Sonamati Nag, a young Oraon Adivasi woman in Jharkhand’s Khunti district, used to earn Rs 2,000 a month, with which she sustained herself and her 10-year old son and 11-year old daughter.

But in the weeks since notebandi, the government’s withdrawal of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes on November 8, Nag has had no work and no clarity on when the work will resume.

Ghulam Rahman, who moved to Mumbai from his home in West Bengal, finds himself in a similar situation, as does Suresh Kumar, who worked as a helper in a factory in Delhi.

These are not three isolated cases.

Across the country, casual, or daily wage workers, find themselves literally cashless, left vulnerable after demonetisation. Most of them had little or no savings, as they eked out a living on the margins of subsistence.

Change in schedule

Sonamati Nag. Image: Anumeha Yadav
Sonamati Nag. Image: Anumeha Yadav

For over five years, Sonamati Nag followed a busy routine. A single parent, she would wake up at dawn, cook, get her two children ready and drop them off to school. She would then proceed towards an intersection on the road that connects Kachhabaari her village, to Ranchi, the state capital, 30 kilometers away.

By 8 am, Nag and five or six other women from the village would be sitting in a six-seater auto, on their way to a new construction site for work.

Nag worked as a coolie, lifting cement sacks and other heavy material, at construction sites.

But her schedule has changed since Novermber 8.

“For several days, I stood on the road at 8 am, but the auto has stopped since the week after notebandi,” she said, with a look of deep anxiety on her face.

In late December, development economist Jean Dreze, and researchers Dheeraj Kumar and Akash Ranjan in a survey at seven locations in Ranchi found that the average reported decline in earnings of various categories of workers was 46% of what earnings had been in the month before demonetisation. In one month, business activity fell to half of what it used to be in Ranchi, the capital and economic nerve centre.

Though the minimum wage for unskilled work is fixed at Rs 260 a day in Jharkhand, Nag earned Rs 200 after her auto driver and labour contractor, Bhola Mahto, subtracted his commission. With sporadic work, her weekly earnings came to Rs 600, of which Mahto further deducted Rs 100 to Rs 105 as auto fare.

Even this meagre amount dried up when construction projects, in which workers are usually paid in cash, suspended work in the weeks following demonetisation.

The road leading from Kachhibaari towards the city, where the workers usually wait.
The road leading from Kachhibaari towards the city, where the workers usually wait.

Nag’s struggle for livelihood has become even more difficult in the last few weeks after her mother-in-law, an asthma patient, died in December.

“My mother-in-law contributed to the household expenses when she could, especially towards paying the children’s school fees,” said Nag. “I have requested the school to allow my son and daughter to continue their classes after I was unable to pay their annual fees of Rs 1,200 each at the beginning of the year.”

She said she has only Rs 200 left on her, after she withdrew her entire savings of Rs 2,000 from the bank in November for daily needs.

The household is surviving on vegetables from the neighbour’s farm and subsidised rice from the public distribution system, which provides 35 kg of rice at Re 1 per kg per month under the Antyodaya schme which cover the poorest of the poor category of households like Nag’s.

Though there has been no sign of Bhola’s auto on the road going out of the village, Nag has put her hopes on a Rs 600 monthly pension that has been approved in her name.

“After her mother-in-law passed away, I have submitted her name as a new beneficiary for widow pension from our village,” said Jyoti Minj, who is the mukhia of Kachhibaari village.

Not in demand

Ghulam Rahman. Image: Mridula Chari
Ghulam Rahman. Image: Mridula Chari

In Mumbai, it is not the cash crunch that has continued to limit daily hiring – some industries have reverted to cashless payments via cheque or bank transfers. Demand for manufactured goods, however, is simply too low.

Ghulam Rahman moved to Mumbai from his home in West Bengal in search of work 20 years ago. He has been working on daily wages at jewellery manufacturers at the Santacruz Electronics Export Processing Zone.

There are around 400 jewellery companies at SEEPZ that each day engage contractors to find them workers for the various stages of jewellery manufacturing, from cutting and boiling, to polishing and plating. Rahman was among the several hundred milling outside the gate in the hope of catching a contractor’s attention.

“Even in 2008, business was bad, but this is even worse,” he said. “It is not as if the companies do not have cash to give us. They have just stopped manufacturing because there is no demand for them.”

Rahman has not found work for the last 10 days. Since November 8, he has worked only around 10 days, down from the regular 20 days each month he used to get. This is the first time in 20 years he has found it so difficult to find a job, he added. Many have returned to their villages and might return in March, by when they expect demand to increase.

Sukumar Damle of the All India Trade Union Congress, associated with the Communist Party of India, said that this was not limited to SEEPZ.

“Bhiwandi [a textile hub] is mostly shut,” Damle said. “Daily wage workers have not had jobs for 50 days. Small micro finance companies are now taking up to 36% interest rates from workers in eastern parts of Maharashtra.”

This situation has become more acute because contractors are now demanding a higher cut from workers’ daily wages. Companies at SEEPZ pay workers around Rs 400 each day, depending on the stage of manufacturing they are engaged in. Contractors have increased their cut from 20% to 25%, workers said.

Meanwhile, contractors too complained about the reduced demand.

“Earlier, I used to give 40 to 50 people jobs each day,” said PL Berma, an agent at the gate. “Now with difficulty, I find jobs for 15 people. Companies are telling us to return in a month and a half when demand goes up again.”

This decline in demand has affected even those who have slightly more secure jobs, such as workers in factories.

Suresh Kumar. Image: Abhishek Dey
Suresh Kumar. Image: Abhishek Dey

In Delhi, for 10 years, Suresh Kumar worked as a helper in the engineering department of a factory that makes electric motors in the Mayapuri industrial area of west Delhi. He lost his job on November 12, four days after the demonetisation announcement.

“On November 12, my employer paid my dues – Rs 8,500 in old currency notes – and asked me to take a month-long break, following which I had no other option but to return to my village,” said 32-year-old Kumar, who is from a village in Azamgarh district in Uttar Pradesh.

“When I enquired in December, I came to know that six of my colleagues, who worked in the same process, had been sacked too and there was no chance of getting the job back.”

According to Rajesh Kumar, General Secretary (Delhi), of the Indian Federation of Trade Unions, nearly 75% of the factory workforce in all major industrial areas in Delhi had to head back home following the demonetisation exercise.

“Hardly 5%-10 % industrial units in the city come under the organised sector,” Rajesh Kumar said. “For the rest, hardly any rule is followed with regard to payment of wages, means of payment, recruitment and sacking of workers. The industries have not yet started recovering. In fact, more job losses are expected in the coming weeks.”

Suresh Kumar is the only earning member in his family of four, which includes his wife and two sons aged five and two years. Once home, the first task was to get the old notes exchanged which, he said, took him two days. With only Rs 8,500 and some savings with his family, he did not have much time to decide on his next move. On December 27, he returned to Delhi in search of a job. He has been unlucky so far.

“First I went to my own employer who said he was not in a position to pay the employees he had retained, leave alone hiring the sacked ones,” Suresh Kumar said. “So far, I have been to almost all major industrial areas in Delhi but I could not find a job.”

Divided by geography, the three are united in their search for work. Like all those who find their livelihoods and lives destroyed by a sudden announcement on November 8.