note demonetisation

Ground report: In Bihar, murmurs of protest break the sullen silence against demonetisation

Patience is running thin in Banka, a small town near Bhagalpur. Come December 31, these murmurs could become roars if cash supply does not improve.

A month after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the scrapping of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes on November 8, the mood in Banka is sullen.

Business in this trading town, about 50 kilometres to the south of Bhagalpur in central Bihar, is down.

Muhammad Saina, a young man in his early 20s, who minds a middling mobile phone shop in the town used to sell five to 10 phones in a day. Now, he said, it is one or two phones a day.

Traders in myriad other businesses, from garment-sellers to fishmongers, had similar experiences to narrate about the impact of cash crunch, or notebandi, when the government invalidated 86% of the currency in circulation.

“There is no business,” said a Muslim businessman who did not want to be identified. “We are not able to pay the rent for our shops. We are living off our savings.”

Further down the road, Krishna Kumar, who runs a cloth store called Rangoli, echoed the same sentiment of lost business. “Things were particularly bad in November,” he said. “They have improved a bit but are still below the usual level.”

Despite these losses over the past month, like the rest of India, Banka has stayed calm.

A calm nation?

Banka was the last stop before returning to Patna in this reporter’s travels from North Bihar to South Bihar, to get a sense of how notebandi was impacting the structures of everyday life.

The journey had started with Raxaul, on the India-Nepal border, on November 18, exactly 10 days after notebandi was announced. Heading south, stopping at Bettiah, Gopalganj and Darbhanga and Gaya before reaching Bhagalpur, the common finding along the road was predictable.

As in other parts of the country, economic activity had fallen steeply in every town – be it Raxaul, Bettiah, Patna or elsewhere. In each of them, cash was in short supply, people were struggling to find work. Farm prices had collapsed in parts of the state. In other places, vegetables were being rerouted to bigger markets where there was still some purchasing power. Migrants had returned from the towns where they had been working.

Given this litany of hurt, what was less easy to understand was the popular reaction. As in the rest of India, despite grave difficulties, people had stayed calm. In the weeks gone by, several hypotheses had been advanced to explain this. Did people support notebandi despite difficulties? Did they think, as some people in a village near Gaya said, that notebandi would result in lower inflation and reduce inequality?

In that village, support for notebandi had stemmed from anger about greater inequity over land ownership. One zamindar owned 1,200 acres – which he had stopped giving out to his fellow villagers for sharecropping. The result? Every household in the village eked out a living by either working as labour in Gaya or migrating outside Bihar to work in brick kilns even as the land in their village lay fallow.

That explanation, interesting as it was, did not explain the calm in Bihar’s towns and cities.

Stifled dissent

Banka district has about 20 lakh people. The town, also called Banka, is about 12% Muslim.

Some of the Muslim traders were angry about notebandi. “Soch bahut achchhii hai lekin kaamyaabi kaise milegi woh nahin sochaa,” said a businessman who did not want to be identified. It is a good idea but the government has not thought through its implementation.

This poor planning, they said, had pushed them back by 10 years: “We’ve been pushed much further back than where we started from.”

If they were so angry, why were they not speaking out? The traders had several answers. The first was closely linked to their desire to not be identified. The local discourse had worsened, they said: “If you oppose it, you get called anti-national.”

They were also, said the traders, struggling to understand what was going on: “We are trying a lot, but are unable to understand.”

The media, they added, was not helping. “I watch eight news channels every day,” said one of them. “One says 35% of ATMs are working. Another says 100% of ATMs are working. We are watching them all and trying to understand which is speaking the truth by comparing what they say to our local situation.”

At the same time, they said, Banka was not seeing any local leader pick up the issue of demonetisation.

This echoed what Banso Devi (pictured above), a widow in Riga, a village abutting Banka, had said the previous day. In her village, people had not found work since the start of notebandi. Widowed last year, she said, she had been subsisting on “namak-roti”, salt and roti, in the absence of work.

Why was she silent? “Where do we go to protest?” she asked. “Who is shouting slogans so that we can go and follow them?”

Local politics

The reason why the Muslims did not want to share their names was clear shortly after the conversation with the traders ended. Kumar Gaurav, a local farmer and Bharatiya Janata Party member with a saffron mark on his forehead, standing nearby, stopped this reporter. “You should also ask me what I think of notebandi,” he said.

He was in favour of both notebandi and less cash. The first, he said, had ended corruption. Crime would come down, he added, once people started carrying less cash around.

He also challenged what the traders had said about a cash crunch. “Anyone who tells you that banks are not letting people withdraw Rs 24,000 a week, is lying,” he said. “I withdrew Rs 24,000 in one week – in two transactions of Rs 10,000 and Rs 14,000.”

Krishna Kumar. Photo: M Rajshekhar
Krishna Kumar. Photo: M Rajshekhar

Later in the day, cloth merchant Kumar was dismissive about local political parties. “Do not listen to what the Congress or BJP leaders tell you,” he said. “The Congress will say people are not even getting Rs 500. The BJP will say people are getting Rs 24,000. They get the cash. They have the government’s support.”

After 50 days?

Kumar’s shop stuck to the default template for a cloth shop in India.

Bolts of fabric stood stacked along narrow shelves running along its walls. Mattresses ran the length of the shop. It was here that he and his customers sat while his salesmen rolled cloth out for inspection.

He was in favour of notebandi. Modi’s announcement, he said, was not about black money or cashless economy. Most black money is in gold and land, not cash, he said. And India is not ready for a cashless scenario.

Instead, Kumar said, the main aim was to expand tax collection. With notebandi, even small businesses will put their money into banks, as a result of which they will enter the formal sector. After that, he said, they will have to either pay income tax or the proposed banking transaction tax.

This is something he welcomed: “I do all my transactions by cheque. And I pay my taxes.” As a result, he said, he struggled to compete with traders who did all their business in cash. “They sell a metre of suiting cloth for Rs 190 a metre,” he said. “After paying my taxes, I have to price that at Rs 200 a metre.”

He was the first person in all these days to suggest that notebandi was essentially an attack on India’s informal economy.

In these travels, people expressed hopes that notebandi will solve a spectrum of problems – ranging from land redistribution to crime to competition from rivals in the informal economy.

That said, Kumar was losing his patience as well. His anger was not as much about the fall in his business transactions as it was about the difficulty of accessing cash from his own bank accounts. Banks have to pay Rs 24,000, he said, but are only paying Rs 5,000. “We have decided to be patient for 50 days,” he said. “But if the pace of improvement does not pick up even after 50 days, people will lose all patience.”

News reports about people being caught with large stashes of new currency notes was further exacerbating his anger.

What kind of an improvement did he want? From the 51st day, he said, “We should be able to get at least 50% of our requirement from the banks.”

Other traders earlier had also alluded to the government’s claims of normalcy by the 50th day: “If things stay the same even after the 50th day, people will come out on the streets.”

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

India’s urban water crisis calls for an integrated approach

We need solutions that address different aspects of the water eco-system and involve the collective participation of citizens and other stake-holders.

According to a UN report, around 1.2 billion people, or almost one fifth of the world’s population, live in areas where water is physically scarce and another 1.6 billion people, or nearly one quarter of the world’s population, face economic water shortage. They lack basic access to water. The criticality of the water situation across the world has in fact given rise to speculations over water wars becoming a distinct possibility in the future. In India the problem is compounded, given the rising population and urbanization. The Asian Development Bank has forecast that by 2030, India will have a water deficit of 50%.

Water challenges in urban India

For urban India, the situation is critical. In 2015, about 377 million Indians lived in urban areas and by 2030, the urban population is expected to rise to 590 million. Already, according to the National Sample Survey, only 47% of urban households have individual water connections and about 40% to 50% of water is reportedly lost in distribution systems due to various reasons. Further, as per the 2011 census, only 32.7% of urban Indian households are connected to a piped sewerage system.

Any comprehensive solution to address the water problem in urban India needs to take into account the specific challenges around water management and distribution:

Pressure on water sources: Rising demand on water means rising pressure on water sources, especially in cities. In a city like Mumbai for example, 3,750 Million Litres per Day (MLD) of water, including water for commercial and industrial use, is available, whereas 4,500 MLD is needed. The primary sources of water for cities like Mumbai are lakes created by dams across rivers near the city. Distributing the available water means providing 386,971 connections to the city’s roughly 13 million residents. When distribution becomes challenging, the workaround is to tap ground water. According to a study by the Centre for Science and Environment, 48% of urban water supply in India comes from ground water. Ground water exploitation for commercial and domestic use in most cities is leading to reduction in ground water level.

Distribution and water loss issues: Distribution challenges, such as water loss due to theft, pilferage, leaky pipes and faulty meter readings, result in unequal and unregulated distribution of water. In New Delhi, for example, water distribution loss was reported to be about 40% as per a study. In Mumbai, where most residents get only 2-5 hours of water supply per day, the non-revenue water loss is about 27% of the overall water supply. This strains the municipal body’s budget and impacts the improvement of distribution infrastructure. Factors such as difficult terrain and legal issues over buildings also affect water supply to many parts. According to a study, only 5% of piped water reaches slum areas in 42 Indian cities, including New Delhi. A 2011 study also found that 95% of households in slum areas in Mumbai’s Kaula Bunder district, in some seasons, use less than the WHO-recommended minimum of 50 litres per capita per day.

Water pollution and contamination: In India, almost 400,000 children die every year of diarrhea, primarily due to contaminated water. According to a 2017 report, 630 million people in the South East Asian countries, including India, use faeces-contaminated drinking water source, becoming susceptible to a range of diseases. Industrial waste is also a major cause for water contamination, particularly antibiotic ingredients released into rivers and soils by pharma companies. A Guardian report talks about pollution from drug companies, particularly those in India and China, resulting in the creation of drug-resistant superbugs. The report cites a study which indicates that by 2050, the total death toll worldwide due to infection by drug resistant bacteria could reach 10 million people.

A holistic approach to tackling water challenges

Addressing these challenges and improving access to clean water for all needs a combination of short-term and medium-term solutions. It also means involving the community and various stakeholders in implementing the solutions. This is the crux of the recommendations put forth by BASF.

The proposed solutions, based on a study of water issues in cities such as Mumbai, take into account different aspects of water management and distribution. Backed by a close understanding of the cost implications, they can make a difference in tackling urban water challenges. These solutions include:

Recycling and harvesting: Raw sewage water which is dumped into oceans damages the coastal eco-system. Instead, this could be used as a cheaper alternative to fresh water for industrial purposes. According to a 2011 World Bank report, 13% of total freshwater withdrawal in India is for industrial use. What’s more, the industrial demand for water is expected to grow at a rate of 4.2% per year till 2025. Much of this demand can be met by recycling and treating sewage water. In Mumbai for example, 3000 MLD of sewage water is released, almost 80% of fresh water availability. This can be purified and utilised for industrial needs. An example of recycled sewage water being used for industrial purpose is the 30 MLD waste water treatment facility at Gandhinagar and Anjar in Gujarat set up by Welspun India Ltd.

Another example is the proposal by Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC) to recycle and reclaim sewage water treated at its existing facilities to meet the secondary purposes of both industries and residential complexes. In fact, residential complexes can similarly recycle and re-use their waste water for secondary purposes such as gardening.

Also, alternative rain water harvesting methods such as harvesting rain water from concrete surfaces using porous concrete can be used to supplement roof-top rain water harvesting, to help replenish ground water.

Community initiatives to supplement regular water supply: Initiatives such as community water storage and decentralised treatment facilities, including elevated water towers or reservoirs and water ATMs, based on a realistic understanding of the costs involved, can help support the city’s water distribution. Water towers or elevated reservoirs with onsite filters can also help optimise the space available for water distribution in congested cities. Water ATMs, which are automated water dispensing units that can be accessed with a smart card or an app, can ensure metered supply of safe water.

Testing and purification: With water contamination being a big challenge, the adoption of affordable and reliable multi-household water filter systems which are electricity free and easy to use can help, to some extent, access to safe drinking water at a domestic level. Also, the use of household water testing kits and the installation of water quality sensors on pipes, that send out alerts on water contamination, can create awareness of water contamination and drive suitable preventive steps.

Public awareness and use of technology: Public awareness campaigns, tax incentives for water conservation and the use of technology interfaces can also go a long way in addressing the water problem. For example, measures such as water credits can be introduced with tax benefits as incentives for efficient use and recycling of water. Similarly, government water apps, like that of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, can be used to spread tips on water saving, report leakage or send updates on water quality.

Collaborative approach: Finally, a collaborative approach like the adoption of a public-private partnership model for water projects can help. There are already examples of best practices here. For example, in Netherlands, water companies are incorporated as private companies, with the local and national governments being majority shareholders. Involving citizens through social business models for decentralised water supply, treatment or storage installations like water ATMs, as also the appointment of water guardians who can report on various aspects of water supply and usage can help in efficient water management. Grass-root level organizations could be partnered with for programmes to spread awareness on water safety and conservation.

For BASF, the proposed solutions are an extension of their close engagement with developing water management and water treatment solutions. The products developed specially for waste and drinking water treatment, such as Zetag® ULTRA and Magnafloc® LT, focus on ensuring sustainability, efficiency and cost effectiveness in the water and sludge treatment process.

BASF is also associated with operations of Reliance Industries’ desalination plant at Jamnagar in Gujarat.The thermal plant is designed to deliver up to 170,000 cubic meters of processed water per day. The use of inge® ultrafiltration technologies allows a continuous delivery of pre-filtered water at a consistent high-quality level, while the dosage of the Sokalan® PM 15 I protects the desalination plant from scaling. This combination of BASF’s expertise minimises the energy footprint of the plant and secures water supply independent of the seasonal fluctuations. To know more about BASF’s range of sustainable solutions and innovative chemical products for the water industry, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.