Saturday #125: Cash Crunch

I was standing in line at an ATM in Jaisalmer on the morning of Saturday #125 when a Dutch girl approached me and asked if I knew how much “us tourists” could withdraw. I told her that it didn’t matter if we were tourists or citizens, the most anyone could get from an ATM in India was Rs 2500 ($54 CDN). I explained that if she had large denomination notes of Rs 500 or Rs 1000, she could join a separate line inside the bank where the lone teller would exchange up to Rs 4500 per day for old but still valid Rs 100 notes or a combination of old Rs 100 notes and new Rs 2000 notes. Confused? Welcome to India.
  
The current banking situation in India – which some are calling a crisis of cataclysmic proportions and others are treating as little more than a minor annoyance – is the result of a November 8th announcement by Prime Minster Narenda Modi. 

Under Modi’s “demonetization” program, most of the country’s currency immediately ceased to be legal tender. True, the Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes can be exchanged at banks until December 30, but there are three conditions: (1) You can only exchange Rs 4500 per day; (2) You must do so in person; (3) You must produce identification. And with the amount of information that is collected at an Indian bank, it’s clear that Tax Auditor will be a pretty safe job for years to come.


Put it this way, if you ran a business and happened to be laying on a mattress stuffed with cash when Modi broke into prime time TV programs to make his surprise announcement, you probably didn’t get much sleep that night.

I saw a news report about a government official who was stopped for a traffic violation on the morning after Modi’s announcement. The fact that India has traffic laws seemed newsworthy to me but the story was about what the police found in the trunk of the low-riding Lexus. It was FULL of cash. The story didn’t state where the guy got the cash or what he was planning to do with it, but it inferred that he was “headed to the cleaners.”  With so much at stake, I’m sure there are ways that corrupt government officials got their cash exchanged before the announcement or have found ways of doing so in the aftermath while the average barber or tuk tuk driver is screwed.

The Dutch girl decided that she had enough small cash for the rest of her trip and she would eat the cost of the few large bills that she had back at the hotel. I told her that ladies are often ushered to the front of the line at ATMs while the men stand around and smoke, drink chai, and tell stories, but she insisted that she could make do with what she had.

I did not have that luxury. I had a hotel bill and a train ticket to pay and about five hours before I was scheduled to leave for Jodhpur.  Unfortunately I got to within 10 people of the ATM at the SBBJ Bank when a collective groan went up.  The screen flashed: “Sorry, out of cash.”

“Out of luck,” said the guy in line behind me.  He also said that there was another SBBJ branch just a few blocks away so most of us headed in that direction.


There were over 200 people in line when we arrived at the much smaller second branch but miraculously we all managed to get our daily allotment.  Was it pure luck?  Most of the Indians who had been in line with me for the last hour knew the answer – they had each taken the liberty of rubbing the bald guy’s head for good luck!

On the way back to the hotel I noticed a small line of about 20 people at a branch of ICICI Bank. I decided to see if the Indian banking system is sophisticated enough to know that I had already withdrawn my daily allotment at SBBJ Bank. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to test my theory as the ATM ran dry just a few minutes after I got in line.

The guy that I had been chatting with for no more than five minutes got on his phone and determined that a bank about 5 km away was still spitting out cash. A few words were exchanged in Hindi but when he got off the phone he told me that his friend had a motorcycle and would soon come around to pick him up. I was welcome to join them.

A few minutes later a motorcycle showed up with TWO guys onboard. There was no way that four could ride on this bike (at least not with me being one) so the guy that I had known for all of 10 minutes said that he could do without cash for another day and that I should get on the bike and his two friends would take me to the distant ATM.

I’m sure many tourists would be reluctant to get on a motorcycle with two strange young men, especially when the conversation in Hindi was probably about me having an iPhone 7 and a whack of credit and debit cards. For some people the only mystery would be whether they would be dumped in an alley before or after withdrawing a few thousand rupees. 

This would be a legitimate concern in many countries but in small-town Rajasthan I was willing to throw caution to the wind. Not wearing a helmet and riding three deep on a bike might be a tad risky, but the chance of being mugged in Jaisalmer was not a huge concern in my mind.


Thirty minutes later the guys dropped me off at my hotel, safe and sound. I had my phone, my cards and a brand new Rs 2000 note in my pocket.  I offered the driver all the small bills that I had – about Rs 200 – but he simply wouldn’t hear of it. I snapped the above photo, thanked them profusely, and just as they were about to pull away I managed to slip a few bills into the second guy’s chest pocket.
 
Another Saturday, another pretty decent adventure in Rajasthan.

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