India's ATMs are running out of cash and people are furious

By Annie Gowen

People queue outside a bank to withdraw money in India's capital, New Dehli. Photo / AP
People queue outside a bank to withdraw money in India's capital, New Dehli. Photo / AP

Ankitha Konanki was waiting outside her third ATM of the day in Mumbai, hoping against hope she'd finally be able to score some money after three days of being totally cashless. Things got so bad she had to beg the cafeteria at her school to let her open a charge account to buy lunch.

"There are such long queues everywhere! So many problems!" lamented Konanki, 21, a master's degree student in luxury management. "I have nothing. Not even a penny."

Four days after the India government's surprise move to scrap larger denominations and issue new bills, banks have been overwhelmed by people seeking to exchange and deposit old bills. Tempers flared Friday as Indians ran low on cash after many ATMs remained shuttered or out of service across a nation where cash is king and use of credit cards lags far behind.

Government officials said the decision intended to target the wealthy, who have large stashes of unreported currency.

But the immediate impact this week was felt across income brackets. By week's end, India's cranky citizenry were quickly running out of money to pay the corner store, the beauty salon, the vegetable vendor.

One unexpected group of victims was homemakers who had stashed away pin money.

They now either have to come clean to their husbands or open up a bank account -- a group quickly labeled "India's desperate housewives."

Meanwhile, the wealthy lamented their losses behind closed doors in private clubs.

Temples sealed their donation boxes to prevent worthless bills from being donated. After an initial flurry of activity, Mumbai's busy gold sellers' street went quiet.

Banks had reopened Thursday with new currency, a 2,000 rupee note (about US$30), but there were limits on how much Indians could withdraw at one time. Many ATMs had yet not been configured to dispense the new 2,000 rupee bill, according to the financial newspaper Mint.

Officials from the Indian National Congress Party and other politicians criticized the surprise move.

"Only normal people are suffering from this hasty decision," said Uddhav Thackeray, the chief of the Hindu nationalist party Shiv Sena.

Amit Shah, the president of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party, struck back at critics, saying the move dealt a blow to terror groups and shady operators, and that the "common people and honest taxpayers" had no reason to worry.

But the Reserve Bank of India sought to reassure the public, issuing a statement Friday saying that government had "enough cash available" and asking that the public be patient in the days to come.

The public can exchange their outdated bills at banks through to December 30.

- Washington Post

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