Anger and scuffles as Indians crowd banks to swap banknotes

People crowd inside a bank to deposit and exchange discontinued currency notes in Allahabad, India, on November 12, 2016. Rajesh Kumar Singh / AP Photo
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NEW DELHI // Chaotic scenes played out across India on Saturday, with scuffles breaking out as millions of anxious people stood in long queues to change currency notes that the government had declared worthless.

There were minor stampedes at two banks in the capital’s old quarter when thousands of people waiting in line surged forward.

Paramilitary troops posted at banks in some of the most congested areas of New Delhi walked among the crowds urging people to stay calm, but frustrations grew as reports came in that some banks had run out of new currency notes.

Delhi police said they received more than 3,000 calls reporting fights and scuffles in the city on Friday as people crowded outside banks, waiting to exchange old notes or withdraw money. On Saturday, they had received nearly 200 calls in the four hours since the banks opened at 9am.

In the southern India, furious crowds smashed glass panes and vandalised a bank branch in the city of Kollam after the manager announced that it had run out of the new bills.

The government made a surprise announcement on Tuesday that all 500 and 1,000-rupee notes in circulation no longer had any value, and introduced a redesigned 500-rupee note and a new 2,000-rupee note in their place.

Prime minister Narendra Modi said the move was taken to tackle corruption and tax evasion, but there has been growing public resentment over the government’s handling of the switch.

“I am so angry at the lack of planning on the part of the government before taking such an enormous step,” said Raju Sundaram, an executive who had been waiting in line for four hours outside a bank in the south Delhi neighbourhood of Saket.

Mr Sundaram said he was queuing for a third day. “On Thursday and Friday, they ran out of cash before my turn,” he said, as he clutched a bunch of identity papers and a bottle of water.

Scuffles also broke out at ATMs after they ran out of bills.

More than half of the more than 200,000 ATMs in the country have not yet been reconfigured to dispense the new notes. The finance minister Arun Jaitley said on Saturday that the process would take several more weeks.

He said the recalibration could not have been done in advance to ensure the planned currency change was kept secret.

Meanwhile, anger was mounting as people, frustrated with the delays and long hours spent in serpentine lines, lost their cool, lashing out at the government and bank employees.

“If it’s bad outside the bank, it’s complete chaos inside,” said Suniti Kumar, a housewife, as she elbowed her way out of a bank through a restive crowd.

Bank staff, who have been working long hours or in shifts, appeared helpless.

“This is a hugely disruptive step,” said a bank teller in Delhi’s shopping hub of Connaught Place, as he stepped outside for a cigarette. “It required a lot more planning, but that didn’t happen.”

* Associated Press and Agence France-Presse