On a windy Saturday afternoon in North Chennai’s harbour, two fishermen were debating the government’s surprise move to invalidate high-value currency notes from November 9.

“For the mistakes of few people, everybody has to suffer,” said S Stephen. “That is not okay.”

Defending Prime Minister Narendra Modi, P Ramesh replied, “Why would Modi take such a step if this were true?”

“Modi is saying that he is trying to get at people having black money,” said Stephen. “But he is subjecting everyone to this. In a particular area, the police would know who all the criminals are. They should target them specifically. Why should everyone suffer? It’s like – the ones with the black money can die, and the ones without it can too.”

The government’s decision to demonetise Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes, ostensibly to tackle black money and counterfeit currency, has in its immediate aftermath caused a severe liquidity crunch in a heavily cash-dependent economy.

For the fishing industry and its ancillaries in Tamil Nadu, this has meant more difficulties for an already ailing sector. To cope with this, many fishermen are continuing to deal in old currency notes.

Fibre boats and trawl boats. Credit: Vinita Govindarajan

Old money in circulation

For the last three days, in Chennai’s major fishing harbour in Kasimedu, near the Chennai Port, hundreds of mechanised boats and the artisanal, non-mechanised boats have been fastened to the docks. Heeding the warnings of the Indian Meteorological Department of a cyclone forming in the Bay of Bengal, none of the them have been taken out to sea. With the onset of the North East monsoon – when the state receives most of its rainfall – in October-end, the chances of mechanised boats heading out on their usual 10-day fishing expeditions are slim. The fishermen spend their days mending fishing nets, receiving around Rs 200-Rs 300 a day for their work from the boat owners.

“The women who are buying from us to later sell fish at the market are giving us only old currency in multiples of Rs 500,” said S Thirunavakarasan, a fisherman. “If we do not accept it, we will not be able to sell our fish, and they will perish.” The fishermen hope they can get some time before December 30, the window for exchanging demonetised notes, to exchange these for legal tender.

P Maheshwari, one of the many women who buy fish from these fishermen and sell it for a higher price at the market close to the harbour, stayed put at her small stall at the fish market on Saturday, but hardly any customers came by. “Usually, the market is very crowded at this time,” she said. “I suppose the customers do not have much cash in hand to spend.”

Maheshwari continues to buy and sell fish in the old currency. “I don’t really need to go and exchange my cash for the new notes,” she said. “I buy whatever little I need from outside the [fish]market with the change I get from customers.”

Fish market by the harbour. Credit: Vinita Govindarajan

No money, no ice

For owners of mechanised boats, however, using old notes for all transactions is not an option.

While prepping the boat to ride out to sea, they spend around Rs 20,000 on maintaining the ship and procuring ice blocks for storing their catch. But ice-manufacturers are refusing to accept old notes.

The ice-manufacturing business is also facing huge losses because of demonetisation. M Kumaran, the manager of Prarthana Ice factory in Royapuram of North Chennai, said many fishermen already owe him a lot of money for earlier purchases and do not have legal currency to pay for ice for their next journey as well.

“Our business is really suffering now,” said Kumaran. “We also have to insist that we can only give the fishermen ice if they pay off what they owe us already.”

Owners of mechanised boats said their catch was also selling for lesser. “Before, the local fisherwomen used to beg us to reduce our prices by Rs 50 or Rs 100,” said ME Raghupati, the president of the Chennai Mechanised Boat Owner’s Welfare Association. “Now, if we say the price is Rs 2,000, they bring it straight down to Rs 1,500.”

A large part of their catch, especially crabs and cuttlefish, is bought by fish export companies in Kasimedu. Raghupati said the export company he transacts with was unable to pay them in cash. Although the company offered to transfer money to Raghupati’s account, he is worried he cannot withdraw enough now to pay his workers every day.

Raghupathi has two boats, and 20 employees – and so he spends almost Rs 10,000 on wages for his workers each day.

Huge dip in earnings

But the fishing exports industry is facing its own share of problems.

M Anees, the owner of MTAC fishing exports, said that his business was functioning at just 20% of its usually capacity, because he has stopped buying from fishermen who had to be paid in cash – about 80% of his suppliers.

“My business runs at an average of Rs 50 lakhs a day, but now we are only dealing with Rs 5-6 lakhs a day,” said Anees.

Few buyers at the fish market. Credit: Vinita Govindarajan

Back at the harbour, fishermen Stephen and Ramesh’s debate over demonetisation continues.

“Are any cinema actors standing in the queue outside the bank? Stephen asked. “Only people like us are standing in line.”

Ramesh laughed and said, “You big people with accounts will stand in line. Where will people like me stand? I don’t even have money to exchange!”