Banknote crackdown leaves India out of cash

By Anto Antony, Anirban Nag

Unaccounted money makes up nearly a quarter of economy
India's new 2000 rupee notes won't fit existing ATM machines, adding to the country's problems. Photo / Bloomberg
India's new 2000 rupee notes won't fit existing ATM machines, adding to the country's problems. Photo / Bloomberg

From keeping Indian defence jets at the ready to transfer cash from mints, to banks knocking on the doors of religious institutions to get smaller change, Indian ingenuity is being stretched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's cash ban to crack down on unaccounted money.

India's cash economy has been thrown into turmoil since Modi announced last week that 500 and 1000 rupee notes would cease to be legal tender and would have to be deposited at banks by the end of the year, leaving about one-seventh of currency in circulation. Economists say the move will be beneficial in the long run as it aims to weed out tax evasion and corruption.

Unaccounted money makes up nearly a fourth of the economy. In the short term though, the biggest crackdown on money laundering in India's history is having some unusual side-effects. Here are some unintended consequences.

Defence Jets

Military aircraft are on standby to airlift cash from mints across India to remote corners of the country.

"Depending on urgency, security and non-availability of commercial aircraft, requests for support from the Indian Air Force is within standing procedures," a spokeswoman for the Reserve Bank of India said.

Banknotes are usually transported from printing presses owned by the central bank to some 4000 vaults around the country, then to bank branches in specially-built trucks with gunners for security. Since the crackdown, new bills have been airlifted by helicopter from Patna after reports of shortages in Bokaro and Jamshedpur, a Finance Ministry official said.

Rolex Demand

There was a surge in demand for luxury watches after Modi's sudden announcement, as wealthy Indians rushed to make costly purchases with unaccounted cash.

One luxury watch outlet in northwest Mumbai sold 45 Rolex watches on a single day, said a representative of a watchmaker, who was present when the sales took place. Demand matched what the shop would usually sell in a month and the store had to turn away customers, the person said.

A new gold rush also emerged soon after Modi's announcement. "Jewellers who had shut shop for the day on November 8 had to reopen their stores within a couple of hours and were selling gold up to 4 am," said Chirag Thakkar, a director at gold wholesaler Amrapali Group.

"Customers were lining up with bags of cash. Some jewellers even had to call the police to organise the crowds."

Customers paid as much as 52,000 rupees per 10 grams, almost double the current prices, he said.

Retirees Return

State-run banks have called retired employees to man new makeshift counters where the banned banknotes are being exchanged for new ones. Bank employees have been working long hours without breaks to ease the transition and the government has told lenders to provide them with transportation and food, said All India Bank Employees' Association General Secretary CH Venkatachalam.

Trucks Abandoned

About half of an estimated 9.3 million trucks under the All India Motor Transport Congress were off the road eight days after the announcement as drivers abandoned vehicles mid-way into their trips after running out of cash, said Naveen Gupta, secretary general of the group. India's roads carry about 65 per cent of the country's freight.

Drivers don't have enough money for food, truck maintenance and to make payments at border check posts. "It will take a few more days for the situation to normalise," Gupta said.

Cash Machines

Compounding the problem of pumping new money into the system is the need to reconfigure the country's 220,000 cash machines so they can dispense the new 500 and 2000 rupee notes, which do not fit into existing ATM cash trays, said Navroze Dastur, the managing director for India and South Asia at NCR, which supplies about two-thirds of the country's machines. Dastur said it will take as much as a month to adjust all the ATMs.

Free Coffee

In Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, Starbucks has been serving free coffee to people waiting for many hours in queues in front of ATMs and banks.

Turning to Religion

India's religious institutions are opening up their donation boxes to help people meet their day-to-day needs. Martin De Porres church in the Ernakulam district of Kerala, a south Indian state, decided to open its donation boxes after seeing the public's suffering, Jimmy Poochakkatt, the parish priest, told India Today magazine.

Shree Dharma Shastha Mahavishnu Temple in Mumbai also opened its offering box, said Raghunath Raghavan, president of the temple trust.

Lenders are also reaching out to religious places to ask them to deposit funds given by devotees to bring currency back in circulation and ease the shortage, according to a statement from the Finance Ministry.

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