Cyclone Vardah in the time of demonetisation: How Chennai is dealing with a double blow

With neither ATMs nor swiping machines working because of the power shutdown, people are struggling with the cash crunch.
Cyclone Vardah in the time of demonetisation: How Chennai is dealing with a double blow
Cyclone Vardah in the time of demonetisation: How Chennai is dealing with a double blow
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Kalyan S (name changed), a media professional in Chennai, says, "The whole idea of a digital India works when the infrastructure works". The current situation in the cyclone-ravaged city, he points out, is anything but so. 

The father of a month old baby, and son to diabetic parents, Kalyan had a harrowing time on Tuesday when he set out to get medicines for his parents. 

"I had just Rs 400 in cash with me and I had to buy food, fill petrol and get medicines. Even Saravana Bhavan refused to take card," he says. Since none of the shops would accept cards, Kalyan had to go to Central, to his in-laws' place, from his house in Anna Nagar to get money. 

While he understands that shops too don’t have internet connection needed for the swiping machines to work, he says that the demonetisation move should have been better planned and executed.

Two days after cyclone Vardah hit Chennai, city residents are struggling with the impact of the damage left by a severe storm amidst a cash crunch. Blocked roads, poor electricity and telephone connection are just the tip of the iceberg that Chennaites are facing now.

An HR Analytics Manager in the city, Prasanna Ramgopal from Adyar says that his area came to a standstill after the cyclone. One of the biggest challenges for him has been buying daily essentials. 

"70% of my transactions are done online. But I am having a problem when it comes to meeting daily needs, like buying essential commodities. Currently, I am getting work done on a rapport basis with the local vendors,” he says. 

ATMs too need electricity to work, but power outages in several parts of the city, have left very few functioning ATMs, inconveniencing residents further. The ones that do have cash, are mostly dispensing only Rs 2,000 notes and there's a dearth of change. 

“None of the ATMs has cash, there's no network to swipe the card. Yesterday (on Tuesday), petrol pumps were not ready to swipe. When we went to a hotel for lunch, they told us several times that they would only accept a cash payment. I saw many people with children going back because they did not have cash," says Savitha, a homemaker who stays in Perumbakkam. 

Arun Subramaniam, a patent consultant in Bengaluru, reached his parents' home in the city around 2 am on Sunday. With hardly any cash on him, he remembers the struggle at the toll booths that they had to endure. 

"One let us go realising that we didn’t have cash. Another insisted we paid in cash. There was no consistency,” he says. 

On reaching, he had to borrow cash from his mother to get things done. "We normally think we can swipe cards in supermarkets and hotels. But because of the cyclone, very few shops were even open and they were not accepting cards. ATM shutters were also down and people seemed to have given up," he says. 

Arun, however, adds that when on Tuesday he took an auto to Central, the driver told him that he had not been charging customers in the first half of the day due to the cash crunch. 

Avinash Kalla, a journalist who had travelled from Jaipur to Chennai also found himself in a tough situation.

"I could not find money in any ATM in Jaipur. In Chennai, it was tough to get taxis. At the hotel, since my card was working, things went well. When it was time for me to go back to the airport, the hotel could not arrange a car and I did not have money. Another customer had Rs 2,000 cash, but was not able to swipe his card to pay bill. So I offered to pay his bill (which he will return), and in exchange he took me in his cab," he says.

For some, the last few days have been nothing short of "mental trauma".

Deepa Binoj, an HR manager in a city firm, had just around Rs 300 in cash when the cyclone hit the city. "We don't have electricity for three days now because of which we don't have water. We have to manually get water from the well. I have kids at home. Cooking is not possible and if we go outside to eat, hotels aren't accepting cards," she says.

Deepa also adds the numerous outstation employees in her company live in hostels, and that they haven't been getting food in their accomodation since Monday. "The company is trying to make some arrangements but it is not sufficient. One vendor said he can't provide food because of the same problems that we are facing. We didn't even have breakfast or lunch today," she states.

When Sabarish Subramanian, a Masters student in Chicago, left from the US for Chennai on Sunday, little did he have any idea that the start to his winter vacation would be so tumultuous. 

His connecting flight from Abu Dhabi had been cancelled and he had no Indian currency with him. 

"Most currency exchange shops did not have any Indian currency. The only one to have it only had Rs 2,000 notes. I ended up exchanging $55, which is around Rs 2,800, to get Rs 2,000."

On Monday, he finally reached Chennai. "I couldn't book an Uber since I didn't have a local number. So, I hired an auto. Though the regular fare from the airport to my destination is around Rs 450, the driver asked me for Rs 900. I didn't have change and so I asked him to stop at any ATM on the way so that I could withdraw some cash (of lower denomination). But none of the ATMs were functional. I finally reached and took money from my sister to pay the driver," he says. 

Before landing in Chennai, Sabarish’s understanding of demonetisation was totally different. Now, he says, he understands that the real India works on a very different level, one that functions on currency notes predominantly. 

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