The bazaars and bastis of Allahabad are rife with rumours of Prime Minister Narendra Modi taking from the rich to give to the poor. Of doctors with rooms full of cash dying of shock and of bags of black money unearthed from businessmen.
The city’s businessmen, however, said that “note bandi” – Modi’s decision to withdraw Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes from circulation – despite the losses they currently face, is an altogether brilliant move to curb black money, of which they have none.
At 8 am on Friday in central Allahabad’s Rajapur “labour chowk”, as it is locally called, daily-wage construction workers milled around. There seemed to be broad consensus that the decision to pull high-value notes out of circulation was a good idea, because it would hurt those with black money. The kala dhan being deposited in banks, said Kamlesh, a mason from Khaga in Fatehpur, would be given to the poor. “There is a yojana, to put Rs 50,000 in all zero-balance accounts [under the Jan Dhan Yojana],” he said. Samay Lal, also a mason added, “not Rs 50,000, it’s Rs 75,000”.
And where did they hear about this? “On television,” said Rajesh, one among a group of labourers. Others nodded. But none of them could say which channel they saw it on. It may have been Mahua TV (a Bhojpuri-language general entertainment channel), Ramesh said. Samay Lal chipped in: “I read it. It was written [on the ticker tape] under the news.”
Could this just be a rumour? “It could be,” said Ram Raj Yadav, also a day labourer. “But we hope they put money in the bank for the poor…what is life without hope?”
The country has faced a massive liquidity crunch since the Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes were withdrawn from circulation on November 9. The informal sector, which runs on cash, has in large measure borne the brunt. For daily-wage labourers, this has meant more days without work.
According to Subhash Sharma, who works as domestic help and driver for a family living not far from Rajapur Chowk, the news doing the rounds since November 21 was that the prime minister was planning to deposit Rs 2 lakh in Jan Dhan Yojana accounts. He said he heard this from his wife, who lives in their native village of Hathasara about 30 km away, but was sceptical. He said he had gone to his village days after the demonetisation move was announced on November 8, and had heard tall tales of black money being recovered from the village’s biggest grocer. “The first person I spoke to said they had found Rs 7 crore, the second said Rs 17 crore…by the end of the day they were saying 70 crore.”
Around Allahabad’s District Court and the High Court too, the talk was of the “government scheme” to put money in the accounts of the poor. Sushil Tiwari, the driver of a High Court judge, said he did not know where the information came from, but everyone was expecting an announcement. He said he did not know what to believe because “nothing like this has ever been done before, but again, nothing like note bandi [demonetisation] has been done before.”
In a slum in Kareli on the banks of the Yamuna river, where children play on and pigs root around in garbage heaps, Badri Prasad, a waste dealer said, “We are hearing that Modiji will put a lot of money in all the zero-balance accounts, after 50 days. After all, what will Modiji do with all the black money going into the banks, someone has to do something for the poor.”
Badri Prasad’s business has been hard hit. With less cash in the market, there has been a massive drop in the price of waste, especially the most valuable waste like scrap metal. And, the big waste traders that he sells to are still trying to pass on old notes to close a deal. The drop in prices is even harder for those working down the line. Gulab, who lives in a slum near the old Yamuna bridge said that before November 8, he would get Rs 20 from waste aggregators like Badri for a kilo of scrap iron – he now gets just Rs 5. “They said this note bandi will only be a worry for those who have black money, but that isn’t true.” Gulab said. “If we earn we eat. Because of note bandi I am not earning. It is a worry for me too.”
Iconic food shops on Loknath Lane in the old town had barely any customers on a Saturday evening. At Matadeen’s gajak shop, where stocks usually run out long before the day ends, the owner said that they now had “only chavanni (25 paise) ka business”. His family, he said with a dry laugh, had been supporters of the Jana Sangh and later, the Bharatiya Janata Party, since his grandfather’s day.
At Hari Ram and Sons, famous for their savouries fried in pure ghee, business is less than half what it usually is. It was the same with a young milk-products seller in the alley. But every one of these shopkeepers was also quick to add, “It’s a good policy… a good thing to have done…”
The only problem, they said, was that the government had not put enough new currency notes and small denomination notes into the system.
In Loknath lane, and on MG Road in the city’s up-market Civil Lines area, all but one shopkeeper this writer spoke to took cash payments from customers for purchases ranging from Rs 60 to a few thousands, and not one was asked for or offered a bill. Using digital would take time, they said, as “Allahabad is not as advanced as Delhi”. A few said they were planning to get “swipe machines”.
They explained the government’s decision variously as one that would bring peace in Kashmir, rid the economy of fake notes, finish off black money, keep a lid on their expenses and teach their children the value of money. Business was slow but they expected it would pick up soon. They were not worried, they said, as they did not have any black money.
More ‘temporary inconvenience’
Allahabad’s businessmen big and small (and a few professionals too) like to draw a distinction between their “hard earned money” and the “cash in vaults” that they say only politicians and babus have. The “hard earned money” which has “avoided tax” is not sitting around, but circulating to promote more business, which they say is good for the economy. The increased income from businesses funded in this manner is just “more hard earned money”. A successful city homeopath, who admitted to not taking advantage of the Income Declaration Scheme, a tax amnesty scheme that ended on September 30, said that he was willing to accept he had erred, but insisted he had “earned all my money” and was not willing to be compared to corrupt politicians.
Himanshu Kharabanda, the district head of the Uttar Prasesh Udyog Vyapar Sangathan, an association of local traders, whose business is silica sand mining, echoed the views of shopkeepers of Loknath Galli and MG Road. Businesses in general would be hit, perhaps for six or seven months, but the future was bright. Controls on cash were not a problem and he too would dearly love to pay his workers by cheque, in the future.
Vijay Mehrotra, a sangathan member, hosiery manufacturer and an astrologer popular with politicians, said that his business was “not even 20%” and there was the “GST dhakka” to come – a blow from the Goods and Services Tax – that would also make business “depressed…udaas..nirash”. But the future, he said, would still be good: “…people will not notice the losses they have suffered; black money,which was with netas and mantris will be contained, Mr Modi, will leave no stone unturned.”
Not everyone painted this rosy picture of a world transformed by businessmen joyfully embracing losses to support the prime minister’s decision.
In the small shops around the clock tower in the old town, where margins are low and brisk seasonal sales are when businesses make their real profits, there was barely suppressed anger. Vijay Aggrawal, who sells hosiery goods, said his winter stock of sweaters and jerseys was not moving and sales were less than half of what he would expect this time of year. His father called out from the back of the shop: ”If it continues like this for another month, we will have a problem eating…we are small shopkeepers, not big businessmen.” As for the efficacy of demonetisation on targeting black money, he said, “who knows if it will actually happen.”
Around the corner from him Suren Arora, selling “suiting and shirting” said he sat idle all day in what was usually his peak season. “People have to stand in an ATM queue twice to get Rs 4,000,” he said, “and fabric for a suit is minimum Rs 4,500, without the tailoring…will they eat or make a suit?”
The prime minister’s claim that black money would vanish, he said was “a joke” and “the new Rs 2,000 note is a sure sign that black money will increase, it will be easier to store.” Arora said, that apart from demonetisation they also had to “prepare for another jolt – the GST [goods and services tax].” He added ,“Mr Modi will feel the effect of his policy. We just won’t go out to vote.”
Deepak Aggrawal, one of the city’s biggest laddoo producers, with a shop at the city’s popular Hanuman Temple, said the pussyfooting by the Udyog Vyapar Sangathan and businessmen’s claims that they were happy to suffer losses were a lie. “People are scared to speak out…they fear sales tax queries and income tax raids,” he said. There were Income Tax raids on Allahabad properties of a major builder within days of the prime minister’s announcement and also on a few local businesses. “Why the particular establishments were picked, is anyone’s guess”, said Aggrawal. They were, “like a warning to others who might speak out.”
Aggrawal’s own business is down 80%. He has let go of staff as there weren’t sufficient orders to cover their wages, despite the wedding season. He only has a third of the workers he would normally have at this time of year.
He said there was immense disquiet within business communities but traders’ associations were riven with divisions – with some wanting to stage a public protest and others unwilling to raise their heads above the parapet.
As traditional businessmen take cover, entrepreneurial folk are doing a brisk trade in small denomination notes. “Change sellers” do the rounds of shops as they open in the morning – offering 10s, 50s or 100s at a 10% premium. The rumour mill continues to turn, but the day labourers, vendors and garbage collectors who hope for money in their banks also say that in the three weeks since the prime minister’s announcement, nothing has changed in the world around them – the rich are still rich, and the poor are still poor.