NEW DELHI — It has been more than three weeks since India abruptly declared high-denomination currency bills to be invalid in its fight against corruption and counterfeit money, but the panic and desperation that the move generated have not abated.
On Thursday, India’s first payday since the currency ban, the rush for cash has made the situation even worse, and bank employees are fearing for their lives as irate customers can't get the cash they need.
Four printing presses across India are working overtime to generate new bills, but the supply has yet to even approach the demand.
Indian media has reported that since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise announcement Nov. 8, dozens of people have died of heart attacks because of the serpentine lines snaking their way to banks and ATMs. A few people have committed suicide because they could not get cash in time for family weddings and farm work.
On Wednesday, hundreds of angry customers blocked traffic on a highway, damaged vehicles and threw stones at police when their banks ran out of cash in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. In one town, bank clerks were so frightened that they ran to the nearest police station to escape the irate crowd.
On Thursday, citizens lined up to withdraw parts of their salaries, and others waited for hours for their monthly retirement pensions.
“There is an acute shortage of cash in the banks and ATMs. We have only 25 percent of what is required at this time of the month when salaries are taken out by about 20 million people,” said C.H. Venkatachalam, general secretary of the All India Bank Employees Association.
Now, the bank employees have asked the government for special police protection from angry mobs.
“The bank staff are facing unimaginable mob anger and abuse. In some cases, the angry crowd has locked them up from outside, and the staff had to call the police to come and rescue them,” Venkatachalam said.
He said the employees have been asked to be patient and understand the reasons for the public anger.
“I have been standing in the line for four hours like a beggar to take out my own hard-earned money,” said Rajesh Pant, a 35-year old salesman. “I have to pay for my milkman, vegetable seller, cook. So many poor people only accept cash.”
Many Indians took to Twitter to display their payday pangs.