One month since demonetisation, has time eased the woes of the ordinary Indian?
On the night of November 8, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the sudden demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes, a move that he claimed would be a minor, temporary inconvenience. Four days later, Scroll.in’s reporters reached out to citizens across the length and breadth of the country – farmers, small businessmen, daily wage workers – to assess the immediate consequences of delegitimising 86% of the nation’s liquid currency overnight.
Scroll’s report found a country grappling with chaos outside banks, non-functional ATMs, and people stranded with crisp new Rs 2,000 notes for which they couldn’t get any change. Banks were running out of cash within hours, labourers were being forcibly paid in demonetised notes, businesses all around were slowing down and many people were figuring out ways to convert black money into white. And despite everything, there seemed to be mass support for demonetisation and a hope for a better future.
Now, a month later, how much has changed? Is life on the path to normalcy again? Scroll.in revisited some of the same people and states to find out.
Assam: ‘Rs 500 notes are not available yet’
Aditya Lakhar, a human rights worker from Lachina village in Lower Assam’s Barpeta district, had sounded fairly upbeat about demonetisation a month ago. Now, he sounds very distressed. “There has been no solution. All the banks and ATMs are giving out Rs 2000 notes,” said Lakhar. “For big people it is not a problem, but for small people like farmers and labourers, it is a big problem.”
According to Lakhar, labourers in the district have not been paid and farmers, too, have not been able to sell their crops, because nobody had the cash to buy from them. “Their produce sold for the price of water. Rs 500 notes are not available yet,” said Lakhar.
In the state capital Guwahati, meanwhile, bank queues are getting shorter even though ATMs are not always functional. Workers in the state’s tea gardens are not yet getting their weekly wages on time, but in the city, things are slowly getting normal. “Even though sales are still low, almost all shops in the city are now open and the market is slowly picking up,” said Lachit Bordoloi, a human rights activist. “People seem quite happy with the difficulties, they stand in queues with smiling faces.”
Bihar: No need for a bank?
For the first few days after demonetisation, Vijay Sahni, a daily wage worker in Bihar’s Samastipur district, did not go to work, because contractors were only paying him in old Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes. A month later, however, Sahni is able to go to work.
“The contractor still gives me cash only once in two or four days,” said Sahni, who did not seem too bothered by the delay in payments. In the past few weeks, he has managed to spend all his old, demonetised notes. “I have no money in the bank,” he said. “I do not need to go there.”
For Sahni, demonetisation remains a “small inconvenience”. He explained: “I still believe this move will help release forged notes out of the market.”
Gujarat: Withdrawals limited to Rs 4,000 a week
After three consecutive years of drought, farmers in Gujarat’s Saurashtra region were looking forward to harvesting their cotton and groundnut crops this month. But demonetisation created hurdles that they are still struggling to jump over.
“The government said we would be able to withdraw Rs 24,000 a week from banks, but many rural banks are allowing people to withdraw just Rs 4,000 a week from their accounts,” said Mansukh Mungra, a farmer from Jamnagar district in Saurashtra. “ATMs had opened briefly in the middle of November but for the past ten days, all ATMs in our area have shut down again.”
Since Rs 4,000 a week is not enough for farmers to buy fuel for their tractors and pay wages to their labourers, work on harvesting this season’s cotton crop has severely slowed down. “Most farm labourers have returned to their own villages in Madhya Pradesh, so half of the crop is going to rot,” said Mungra. “Initially, many of us were happy about what Modi has done, but now everyone is distressed and upset.”
Maharashtra: Business slack but support staunch
Tourism remains slack at the vibrant pilgrim town of Shirdi in Maharashtra. Soon after the note ban, many pilgrims were determined to visit the town’s Sai Baba temple even if they had to cut down their expenditure, but a month after demonetisation, even footfalls have reduced. With change for the Rs 2,000 note hard to come by, the most common complaint is the lack of small currency notes in circulation.
“All businesses are facing huge problems,” said Balasaheb Kajale, vendor of plastic knick knacks on Shirdi’s main street. “Whatever support there was for demonetisation, it is now going down because people are realising it has been badly implemented.”
But Kajale is not entirely correct. Some businessmen, like winter-wear vendor GR Subramaniam, still stand by the central government’s decision as staunchly as he did a month ago. This is despite the heavy losses he has faced in businesses since November 9. Subramaniam used to conduct daily transactions worth Rs 40,000 before demonetisation, but the figure has now dipped to just Rs 2,000 on good days. “Business is so slack that our job is only to eat and sleep,” he said. “But we will not get another chance like this to gain our second freedom after independence.”
Odisha: Adivasis bearing the brunt
Immediately after demonetisation, Abdul Ghani from Odisha’s Malkangiri district shut down his photocopy shop for three days, because there was no change to give his customers. A month down the line, even though his shop is now open, little seems to have changed. “No one has any change to pay me and I don’t have any to give them back,” said Ghani, who is more concerned about the Adivasi communities living in the region.
Malkangiri is one of India’s poorest districts, and because of frequent Naxal activity in the area, many Adivasis continue to find it difficult to travel long distances from their remote villages to the nearest bank. This week, says Ghani, the situation has worsened because of a bandh imposed by Naxalites in the region. “No buses, including state transport buses, are plying on the roads. So how will Adivasis travel to banks?” he said.
Meanwhile, in Malkangiri’s civic hospitals, the administration is struggling to pay paramedical workers who are currently trying to contain the fatal outbreak of Japanese Encephalitis that has already killed nearly 100 Adivasi children. “The government used to pay them in cash daily, but now they want bank account details to process their payments,” said an activist who did not wish to be named. “Many of the paramedics don’t have bank accounts. First, they should have got banks to Malkangiri before banning notes.”
West Bengal: Cheques for Rs 70
In Darjeeling, banks are now witnessing a steep increase in the number of cheques deposited for clearance every day. “Earlier we used to get 20-30 cheques a day, now we get 80-100,” said Maharshi Bharadwaj, a privilege banker at a private branch in the city. “Some cheques are for amounts as low as Rs 70. People probably had no other option.”
Since the new Rs 500 notes are yet to reach Darjeeling and the cash crunch remains acute, Bharadwaj’s bank has limited people’s withdrawal limit to Rs 10,000 a day, even though the government allows citizens to withdraw up to Rs 24,000 in one go. “This way we can make sure that maximum persons in the queue can get some cash every day.”