New Delhi, Dec. 1: The rush had started early. Breakfast can wait, banks won't.
It was payday and most people in the capital were already outside their nearest bank branch by 8, hoping to withdraw the elusive Rs 24,000 the Narendra Modi government has said they would be allowed to in a week.
Suhas Sharma had been hoping too but the look on his face as he exited a nationalised bank told the day hadn't started well.
"It's my own money, I worked for the entire month to earn my Rs 70,000 salary. Why can't I withdraw the entire amount if I wish to?" he asked.
Sharma was allowed to withdraw only Rs 4,000 because the bank was rationing money to ensure that the maximum number of people could be accommodated.
Sharma said he could use his card to buy necessities, he needed the cash to pay his domestic help, the plumber and a substantial amount to a carpenter he had hired to do some work at his house last month.
"How do I tell these people that I cannot give you your salary which is your own money? Is it fair to them?" Sharma said, alleging that many VIPs were getting cash more than the limit.
Branch managers, at both private and government banks, conceded that Delhi's VIP culture had made life difficult for them.
"Everyone is someone here. People are coming and dropping names, making calls to our seniors and we are being forced to give them the money they demand. If a VIP sends someone with a cheque for Rs 50,000, and we get a call sanctioning the payment, we have to pay up," a branch manager at a private bank in central Delhi told The Telegraph. "One of these days, I fear, I will be beaten up for letting certain people take cash out of turn."
VIPs are not exempt from the Rs 24,000-a-week limit but the cap is being flouted quite regularly for premium clients, several bank managers in Delhi said. Asked about the possible consequences after future audits, they shrugged.
This reporter found a police constable approaching one of the managers with a cheque for Rs 50,000. A heated conversation and a phone call later, the constable was guided to an official's room discreetly.
The banks, on their part, have found ways to keep the queues outside short: they are giving out tokens based on the cash they have and are shooing out the rest.
"I was given a token and the people behind me were asked to leave. Someone went inside to enquire and they were told that since people were withdrawing all of the Rs 24,000 that they are allowed to, the bank wasn't able to make payments to everyone," said Sukhwinder Singh, who was waiting for his turn at the IDBI Bank branch in Vaishali, Ghaziabad.
Singh, who runs a small business ferrying goods across the city, said he had no money to pay his labourers who take their daily wage in cash. "I have given them advances, but how much can I do?" he added.
An official of the HDFC Bank branch adjacent to the IDBI facility said his branch was receiving only Rs 8 lakh a day for disbursement and was running out of cash within an hour of opening. Some branches, like the Bank of India branch in central Delhi, restricted payment to Rs 12,000 per person today.
"People start queuing up from 8-8:30am and by the time we open at 10am, there are 100-150 people waiting. How many people can we pay with Rs 8 lakh, especially when people are withdrawing close to Rs 20,000 each," said the official.
Three bank branches - IDBI, HDFC and YES Bank - situated side by side in this middle-class locality in Vaishali had their ATM shutters down by 11 this morning. They had run out of cash.
"The banks don't have the money to dispense to the large number of customers," said C.H. Venkatachalam, general secretary of the All India Bank Employees' Association.
Most banks don't have enough 100-rupee notes. The new Rs 500 notes are trickling in slowly into ATMs and banks.
Still, none of those standing in the long queues, agitated as they were, complained about Prime Minister Modi's demonetisation drive that scrapped the old 500-rupee and 1,000-rupee notes. People spoke about their daily trudge to banks, about marriages being cancelled, about holidays being postponed, but none criticised the step the government announced on November 8.
MNC executive Prakash Singh had a possible explanation for the lack of protests. "See, Modi has been very clever in linking the demonetisation drive to a sense of morality. If you protest, you are either into black marketeering or hoarding cash or supporting those who do so. It is like people who give and accept dowry unwillingly to accept that in public, because the perception is that it is wrong to do so," Singh said.
"But that does not mean they are not angry. The next elections will be the determining factor," he added.
For now, though, the optics at least seemed to be in Modi's favour.
The central government, on its part, had already wooed its Group C employees by giving them an advance of Rs 10,000. Many had their salaries credited on November 30, allowing them a day's head start in withdrawing cash.
"Yesterday, as soon as my salary came in, I withdrew Rs 20,000. Today, I withdrew Rs 4,000 more. I don't want to stand in the line again. Last month I don't know how I survived as there was absolutely no cash available," said Chandan Singh, who works in the ministry of chemicals and fertilisers.
"Today it was much better as the bank has opened a few extra counters," Singh, who was exiting the Bank of Patiala at its Shastri Bhavan branch, added.
But Sanjeet Kumar, who works as a stenographer in the corporate affairs ministry, wasn't as lucky.
"I am standing in the queue almost every other day for 2-3 hours to withdraw cash from the ATM. I haven't been able to withdraw cash by cheque from my SBI account as there were long queues," Kumar said.
Kumar stood outside the Bank of Patiala ATM, where people had started queuing up since 7 this morning.