Early on a winter morning at the Chuna Mandi labour adda near Paharganj in Delhi, the capital’s “dispensables” were gathering to scour for their day’s work, as they do every day. The fog was yet to set in, and the air had a sharp nip. The mood among the casual workers was visibly downbeat.

Ramsharan, a middle-aged resident of a cramped night shelter in the vicinity, responded to our queries about the effects of demonetisation. As he spoke of the enhanced hardships thrust upon them by the cash crunch, several others crowded around, pitching in with palpable anguish. When we asked whether the government was justified in saying that the pain caused by notebandi is worth it for the greater good it holds for the country, Ramsharan said with a wry smile, “Yes, it is perhaps good for the country, but it is not good for the poor.” It was clear that in his eyes, the interests of the country and those of the poor did not match. Rather, these had become two opposing poles, and the poor no longer featured in “the country”.

Current discourse focused around catch phrases such as digital surge, cashless down payments, mobile banking, and smart economy is relevant only to a very small, privileged section of our society. It is, however, a discourse that is reinforced through television advertisements, radio broadcasts and other digital, print and social media. It is also a discourse into which the government’s demonetisation decision neatly fits in. In the last few weeks, the counter-narratives critiquing demonetisation – questioning its core economic illogic, its irrational foundation, its partisan political underpinnings, and its futility in terms of hard facts – have been muted. At the same time, the many hardships that are bruising and crushing the lives of the poor because of the sudden withdrawal of cash from the economy are being systematically invisibilised and minimalised.

While speaking out against the policies of demonetisation and dismantling its logic is one way of changing the discourse, another way is to make visible the people who are not on the government’s radar but are shouldering the real burden of demonetisation. In an attempt to do so, over a period of three days in the country’s capital, we visited labour addas, women engaged in home-based work, the Azadpur Mandi, government-supported homeless shelters, and marketplaces. We briefly interacted with people who, even under normal circumstances, have learnt to live with uncertainty and in the harshest of conditions. Demonetisation has succeeded in tipping them over the edge on which they were surviving. If these are people who might have found their only solace in the feeling that they really don’t have much to lose, this government has proved them wrong.

Labourers at a loss

“Even after a whole day’s work, on several occasions, we have had to refuse payment as our employers offered old notes.” We heard variations of this grievance at two labour addas in Chuna Mandi. Daily-wage workers who earn their living from one day to the next cannot afford to accept old notes that require them to give up a day or more of work to stand in long queues at banks. Many also have no identity cards, making it impossible for them to exchange the currency. However, most have been forced to accept the old notes, as the only other option is no work and no wages. Many also spoke of how, sometimes, they are promised payment in new notes, only to be paid in the old ones. Their desperation makes them easy prey for employers who wish to get rid of their now invalid currency.

At another labour adda in Chandni Chowk, many daily-wagers said they had been forced to sell their old Rs 500 notes to touts for Rs 300, losing almost half their wages in the process. These are examples of how the burden of exchanging old currency is being forced upon the poorest while the upper crust is comfortable in their cashless paradise.

The men we spoke to were from a range of states: Bihar, Odisha, Jharkhand, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and even faraway Manipur. Most of them dwell on the pavements, shooed away by shop owners, while the lucky ones spend Rs 10 a night to sleep at “free” government-supported homeless shelters. The all-round workers – who take up plumbing, construction, digging and load-carrying, for example – usually manage to make up to Rs 400 on a good day. In speaking to us, they were unequivocal in their anguish that the demand for work has suffered a blow and so have their wages. “Bahut farak pada hai,” was the running refrain as they all grumbled in small huddles.

Kishore, who drives a rented cycle rickshaw, said his daily earnings vary between Rs 100 and Rs 200, but since notebandi, no one wants to take a cycle rickshaw. Those who do pay Rs 10 for a ride that usually costs Rs 30.

These addas, where 400 to 500 people gather in the hope of work, are populated by those who have cut themselves off from their roots completely, or are seasonal migrants from the rural hinterland. While the former are the worst-hit with nowhere to fall back on, the latter are being forced to return to their villages. This reverse migration is not because of the promise of work back home, but because of the inability to sustain themselves in the city.

The relatively skilled workers – the rajmistris and painters – seemed slightly better off, but even they admitted that “assar toh padi hai”. One could not hide his anger. “What work? Where is the work?” he exclaimed in exasperation. “When has there last been work?”

Some among them identified themselves as agents, one of whom retorted, “In a normal week, a labourer gets five to seven days of work but nowadays, there is work only for two or three days a week.”

At another labour adda on a pavement outside the historic Town Hall in Chandni Chowk, skilled masons with their tools wrapped in plastic bags went about looking for work at construction sites. They again come from different faiths and regions, but have formed a brotherhood of their own, sleeping side by side on the pavement for many years, their tool bags serving as pillows. Their misfortune began even before notebandi, with a ban on construction work in the Capital. Policy makers, judges and politicians ordered the ban rightly to combat pollution, but spared no thought for ways to mitigate the enforced destitution of several thousand men and women who work on construction sites.

Home-based workers hit

Women engaged in home-based piecework at Filmistaan make as little as Rs 30 in an entire day. That too is now lost. Photo: Vivek Mishra

“[Prime Minister Narendra] Modi has robbed me of my earnings of Rs 30 a day,” a vehement Lalkumari said when we visited her home in a winding alleyway near Filmistaan in Karol Bagh. Lalkumari, like other women in her household and in the neighbourhood, works from home assembling and packaging keychains. She earns an incredible Rs 3 for each set of 144 keychains – referred to in jest here as 144 dhara (the proverbial Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code that bans unlawful assembly), all piecework in this area is valued in sets of 144, and yields dehumanising earnings. On average, she makes between Rs 24 and Rs 30 after eight to 10 hours of work.

As we stepped into her ramshackle abode, she was making chapatis on firewood. She explained that she had been forced to discontinue her LPG connection as her supplier refused to accept old notes.

There are no uniform norms that govern work in this sector. The range in work rate as well as availability of work goes hand in hand with the range of employers. Anjali, with flying fingers, did not stop packaging the keychains for even a second as she narrated her story to us while we squatted beside her in her tiny home. This was to our great relief as taking up her time felt tantamount to stealing from her.

Anjali has managed to acquire a better rate for herself: she receives Rs 3 for assembling 144 keychains and another Rs 3 for packaging the same. She and her mother earn between Rs 100 and Rs 150 a day, thanks mostly to Anjali’s speed and persistence. She explained that she has been engaged in this work since she was 11 years old. That stopped after November 8, she noted. It started again a few days ago with small amounts of material being delivered to her home. She spoke of the break in work as an abnormality. Lalkumari agreed, saying they earlier received 10 sacks of material per week but that had now dwindled to a single sack, with no signs of improvement.

Work, however, has not reduced for her husband – a tempo driver transporting clothes to and from the market. But for the last three to four days, he has had to work without pay as his employer has no cash to give. As the family struggles to make ends meet, they are faced with tough choices. The neighbourhood shopkeeper has refused to give daily consumables on credit, and despite instructions to government schools to accept old currency, the school Lalkumari’s son attends is demanding fees in new notes. As she vented, all her rage focussed on one person: Narendra Modi. Not the government. Just him. The curses flowed freely.

Our guide in Karol Bagh, Fatima, who also goes by the name Vimla, used to make a living through piecework at home. In her old age, her speed and eyesight are not what they used to be. She has instead opened a small stall on the footpath, selling cloth pieces that she sources from Seelampur in Northeast Delhi. She spoke about the difficulty of providing for her ailing husband and sounded bleak about the future. Before notebandi, the shop made an average profit of Rs 1,000 a month, but even this contributed to covering certain household expenses. Nowadays, there are hardly any customers, and sales have reduced greatly.

Markets in the red

At the Seelampur market, the owner of a small garment shop said, “Before demonetisation, there was no place to step and now, you can lie down on the street in the heart of the market.” The deserted look of the small metal-cutting units, eateries and scattered retail shops was palpable. He pointed out that though it was almost winter and, hence, peak time for manufacturers of jeans and jackets, the factories were all closed and the labourers had all returned home. “If there isn’t even enough money in circulation for material costs, how are factories supposed to pay their labourers?” he asked.

At the next shop, dealing in low-cost bags and completely empty, the owner, Irfan, explained that his customers are mostly factory workers. “When they travel home, they buy bags from me as gifts for their children,” he said. “This time, they have all left empty-handed.” Irfan makes an average profit of Rs 10,000 to Rs 20,000 a month. In November, however, his total sales were between Rs 2,000 and Rs 3,000. When we asked whether he had a bank account, Irfan said he does have one but cannot access it as there are only three banks in the area, all running short on cash and with impossibly long queues.

A vegetable vendor standing nearby added, “Demonetisation has turned us all into beggars.”

On our way out of the market, we came across two wage labourers employed in a metal-cutting unit who were to travel back to Bihar the next day. They said they had tried to stay on as long as possible and taken loans from their employers, but with no money for food or rent, they were out of options. They indicated that at least 300-400 labourers working in metal-cutting units in this market alone had already returned to their villages.

Muted Azadpur Mandi

At the Azadpur vegetable market, a small trader said, “I used to buy 15 sacks of potato and onion from this mandi every week but this has now come down to four.” He explained that customers in his locality are primarily migrant labourers, and most of them have gone back home. The demand for even basic vegetables like potato and onion has waned in the weeks following demonetisation. The longer the stock remains with him, the more it loses its value, he added.

The trader said daily trade at the mandi, too, has reduced by 25%-30%. This has meant less work for labourers dependent on the mandi, such as porters and tempo drivers. Making payments in cash has become increasingly difficult, explained Rakesh, who manages the Delhi Tempo Transport Union and is now paying his drivers through cheques. “I know this means greater hardship for the drivers but what do I do? I have no cash either,” he said.

We spoke to a farmer who makes regular trips to the city from Alwar in Rajasthan to sell his onions here. The cost of the staple has come down from Rs 18 a kg to Rs 11, he said. “I spend Rs 10 per kg from production to transport and get only Rs 11 for it,” he added. “Kaise chalega?”

Suresh, the owner of one of the companies that facilitates trade at the mandi, said the weekly withdrawal limit of Rs 50,000 for current account holders was unrealistic as daily cash transactions in his company amount to between Rs 1.5 lakhs and Rs 2 lakhs. He was quick to direct his frustration at the government and, more specifically, the prime minister.

Business is drastically down at the Azadpur Mandi in Delhi. Photo: Nandini Dey

Hitting the homeless, destitute

Sabina, a homeless woman at a government-supported shelter at Urdu Park near the Jama Masjid, agreed. “If Modi was forced to resign because of this, I would distribute sweets,” she said. “But only among the kids. At least they didn’t vote him to power.”

During our visit to the area, we also spoke to ragpickers, rickshaw-pullers and domestic workers. Tara, who works as a domestic help, said she earlier made Rs 50 from cleaning utensils but now gets only Rs 20. Conditions are as difficult if not more for those engaged in rag-picking. They said cartons that would earlier sell for Rs 8 a kg were now fetching Rs 3. Similarly, iron waste normally went for Rs 20 a kg but was now selling for Rs 8. Even water bottles that sold for Rs 25 a kg were going for Rs 8 to Rs 9. They said the kabadiwalas (dealers in waste material) turned them back saying, “Note nahin hai, kahan se denge?”

At the shelter for the homeless, Shazia and several other women who beg on the streets of Old Delhi said they had initially unknowingly given away notes of smaller denomination in exchange for Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes offered in “charity”. Shazia said their daily earnings had fallen by at least 65% and they were unable to make ends meet. With little to eat, they had no option but to stand in queues at shrines where sometimes they waited for hours before being served food. In this context, the prime minister’s flippant comment about beggars with swipe card machines appears vulgar and reeks of a deeper systemic rot in the public conscience.

In the homeless shelters, the mood is desperate. A young man living with HIV in a recovery home at Geeta Ghat, with no one to call his own, cried out as we walked past his bed. He held up an old Rs 500 note. “This is all I have,” he said. “What can I eat? How do I buy medicines? How will I live?”

No country for the poor

Saanp ko pakkad nahin paye, toh poora jangal jala diya (They couldn’t catch the snake, so they set the whole forest on fire)” – was a proverb that we came across more than once during our varied interactions. The snake can be seen to represent the entirety of black wealth. In the financial year 2015-’16, only 5%-6% of detected black wealth was in the form of cash. Demonetisation, thereby, safely keeps out of its purview the lion’s share of black wealth, which is stashed in foreign currency, gold, real estate, stocks and shares. Moreover, there is no evidence till date of even the insignificant amount of black money that is stored in cash being retrieved. With homespun wisdom, this adage punctures the tall claims of the government that demonetisation will end black money corruption.

At the same time, the burning forest vividly depicts the destructive repercussions that the process of demonetisation continues to have on its citizens. However, the experience of the abrupt and drastic withdrawal of 86% of the country’s cash varies greatly. Mukesh Ambani has, for instance, pledged his support and praised Modi for having spearheaded this process. For many others who constitute the upper-middle class, the burden of demonetisation is limited to long ATM queues in which helpers stand on their behalf. For the majority, however, it has meant that the little bit of stability they had built for themselves through hard work and tough sacrifice has come crashing down.

So, when Ramsharan in the labour adda in Chuna Mandi said that demonetisation “is probably good for the country, but it is not good for the poor”, he understood well that the imagination of “the country” for makers of policy excludes entirely the country’s poor. Of course, it is debatable if demonetisation is good even for this reduced country. But what is indisputable is that when passing this harsh and sweeping measure, the government imagined a country of people with plastic cards and functional and accessible bank accounts. Marginalised people were nowhere in this government’s line of sight. For the middle classes, it is possible to argue that demonetisation has resulted in temporary inconveniences. However, for the country’s vast working classes, it has struck at their very survival.

As we traversed the casualised crevices of the city, Ramsharan’s words echoed through our hearts and minds. This, indeed, is no country for the poor.