One recent evening, the laughter of playing children filled the narrow lane leading to Kiran and Jagdish Sharma’s home in the Mumbai suburb of Govandi. But inside the four walls, the air of melancholia was immediately evident. Kiran Sharma, 23, and her husband, Jagdish, 30, have been in mourning for exactly a year, ever since their newborn boy died of cardio-respiratory failure the day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes would not longer be considered legal tender. A nearby hospital had refused to admit their wheezing infant because the Sharmas had invalid currency notes in their wallets.
“My husband had been saving for my delivery since we got to know that I was pregnant,” said Kiran Sharma. “He had all the money. But who could have predicted that the notes he had would become raddi [waste paper] overnight?”
Like millions of other Indians, the Sharmas had spent the evening of November 8, 2016, watching Modi’s unexpected television address to the nation. The prime minister explained that he had decided to demonetise 86% of currency in circulation in order to eradicate black money and terrorism. To Jagdish Sharma, a carpenter, and Kiran Sharma, a homemaker, none of this would seem to affect their lives. Kiran Sharma was due to deliver their first child in a few weeks, and they had spent months planning for its arrival.
Little did they know what havoc Modi’s decision would cause ordinary people. In the weeks that followed his announcement, millions of person-hours were lost as Indians queued up to exchange their old notes and 1.5 million Indians – many of them in the informal sector – lost their jobs as the economy sputtered. Around 100 people are thought to have died as they stood in line at banks, killed themselves in despair when they were unable to access the money in their accounts, or, as in the case of the Sharmas, had been turned away from hospital because they did not have new currency notes to pay with.
Sitting on the only cot in the one-room home, Kiran Sharma said that she has been frequently bursting into tears ever since she lost her son.
Jagdish Sharma said that he often finds his wife playing with the toys they had bought before the birth of their child. The crib, the clothes and the toys they had collected for the baby have now been placed at the bottom of the cot on which she spends most of her day.
An altar above their door hold several images of Hindu deities. After returning from his son’s funeral on November 9, Jagdish Sharma had thrown out all the pictures. But the neighbours put the photographs back, hoping the images would provide solace to the grieving couple. That doesn’t seem to have worked. “I have lost faith in God,” said Jagdish Sharma, who now spends most of his time away from home.
An unexpected ordeal
The morning after the demonetisation was announced, Kiran Sharma went into labour five weeks before she was due. She delivered the baby at home with the aid of some neighbours. “My boy even cried at birth and he was completely healthy,” she recalled. The couple decided to immediately take the child to Jeevanjyot nursing home nearby. During her pregnancy, Kiran Sharma had gone there for regular check ups.
But the hospital authorities refused to admit Kiran Sharma and her baby. The staff asked the couple to make a Rs 6,000 deposit. According to an FIR the couple later registered at the Shivaji Nagar police station, Dr Sheetal Kamath from the Jeevanjyot nursing home asked Jagdish Sharma to pay the deposit in Rs 100 rupee notes.
Jagdish Sharma said that before the family left for the hospital, they had gathered some money from their neighbours and friends. They managed to scrape together Rs 3,500 in Rs 100 notes. “We even collected all the coins in the house but all efforts failed,” he said. Sharma had the remaining Rs 2,500 required for the deposit in a combination of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes. But Modi had declared these notes invalid overnight.
Suddenly, the baby became breathless. The Sharmas’ neighbour, Kavita Chavan, who had accompanied the couple, said that Jagdish Sharma began to cry as he begged the doctor to admit his son. “The doctor insisted that she couldn’t do anything because the currency notes Jagdish had were useless,” said Chavan.
She added: “I heard the doctor telling the nurses not to touch the child until the father brings money in legal tender,” Chavan said.
As their pleas for treatment fell on deaf ears, the couple decided to go to another hospital, approximately 4 kilometres away in Ghatkopar. However, on their way there, the infant died. The death certificate says that the newborn died of “terminal cardio-respiratory failure in a premature child of 31 weeks along with respiratory failure”. Given that doctors are now able to save premature babies as young as 22 weeks, the newborn perhaps had a chance at survival if he had received prompt treatment.
After the baby’s death was highlighted in the media, the Central government announced that hospitals would continue to accept Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes for a specific period and told hospitals that no patient should be denied treatment. The Maharashtra health department even set up a helpline to address complaints with respect to demonetisation and hospital bills.
‘Modi should open a bank account for me’
Some people who viewed the situation without emotion suggested that Jagdish Sharma would probably have been able to pay the hospital deposit if he had a bank account or ATM card. But even a year later, despite the government’s claims that it had reduced paperwork to open accounts, Sharma has not been able to get any banks to enroll him.
“There is always some problem,” he said. “Even, if I open the account, how will I maintain the minimum balance?”
After losing his child, Sharma’s livelhood went into a dip. “Because of this notebandi, I lost my wages as our boss was unable to pay us in cash and none of us had accounts,” said Sharma. “Most of us don’t have any bank accounts and deal only in cash.”
The Sharmas are not planning to have another child in the near future. “My wife has lost her mental balance,” said Jagdish Sharma. “And who knows, if we again have a child and the government does something like this and we lose everything all over again.”
Said Kiran Sharma: “We were prepared for the child. The government and the doctor are responsible for the death of my son.”