This week, in response to an SOS message from the Prime Minister’s Office, the Reserve Bank of India’s currency press plant in West Bengal’s Salboni block will take a break from the routine. For the first time since it was established in 1995, the plant in West Midnapore district will print Rs 500 notes.

Since September, the plant has been producing high volumes of the Rs 2,000 note, introduced after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on November 8 that high-value currency would no longer be legal tender.

But two weeks ago, as the effects of that decision began to bite, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee turned up the heat. She visited the RBI office in Kolkata and held a protest in New Delhi to highlight the shortage of Rs 500 notes in Kolkata. This triggered a quick rear-guard action by the RBI authorities, who decided to start printing Rs 500 notes in Salboni.

Inside the plant, one of only four currency presses in India, it’s like war time. Every unit is working hard to meet new targets. An additional shift has been added to the regular two: the new night shift begins at 11.30 p.m. and runs till 6.30 in the morning. No one will get their regular off-day on the second and last Saturdays until March.

On the streets of Salboni, however, admiration for the efforts of the workers in the press is a little hard to come by. Very little of the money being printed behind the high walls of the plant has actually been made available to the famers in this predominantly tribal area. They complain that they have no money to pay workers to harvest the paddy crop standing in their fields and start sowing next season’s potatoes.

The printing press “has not come to our help in this crisis”, said Srikanta Mahato, the Trinamool Congress MLA from Salboni assembly constituency. “It has always remained beyond our reach.”

Following the example of party chief Mamata Banerjee, Mahato has been organising rallies and protest meetings against demonetisation all over Salboni. Among the participants in one rally was a woman named Chaya Mahato. She said that though most people in Sibloni were too poor to hold many Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes, the rhythms of daily life had been disrupted.

“We are not part of the banking chain,” she said. “We deal in liquid cash for our existence and cash is missing.”

This road leads to the Bharatiya Reverve Bank Note Mudran Private Limited, a currency press that is working overtime.

Urgent tasks

The Salboni press is doing everything it can to get its notes out to the public. It usually takes 22 days to gear up to print notes of a new design, officials said. Operations to produce the new Rs 500 would have begun even sooner, had it not been for a shortage of ink. But with all systems in place, the new notes should reach Kolkata banks and ATMs by the end of the coming week, according to officials at press.

Chances are that the notes will be flown to other parts of the country from the the Kalaikunda Indian Air Force base, about 25 km away from the Salboni plant. Over the past week, the air base has been used at least twice to ferry notes, officials say. For people with a sense of history, this seems ironic because the press is located on an abandoned World War II Royal Air Force base. The remnants of the tattered air strips are still visible.

“It is a high-security operation,” said Thali Kereppa, the general manager of the plant in Salboni village. “We are not authorised to speak. So many developments are taking place every day. Every day the situation is changing but we can’t share the information. It is sensitive matter.”

For the most, notes headed for North India are being transported by rail – the tracks run right into the facility. For shipments to the RBI branch in Kolkata, the press mostly uses trucks. From there, consignments are despatched to Guwahati by air from Dum Dum airport.

Routine has been dispensed with as plant officials attempt to keep the cash flowing. Last week, for instance, they received reports from Patna that residents were irked because they were starved of currency notes. To smooth over the situation, the management opened the main currency vault at around 5 pm one day to arrange for the notes to be sent to the Bihar capital, even though the strong room is usually shut by 4 pm and normally operated only once a day.

In hindsight, officials realise that the decision for demonetisation of old Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes was taken sometime in September. “That’s the time when this press was given the die for new Re 2,000 notes and it had been printing the new notes here for nearly two months now,” said an official who has been involved with the process.

The paddy harvest has slowed because of demonetisation.

Delayed sowing

Despite the billions of rupees of cash being printed in the block, very little is actually making its way back to Salboni from the RBI office in Kolkata. Salboni grows some of the best potatoes in Bengal but the lack of cash has delayed the sowing cycle. If this persists, production could drop by half, predicted Ajoy Mahato, a panchayat leader.

The cash scarcity comes on the back of a scanty monsoon. Sukumar Poira of Hatimari village near Salboni explained how he had been hit. “The boro paddy we are harvesting now did not give the kind of yield we had expected,” said Poira, who has been cultivating two bighas of land, paying a rent of Rs 2,000 per bigha.

The money crisis came like a bolt from the blue, he said. “From November 10, my munish [male agricultural labourers] and kamins [female workers] disappeared from the fields when told that payments would be delayed as there is a severe cash crunch,” said Poira.

For almost a week , Poira’s paddy lay unharvested and ran the risk of falling off the stalks. “Today only, almost after a week, I have managed to get a couple of hands to resume the activity,” said Poira. But he worried that he was already late for the potato sowing cycle.

Dharmidhar Mahato of Banomalipur village nearby was also anxious. He hasn’t been able to access enough money from his bank to hire workers to harvest his paddy crop, and now it’s being damaged by herds of elephants. “I am trying to harvest whatever I can now having engaged all the female members of my family in the fields,” said Mahato.

A dejected farmer outside Vidyasagar Central Cooperative Bank in Salboni.

Cooperative bank limitations

While there are large crowds of people at Salboni’s nationalised banks waiting to exchange money, the aarea’s gricultural cooperative banks were deserted. That’s because the finance ministry has refused to allow cooperative banks from exchanging demonetised currency. Though the government has since attempted to get Bengal’s cooperative banks to resume credit operations to farmers, there simply haven’t received enough currency notes to meet the demand.

Said Arindam Bose, the branch manager of Vidyasgar Central Cooperative bank in Salboni, “The lending process has been totally disrupted.”

He gave an example to illustrate the problem. “One farmer owning about five acres of land was sanctioned a loan of Rs 80,000 from the cooperative bank,” Bose said. “But our disbursement was limited to Re 20,000 per week. So it would take a month for the farmer to avail of his entire quota of sanctioned loan amount. By the time he gets it, the potato sowing cycle would be well over.”

Despite the anger of farmers, many of them approve of the demonetisation decision: they believe that corrupt people have been hurt even harder.

Containing the Maoists

The printing press isn’t the only thing for which Salboni is known. For four years from 2008, it was also the site of a violent conflict between the authorities and Maoist rebels. Just next to the Salboni currency press is the campus of the Central Reserve Police Force’s CoBRA commando force, as the Combat Battalion for Resolute Action is known.

In the midst of the demonetisation crisis, the CRPF director general K Durga Prasad came to the base to announce that the force had recovered approximately Rs 2 crore from operations against Maoist couriers in Jharkhand, Bihar and Chhatisgarh. These couriers were ferrying vast amounts of demonetised Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes to be deposited in the accounts of so-called linkmen, in order to be able to exchange them, he claimed.

A deputy commandant in the Salboni CoBRA camp said that there had been increased movement of Maoist cadres on the Jharkhand-Bengal border as they attempted to send demonetised currency to safe bank accounts and have it and replaced. “A group of about 25-30 Maoist group of Junglemahal origin and been taking shelter in Jharkhand after making short forays into Bengal border and collecting levies from businessmen, shops, traders and other sympathisers,” he alleged. “The Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 ban hit them hard.”

All photos by Subrata Nagachoudhury.