“Na bank le na bhikhari…” That was what 22 traders of Kanpur pleaded recently, seeking the government’s help over the mounting coins with them, but found themselves booked. One year after demonetisation, and four months after the launch of the GST, The Indian Express finds a city facing a chillar problem.
“DO YOU know how much hundred Rs 10 coins weigh?” asks Ikhlaq Mirza. “770 grams.”
Mirza, a whole-sale dealer in small plastic goods, has many such 770-gm packets, packed in sacks. Coins of Rs 5 are kept in similar packets, of value Rs 500. The packets help Mirza keep a tally of the money he has in coins, though he long stopped keeping a count. In all, he says, it would be “Rs 1.4 lakh” — money that he finds fallen between the two stools of demonetisation and the Goods and Sales Tax (GST).
On October 12, 22 whole-sale traders of small items in Kanpur, in the same situation as Mirza, were booked under Sections 505 (statements conducing to public mischief) and 153 (wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause riot) of the IPC and the UP Special Powers Act. They had put up posters likening Prime Minister Narendra Modi to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un over the problem of “chillar”. A labourer whom they hired to put up the posters, Praveen Kumar Agnihotri, was arrested briefly.
The 22, bar Raju Khanna, whose photo was also there on the posters, are now underground. Khanna admits he doesn’t know much about Jong-un, except TV channel reports describing him as “North Korea ka tanashah (dictator)”.
But the 43-year-old is not apologetic about putting Jong-un’s photo alongside Modi’s. Khanna, who supplies snacks in Kanpur and adjoining districts, says traders in the city have been struggling to draw attention to their problem, “but no one was listening”. “Thus, one day we thought of this idea, but instead we were booked.”
As per one estimate, of the Kanpur Mahanagar Confectionery Association and the Kanpur unit of the Akhil Bhartiya Udyog Vyapar Mandal, coins worth Rs 200 crore are lying with traders.
Following demonetisation, many people were handed coins by banks strapped for currency notes. Since these Kanpur traders deal in small items, they were happy to accept payment from customers in chillar. The problem arose after the GST, when larger payments were required to be paid through the RTGS (real time gross settlement) or cheques. By then, coins had piled up with traders to unprecedented levels.
Banks cite an RBI notification saying coins worth only Rs 1,000 can be accepted at one time. Citing the over Rs 2 lakh he has in coins, Khanna says that’s hardly a solution, and involves days of queuing up. “If the situation continues, soon you’ll see traders sitting outside the RBI with their coins,” warns Khanna.
Father of four children, with the eldest 14, Khanna cites the unofficial rate for exchanging the coins — 20 per cent to line up to exchange Rs 2 coins for notes, 12 per cent to exchange Rs 5 coins, and 8 per cent to exchange Rs 10 coins. “If we exchange Rs 4 lakh, we may end up paying Rs 1 lakh in return.”
Asked about the status of the case involving Khanna and 21 other traders, whose names were on the posters, Janardan Prasad Dubey, Circle Officer, Govind Nagar area, where the case was registered, says, “The investigation is still on.”
The slogans on the posters included ‘Modiji apne maan ki baat vyapari ko samjhaiye ki yeh rezgari hum kahan le jayen (Modiji tell us traders your mann ki baat on where we should take these coins)’, and ‘Na bank le na bhikhari, rezgari le sirf vyapari (Neither bank nor beggar, traders take coins)’.
The situation, the posters said, was akin to ‘Rezgari ka aapatkaal (An emergency for coins)’.
Nikhil Gupta, 40
Whole-sale supplier of confectionery and general secretary of the Kanpur City Confectionery Association
Coins worth: Rs 1.5 lakh
Across the road from where Gupta is sitting with his fellow traders in the Express Road market in Kanpur, a heated exchange is on at a whole-sale masala shop over coins, between a customer and the shopkeeper. The rest of the market watches in silence.
“People are ready to fight over coins… Trasta ho gaye hain (We are all tired),” says Gupta, shaking his head. He has set aside a few compartments of an almirah in his two-room house, that he shares with his wife and two young children, to stack his coins. He runs his business from the same premises.
Gupta says he knows precisely what coins he holds, adding up to “Rs 1.5 lakh” — “Rs 60,000 in Re 1 and Rs 2 coins, and the rest in bigger denominations”.
In the business for 20 years, the 40-year-old says he has never found himself in such a situation before. “During demonetisation, banks in villages gave a large amount of money in coins. From village markets, the payments came to us in coins,” says Gupta.
Most of his customers are confectionery shopowners and vendors in villages and cities in neighbouring five-six districts, including the Bundelkhand region. They either come to buy from him in Kanpur, or his agents go with goods to them in the districts. “I cannot blame them. For toffees, biscuits etc, payment is made to them in coins in the village market,” Gupta says.
According to him, the first few months were not a problem, as he too could make his payment in coins, including salaries of labourers and agents working with him. “Even while making larger payments to buy items from cities like Indore, we could make 25 per cent of the payment in coins.”
He claims to have paid up to Rs 50,000 in coins at one go, but after the GST came in, people refused to accept anything beyond Rs 1,000 in coins. “Now, for any payment over Rs 10,000, manufacturers ask for cheques, and for even Rs 10,000, you cannot pay the entire amount in coins,” says Gupta.
With news spreading of coins not being accepted in the market, Gupta says even workers are refusing to take them. “A few days ago, my wife complained that vegetable vendors have begun ignoring her, saying they will only take currency notes,” says Gupta.
Counting coins with her mother-in-law at their home, wife Babita Gupta says they have had to beg friends and relatives to take their coins. “Note to dekhne ko hi nahin milta (One doesn’t even get to see notes),” she adds. “The milkman, vegetable vendor, the house help, all refuse to take coins. I have never suffered such humiliation.”
Gupta says they have tried elsewhere too to offload the coins. “At petrol pumps, railway counters…” Asking the RBI to intervene, he adds, “We need some immediate help… at least we could get a separate counter.”
A senior bank official in Kanpur admits there is a problem, but adds, “we are not refusing coins and cannot refuse them. We are accepting them as per the guidelines of RBI i.e. Rs 1,000 at a time.”
State Finance Minister Rajesh Agarwal says the government is aware of the problem. “I personally came across it when I was travelling in Mirzapur district about a month back and discussed it with the Chief Minister… The problem is all across. I held meetings with senior officers of all the banks in Lucknow about a month back. They promised to take the coins. Later, even the RBI issued instructions to all the banks.”
A senior official in the Currency and Coinage division in the Ministry of Finance, asking not to be quoted, said the Centre too had taken note. “Banks cannot refuse coins. These are sovereign coins after all. We in the government discussed the problems faced by traders, and the RBI has communicated to the banks that they cannot refuse to accept coins of denomination 50 paisa to Rs 10 when they come for deposits for deposits.”
A questionnaire sent by The Sunday Express to the RBI on the measures it was taking to tackle the issue of excess coins in the system, however, did not elicit any response.
Ikhlaq Mirza, 37
Whole-sale dealer in small plastic items
Coins worth: Rs 1.4 lakh
Mirza has just got away from a fight over coins too. At a shop next to his, a customer, after loading a purchase, got into an argument with the shopkeeper over making his payment in coins. The latter insisted he won’t take anything below Rs 10. Finally, Mirza intervened. “An agreement was reached to accept part payment in Rs 10 coins and the remaining through cheque,” Mirza says.
“Bharat ki currency Bharat mein hi nahin chal rahi hai (India’s currency is useless in India itself),” he says.
“We now store the coins after weighing them,” he adds, with that rough estimate of 770 gm for every Rs 1,000 in Rs 10 coins. The calculation isn’t as simple in case of Rs 5 coins, which come in different weights and sizes. So smaller bundles of Rs 500 are made for Rs 5 coins. “There is no counting done for Rs 2 or Re 1,” Mirza says.
Apart from helping them keep track of the money, he says, the packets aid in making quick payment should anyone accept the coins. “Most of the traders now keep the money in sacks in pouches of Rs 1,000.”
Pinched for money, Mirza has cut his labour force. And also tried various measures to get rid of the coins. “I paid electricity bills and railway tickets, even tried to pay the fees of my two children, in Classes 7 and 5, in coins. But now all of them have refused. A few weeks ago, a petrol pump put up a poster saying coins are not acceptable, but removed it after the recent poster controversy,” he says. “Har koi kehta hai, ‘Hum na lebe, hum na lebe (Everyone says, I won’t take)’.”
As he talks at his shop, Virendra Gupta, who owns a shop in a village in Banda district of Bundelkhand, arrives. Before he places his order, Gupta clarifies with Mirza how he can pay him. “You will take Rs 5 coins, no? Otherwise we will go to someone else.”
Mirza declines politely. “I will take Rs 10 coins. Don’t give me Rs 5 ones, what will I do with them?” As Gupta leaves, Mirza says, “Some of them threaten to call the police if we do not accept coins. So we prefer to make things clear before making the sale.”
P B Dixit, 53
Runs a bread-manufacturing unit
Coins worth: Rs 4 lakh
Dixit knows the precise date “the problem” started. According to him, it was July 15, about 15 days after the GST was launched.
Last month, Dixit, who estimates he has around Rs 4 lakh in coins, wrote to the State Bank of India, seeking an official reply on the RBI policy on accepting coins. He got a letter on October 6. “The bank had sought the response of the RBI, which was attached with the reply given to me.”
Dixit reads out the reply: “As per Section 6 of The Coinage Act, 2011, the coins shall be legal tender in payment or on account in case of coin of any denomination not lower than one rupee, for any sum not exceeding one thousand rupees.”
“Citing this, I was informed that at a time coins of Re 1 not exceeding the total amount of Rs 1,000 can alone be accepted.”
Dixit and his brothers, who run the family business, sell their bread to shops in eight adjoining districts, as well as to district-level dealers. “Our dealers come back and say that local vendors are giving coins. I asked for cheques too, but since these are small vendors, many times the cheques bounced, and I ended up losing profits in penalty for dishonoured cheques,” he says.
“If we refuse to accept coins and shopkeepers in far-off districts such as Allahabad or Bundelkhand return our products, these would become useless by the time these are returned,” he says, explaining why he is worse off than confectionary dealers. “We have a bread manufacturing association and they raised the issue last month, but no one seems to be listening.”
Dixit is planning to now approach the Indian Industries Association.
Sunil Vaishya, the president of the Indian Industries Association, which represents micro-, small- and medium-scale enterprises, says other traders too have come to them. “The problem became grave after the GST as suppliers and banks started refusing coins, while the flow continued from customers.”
He is getting complaints from across North India, he adds, including Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Bihar. “We made a representation before the RBI on behalf of the small-scale industries. They asked for details and we gave it to them.”
D S Verma, the Executive Director of the Indian Industries Association in Lucknow, calls it “worse than demonetisation”. “For small-scale industries capital money to the tune of lakhs getting locked in coins is equivalent to businesses closing down… During demonetisation, at least their genuine currency was getting exchanged, but today, even their genuine currency is not being exchanged and they are falling victim to blackmail, where they are being asked to pay huge percentage in return for exchange,” says Verma, who laments that their October 14 letter to the RBI was still awaiting response.
Dixit, meanwhile, is getting desperate. “Yesterday, I went to the medical store to buy medicines for my mother, and the store guy refused to take change… Ab to bhikhari bhi nahin lete (Now even beggars don’t accept coins),” he says.
Geeta Chauhan, 43
Former owner of a general store
Coins: Rs 6,000
For 10 years, Chouhan ran a general store from her house. But three months ago, as the coins at her house mounted to Rs 25,000, she says, she shut shop. Chouhan points out that owners of small stores like her are the first people to whom the coins are offered by the public, but they are themselves turned away when they try to use the coins at the market.
“I had fixed the marriage of my daughter for December 4, but we have had to postpone it for six months because of lack of funds. My son has got a job as a delivery man but the money is hardly enough,” says Chouhan, who has two children. The shop, where her husband helped out occasionally, was the family’s main source of income.
In the days leading up to the shop’s closure, Chouhan says, “I stopped buying monthly items. Instead, we would buy one thing at a time and from different shops, up to Rs 100, to get rid of the coins.”
Since her shop shut, Chouhan says, she has tried to sell her stock at cheaper rates. “I still have about Rs 5,000 in coins of Re 1 and Rs 2, which no one is accepting.”
Owner of a snacks manufacturing unit
Coins worth: Rs 4.5 lakh
Sitting behind a desk in front of which lie sacks full of coins in denominations of Rs 2, Rs 5 and Rs 10, the 38-year-old justifies why he doesn’t want to be identified. “No trader would ever want to be part of a controversy as wewant to do our business peacefully, but the problem is becoming out of control.”
He talks of routine threats. “Our supply goes to Bundelkhand and Poorvanchal. We sell non-branded kachari (snacks) in the local market, and are offered coins in return. Here people are still polite in refusing coins, you go to Poorvanchal and see. Our dealers are threatened for not accepting coins, one of them said he would call the police saying that my dealer was desh-drohi (anti-national) for not accepting Indian currency.”
The Rs 4.5 lakh the 38-year-old claims to have in coins lies in the sacks in his office. There are larger sacks containing Rs 25,000, Rs 40,000, Rs 10,000 etc, and smaller plastic bags containing Rs 10 coins worth Rs 1,000, and Rs 5 coins amounting to Rs 500. He also has packets of Re 1 coins. Each big sack has the amount of coins it carries written on it.
According to him, Rs 10 coin is not as much a problem as Re 1 and Rs 2 coins.
To show how difficult it is to use the coins, the owner asks a labourer, who is unloading some boxes of snacks from a truck, whether he would accept coins for his Rs 6,000 salary. The worker declines with a smile.
Backing the recent poster protest, the owner says, “For small manufacturers, locking up money up to Rs 4 lakh in coins is a huge loss. It is not just the question of our families, but families of our labourers too. So far, we have not cut down on any staff, but we would have to if the situation continues.”
The Uttar Pradesh Minister for Industrial Development, the BJP’s Satish Mahana, hails from Kanpur. Asked about the coin crisis, Mahana says, “No trader has met me personally, but I am aware of their problem and have spoken to Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Union Minister of State for Finance Shiv Pratap Shukla. Banks cannot refuse to accept valid currency, and have been issued instructions.” He also promises to talk to the traders.
The 38-year-old snack manufacturer warns that the time for platitudes might be over. “If the government is finding it hard to manage the coins, they should call these back, like the Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes.”
As for the anti-national charge, he is not sure if that too can work for long. “They can book some of us for being desh-drohi, but many are getting ready for larger demonstrations.”