Late Friday afternoon, on a hill not far from Mumbai, a group of women hefted sheaves of rice above their heads and swung them against the ground.
Demonetisation in Maharashtra has coincided with harvest time, which means that despite a shortage of money in notes, farmers have food to eat. For the residents of this part of Dhasai, a village in the rural district of Thane, this happens to be the rice they are threshing.
The trouble is there is only rice and little else.
For the past three days, Avdibai Wakh’s family of ten has been eating rice with masala.
“We are eating only rice and not bhaji (vegetables) because we have no money after the government ended the notes,” said Wakh. “So what can we do? We only live to die.”
Dhasai is a mere 50 km from Asangaon, one of the last stations on Mumbai’s central suburban railway line. The village, one of the largest in Shahapur taluka, is spread out. There is the main village downhill, off the main road, and two Adivasi pada or hamlets on the higher slopes.
Since the government’s move to demonetise Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes, this village, like the rest of the country, has faced several shocks. For some, there is the loss of working days queuing up at banks. These lost days are crucial for families who live from one daily wage to the next.
For others like Wakh, it has come with the inability to buy vegetables for her family. The ration shop in the village had already been mostly shut since Diwali, impacting their stock of rations at home. The government’s public distribution system in the area is weak. Villagers say there is no knowing when the shop will be opened. Instead, they have to spend Rs 10 to travel to Shahapur, the nearest town, to buy rice and other food supplies from shops there.
With small notes out of circulation and no change for large ones, masala rice, that harbinger of bad days and poor harvests, has once again become a staple.
One of the few in the pada who had a high denomination note was Yamuna Wakh, not a relative of Avdibai. “I went the day after the ban to buy groceries with my Rs 500 note and the shopkeeper laughed at me and told me to keep the note at home and look at it,” she said, with a short laugh. She has not returned to the market since.
When Baghabai Wakh, not a relative either, took her new Rs 2,000 note to the market, nobody had change there either.
Thane was the centre of Maharashtra’s communist movement of the 1970s demanding land to the tillers. As a result, Adivasis here all have small parcels of land, but on the upper reaches of the hill, which is not as fertile as the lowlands. On this, they grow rice for four months in the year.
“We might have land, but we don’t have even water to drink,” Avdibai Wakh said. “How can we grow bhaji then?”
But the Wakhs are hopeful that the new notes will come into the market soon, and they will be able to get change and buy groceries again. Milk is available for now, from families owning cows and buffaloes in the padas. But as daily wage labourers, they feel the pinch in other ways.
“One farmer gave me four days of salary in a Rs 500 note,” said Bharati Shidh, when she took a break from the threshing. This salary was paid to her after the old notes were demonetised. “I don’t have any account to put that money.”
Even if she had a bank account, it would be unlikely that she would have been able to exchange the note at her local bank. The nearest bank from Dhasai is a cooperative bank. Most rural areas in India are served by district cooperative banks. These banks are badly hit by demonetisation.
The Reserve Bank of India issued a notice which forbids district central cooperative banks from exchanging notes and has also imposed a limit on withdrawals. There are as many as 1,579 cooperative banks across the country, reported the Indian Express and they comprise nearly four percent of the banking business market.
This restriction has hit the entire village hard.
“Ordinary people go only to the Thane District Cooperative Bank,” said Kashinath Pardhi. “Now if we cannot change notes there, even our employers will not be able to pay us, and we will have to stop taking on work.”
“Most people here have cooperative bank accounts,” added Haji Kasam Sheikh, a retired Public Works Department officer and resident of the lower part of Dhasai. “The people in the big banks like State Bank of India are from outside. The cooperative banks have our local children in it who know all of us and will help us when we go there.”
Banks, already intimidating places, become even more daunting at times like this.
Krushna Wakh, famous in the village in his younger days as a kushti wrestler, went to the Canara Bank in Shahapur to exchange his notes. He lost a day’s work standing in line from 9 am to 3.30 pm and reached home only at 4.30 pm.
“The cashier gave me the new Rs 2,000 note. I asked for Rs 100 notes instead,” Krushna Wakh said. “He told me if I had a problem, I should leave the note with him, and return only when the new 500 note comes.”
Wakh kept the note.
Anecdotes like this swirl everywhere.
When Sheikh went to a national bank in Shahapur, his autorickshaw driver told him that he had been given a Rs 500 note the previous day. A family travelling from their village to Asangaon had begged him to keep the note and just to buy them vada pavs and a bottle of water worth Rs 50 because they had not been able to eat all day. The driver went home richer by Rs 450.
Sheikh’s sister-in-law got only roughly stuck torn notes from the bank and is uncertain whether anyone will accept them.
However, not everybody is as badly affected, even in the Adivasi pada. Dhasai, like most other villages in Thane district, falls under the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, where the seat of the sarpanch is reserved for an Adivasi. Sunil Wakh, the sarpanch, spends the first half of each day attending to panchayat work and the rest working in an oil mill. He is the first sarpanch of the village to have been educated and to hold a job in the formal sector, a matter of great pride for residents there.
“I am not as affected as others here because our payments (at the oil mill) are regular and come directly to our bank accounts,” he said. “I will have to take a day to go to the bank, that is all.”
Several in the main village, such as those in Sheikh’s family, are also employed either by the government or in the formal sector. They are depending on being able to withdraw their salaries from their bank accounts.
But many people in the Adivasi pada do not have bank accounts, and earn their income in cash.
Asked whether they support the government’s move, Pardhi laughed bitterly. “If it is good, it will be for big people,” he said. “For us, our money is just paper.”
Hearing that, Avdibai Wakh laughed too.
“For labourers, there will only be fire in our stomachs, what else?”