Outside the Reserve Bank of India’s (RBI’s) head office in Mumbai’s Fort area, a long queue of people wait every day to exchange Rs 2,000 banknotes. Among them, many are exchanging money that is not theirs. They have been commissioned by “agents” who offer them anything between Rs 300-500 per day to exchange the now-withdrawn Rs 2,000 currency notes. There are also “brokers” who offer spots up front for Rs 500 to those who have just arrived and want to skip the line.
The exchange of out-of-circulation Rs 2,000 currency notes seems to be a new kind of livelihood scheme that is running across several states in the country.
At 2 pm on Wednesday, the line outside Mumbai’s RBI office had shortened to about 150-200 people who were still waiting for their turn. Several of them said that they queued up outside the office at 3:30 am and often waited close to ten hours to get in. The process of exchanging notes starts at 9 am, and continues till about 3:30-4 pm, bystanders told The Core.
A few metres away from the main gate, a group of five to six women sat on the sidewalk under a banyan tree, having exited the bank after exchanging the currency. These women, like many others, were recruited by “agents” to get Rs 2,000 notes exchanged. Most came from far-flung suburbs, stood in lines in the wee hours of the morning, stayed until they exchanged the cash, got their commission and returned the next day.
None of the people The Core spoke to in Mumbai knew the source of the money they were exchanging.
The RBI head office in Fort, Mumbai is serving as the city’s office for exchanging Rs 2,000 notes for those who missed the October 7 deadline. The RBI announced in May this year that the Rs 2,000 denomination notes were being withdrawn from circulation. “A majority of the Rs 2,000 banknotes were issued prior to March 2017 and are at the end of their estimated life-span of 4-5 years. It has also been observed that this denomination is not commonly used for transactions,” the RBI said in a circular. This, and its ‘Clean Note Policy’ led to the withdrawal of the notes. They will continue to be legal tender though, the RBI has said.
The deadline to exchange or deposit the notes at all banks was September 30, 2023, which was later extended to October 7, 2023. After that, individuals could exchange notes – a total of ten notes at a time, or Rs 20,000 – at 19 RBI-issued offices, including Mumbai’s Fort office. The 19 also include offices in cities like Delhi, Kolkata, Bhubaneswar, Chandigarh, and more. All you need is identification proof — either an Aadhaar card, a PAN card or a driver’s licence.
A Quick Buck
N (name withheld on request), a resident of Govandi in her late thirties, told The Core that she was ‘recruited’ by an acquaintance of hers to come and exchange money for a small commission. She said she has been coming to the office for about eight days now and queues up at about 4 am and waits for her turn to exchange the currency given to her by her recruiter. She earns about Rs 300 for one exchange, she said.
Similarly, there are scores of others in the line travelling from suburbs like Bandra and Vashi, who have been recruited by “agents” to exchange notes that are not theirs for a commission of Rs 300-500 per day. S (name withheld on request), a resident of Mumbai Central said she heard about this from a friend and has come a few times, but is not regular and comes once a week. The money is good to get through the day, she said. “Din ka kharcha pani ho jata hai (the day’s expenses are seen through),” she told this reporter.
Both N and S are housewives otherwise, and were recruited by P (name withheld on request), a 27-year-old who lives near the office. P said she observed the long queues since August, which got longer in October, and has been recruiting people for over a month now. She gets the money from another agent, who she was reluctant to name.
P said that earlier she had a group of 7-8 people who would come everyday to exchange notes, but now they are only allowed to return once in 15 days. (The Core could not find any official communication from the RBI restricting individuals to once in 15 days.)
Seats for Sale
There’s another kind of agent milling around. This one, offering a spot up front for a commission, for those who don’t want to wait in line. R (name withheld on request) travels from Vashi every morning at 3:30 am to snap up spots and then spends the day hanging around the sidewalk offering individuals who want to skip the line a good spot for Rs 500. R is a tailor by profession, but has been travelling to Fort everyday for about a month for this. “People are too busy, they don’t have time to wait for ten hours in line, so they prefer to pay…it's good for us as well.”
When asked if he is not worried about security catching him, he claimed that the security guards also do this for a commission. Most agents milled about outside the RBI office in full view of security guards and staff.
Users on social media website ‘X’ (previously Twitter) have complained about not being able to exchange notes in time because ‘brokers’ or agents and recruits occupy the lines.
Exchanging of Rs 2000 notes not possible. Lots of broker occupied line illegally... @RBI— Biswajit Roy (@BiswajitRo77735) December 12, 2023
Other users have also claimed that they were approached by agents who would offer to exchange currency outside for a commission. This reporter also encountered agents who offered the same.
The Same Tale
A report by The Telegraph on Tuesday highlighted that the same practices are taking place outside the RBI office in Kolkata. Last month, The Indian Express reported that this was also happening in Odisha and that officers of central agencies and Odisha Police’s Economic Offences Wing (EOW) were probing the identities of the people in lines and the source of the money. Similar allegations were made in Navi Mumbai.
On December 1, the RBI said 97.26% of Rs 2,000 notes in circulation since May 19 have been returned to the banking system – either deposited or exchanged. It also said that notes worth Rs 9760 crore have not yet been deposited or exchanged.
It has not yet been notified until when the exchange at the RBI offices will be allowed. Some agents speculated that it would be until the end of this month. What then? "We'll go to our other jobs,” R said.