At almost any time of the year, Shirdi hosts a large floating population of perhaps 25,000 pilgrims from across the country visiting the famous temple of the early-20th century spiritual teacher, Shirdi Sai Baba. But this weekend, when the number of pilgrims usually spikes, the small town in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district wore a deserted look.

“Today is a Saturday, but nobody has come to my shop today,” complained Sangitatai, who runs a roadside slipper shop off the town’s main road. “As it is business has been bad because of the drought. Now this is yet another bad day. Whether it is good for the country we will see, or if this just creates more problems for us.”

The matter in question was the demonetisation move announced on Tuesday by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to tackle black money and fake currency. Notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 would not be legal tender from midnight, Modi said, leaving many pilgrims with no valid currency to spend.

Despite the gloom in business, however, patriotic sentiment abounded among those working in Shirdi’s small establishments.

Sachin Girhe, 19, manages Swaraj Restaurant with his uncle Sunil Soni. They have been selectively accepting Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes from customers. Despite the inconvenience, Girhe is happy about the demonetisation.

“All politicians have black money and they are stuck,” exulted Girhe. “We are managing from day to day, but their business is all worthless now.”

Soni and Girhe have been managing by changing their larger denomination notes at a discount of 10%. On normal days, the restaurant requires about Rs 2,000 to Rs 3,000 in change. Since the announcement, Soni buys around Rs 1,000 each morning and manages the rest of the day with cash flow from customers.

Does this not also contribute to black money?

“Yes, of course that is black money, but they will not be affected like politicians will be,” Girhe said. “The traders here have businesses of farms or trade and can explain their extra income to banks. Politicians have no such front.”

Sachin Girhe supports the prime minister's decision.
Sachin Girhe supports the prime minister's decision.

The business of Deepak Mali, who runs a mobile phone shop, has also plummeted. Like other business people in Shirdi, he too supported the demonetisation, but argued that it ought to have been planned better.

“Modi has done a very good thing, but he should have released the Rs 500 notes first,” he said. “But all these people who use plastic have more troubles than we do.”

The previous day, he explained, a group of pilgrims who had left from Surat for Shirdi on November 1 finally reached the town. All the money they had taken out from ATMs was of no use and they begged him for change. Mali did not have any.

“Where I used to have transactions worth Rs 1,000 each day, now I am doing Rs 200,” Mali said. “Customers are shouting at us if we don’t give change, but who is going to give change for Rs 2,000? I don’t even have Rs 10 in my pocket and am now finding it difficult to eat.”

Mali has been eating at nearby restaurants on the basis of credit, but is certain he will soon be able to access money again.

Optimistic to a limit  

GR Subramanyam has been making the trek from Mysore in Karnataka to Shirdi in Maharashtra for 20 years to sell woollen garments. The value of his goods varies between Rs 3 lakh and Rs 10 lakh. But Wednesday, his business has ground to a halt.

“The lalas in Karnataka are calling us and saying we should not take any Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes,” Subramanyam said. “We are still taking a few notes if customers buy high value sweaters, but this we will stop doing in three or four days because our problems will start from there.”

Despite his own precarious situation, Subramanyam was visibly happy at the idea of enduring this period for the larger good and kept emphasising his pride in playing his part in this.

“What difference does it make if we suffer for 10 to 20 days?” Subramanyam said. “We have to think of the country.”

Subramanyam spends four months in Shirdi after Diwali to repay his debt to the trader who procures the woollens each year from Ludhiana. For the rest of the year, he works on the trader’s land near Mysore as an agricultural labourer. Neither occupation has been going well of late, with droughts in both states. Ordinarily, he sends remittances to the trader every week via demand draft . He does not think he will be able to do that for at least one more week because of the rush at banks and is facing pressure from the trader.

“We don’t want to be rich, just to live by our own means,” he said. “With black money getting out of the system, Modi is giving us our izzat, our right to live without begging.”

GR Subramanyam at his stall.
GR Subramanyam at his stall.

There are signs that this optimism might wear off. Kishor Gangwal, proprietor of a wholesale shop, Gangwal and Sons, in Shirdi, was at first glad for the inconvenience to those who keep black money.

“For those of us who pay tax, this is justice,” he said. “Yes, we will suffer for two to four days, but at least the ones with black money will suffer.”

What if the shortage lasts longer than a few days?

“Our wholesale transactions happen online only, but our cash flow is down,” Gangwal said. “If our cash in hand gets over, then how will any market run? We can take only a limited amount from the banks. This situation should end soon.”

Out of the loop  

Those without robust social networks to tap into were particularly pinched.

Kantabai Shejwal, a ragpicker who survives on daily wages – no more than Rs 60 on a good day – has not been paid for three days.

“I don’t have Rs 500 notes at all, so there is no question of that being a problem for me,” she said. “But my seth is not paying me, saying he does not have change. We earn and we eat, how are we to manage?”

Shejwal’s granddaughter has had fever for the last few days, but without money, the family has been unable to take her to hospital. Her daughter’s husband has one Rs 500 note, but nobody is willing to give him change for that.

Meanwhile, rations are rapidly running out at their home. The ration shop at Shirdi has been shut for three days and Shejwal does not know why. Nor has she been able to make a yellow Below Poverty Line card that would entitle her to more rations when the shop finally opens.

Shirdi mein koi punyawan nahi hai,” Shejwal said. There is nobody in Shirdi who is virtuous. “Others can manage, but there is nobody here who will take care of us.”