on the outskirts of the capital, has at least 15 branches and ATMs of private and government banks in a 2-km stretch. At 1.30 am, there was one functioning ATM in the area, with about 70 people in line.
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Others, like Singh, decided to set up camp elsewhere.
“You never know when that ATM will run out of cash. I can’t take a risk,” said Vijay, 40, a daily wage labourer sitting near Singh along with eight others, two of them asleep. “I stood in queues at two ATMs in the last three days but in vain. So I came here at 9 pm today. I have to get Rs 4,000 exchanged. For the last three-four days, my children have not had milk. We are just eating dal. What do we do, we can’t eat old currency?” Vijay said.
Less than 500 metres away, at the Canara Bank branch, Govind Ram, 50, is fourth in queue. Six days ago, Ram came to Delhi from Uttarakhand to see his first grandchild. “I cannot stay at my daughter’s in-laws’ house for too long. For the last four days, I have been trying to withdraw money or get old notes exchanged so I can pay for my ride back home,” Ram said.
Across the road, outside a Dena Bank branch, a group of eight young men sat around a bonfire. Next to them, on the bank’s stairs, three people slept under blankets.
The only thing they discuss is demonetisation, cash crunch and how to get fresh notes.
“What if they give us Rs 2,000 notes? No one is accepting those because they don’t have change,” said 19-year-old Rohit Kumar. “We favour the move, but the sudden effect it has had on poor people is causing problems. Rich people will not get affected,” he added.
While some live in the locality, others have come from far. A resident of Ghaziabad, 40-year-old Naushad Alam said he works at a garment outlet in Swaroop Nagar near Burari.
After work on Tuesday, Alam had dinner at a friend’s place and reached the Bank of Baroda branch to spend the night. “If my turn comes by 10-11 am, I will go to work from here. If not, I will lose a day’s salary. The office will mark me absent if I am more than an hour late,” Alam said. “All my money is stuck. You can stay hungry but how can you see your children hungry?”
Alam was among 50 people outside the bank at 2.15 am Wednesday. As the crowd swelled, people decided to assign a number to each person in the queue. “Everyone has been given a number and we will wait our turn. All of us need money but there is no point in fighting,” said 42-year-old Rekha Rai, a resident of Jharocha village near Burari.
Bipin Nath, 33, said, “The government could have set up camps for this kind of exchange? They could have done it over the weekend, deployed forces like they do during elections. We work the entire day and then come here and stand in queues to get our own money.”
Some locals claimed that a day ago, those spending the night outside Punjab National Bank had brought cots and blankets. While the cots were missing on Wednesday night, 40 people wrapped in shawls and blankets waited outside.
Nand Lal, 42, who runs a grocery store in Burari, said he shut shop two days ago. “Customers don’t have money to give us, suppliers are not accepting old notes. My son is waiting outside another bank. It will take me at least a month to procure goods and run my shop again,” Lal said.