money in Calcutta

NEWS ITEM: ‘Few takers for 1,000-rupee notes in Kolkata’ (Times of India, 16th August 2011)

The article states:

The city where the cheapest bus ride is five bucks and the base metro fare even cheaper doesn’t have much of an appetite for the ‘big note'[…] It’d rather make do with small change — there is a perennial shortage of coins in Kolkata[…]You would hardly find an ATM in Kolkata that dispenses 1000 rupee notes. “Customers here don’t like getting thousand rupee notes,” said an official of UBI. “Customers are apprehensive about the 1000 note. They fear the notes could be fake,” he added.

I will go one step further. Even 500-rupee notes are not wanted in Calcutta! Rs500 notes (like $10) are considered ‘big notes’ and roundly denied by shopkeepers.

I tried one day as an experiment to pay for things with a 500-rupee note. First I went to a bunch of Barabazaar restaurants. I tried to order Rs20 lassis and pay with a 500. I was turned away at three restaurants.

Next I went to three or four restaurants along Chowringhee. I was flatly turned away at each place as soon as they saw a Rs500 bill come out of my pocket. It is a big disconcerting: India is the sort of place where, in general, everyone is jumping over everyone else to sell you something, anything: but really, all it takes to make a tout go away is a glimpse of a Rs500 note.

Finally, on a whim, I bought a two-litre bottle of water (Rs25) at a Muslim stall near New Market. They made a big production out of it, going on at length about how I was cleaning them out of change, and then emptying a drawer of change, trying to throw in soap, shampoo, and “biscuit” as substitutes for change, but in the end I got my Rs475.

I went to take the metro (where, as the article notes, rides go for about Rs3) and when I got to front of the line I saw a poor fellow waiting there, looking sullen and dejected.

“I need to buy a metro ticket, but they don’t have change!” he cried, waving a bill around in the air. “Do you have change for a 500?”

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