Rishikesh, a popular tourist destination, has been hard hit by demonetisation. But political affiliations mean people aren’t willing to criticise the move, despite the impact on their livelihoods.
Rishikesh and adjoining Muni-ki-Reti have a special place on India’s tourist map as the place where the Ganga river enters the plains from the Garhwal Himalayas. Rishikesh is a place of pilgrimage as well as a famous tourism resort. Many foreign tourists are known to be so fascinated by the sights and sounds of Rishikesh that they stay here for much longer periods than what is required for mere sightseeing.
However, this winter has been a very lean season for tourism due to the direct and indirect impact of demonetisation. Anil, who owns a store that sells gifts, and ornamental and decoration items, said, “In winter we have good sales from foreign tourists but their number has been reduced to just 10 per cent of the expected norm. Our overall sales are down to 50% of what one expects in this season. Conditions are still relatively secure for people like us but it has been worse for poor people, workers and villagers.”
Anil said that foreign tourists began to leave after the note ban was announced as they found it difficult to cope with the new situation. As a result, small guest houses and hotels where foreign tourists stay for long periods have suffered. But even in lean seasons, the hotels have to maintain their infrastructure. Some properties have been leased and a certain fixed rent has to be paid to the owner irrespective of how much business the hotel may have done. Post demonetisation, this has become extremely problematic.
I talked to a group of six workers in a hotel that had been badly affected by the note ban. One person said overall business has gone down by 70% and that they have been idle for some time since demonetisation. To a great extent, everyone from the owner to the waiters has been affected by the note ban, the group said.
Jeevanlal sells various trinkets in a cart in front of bigger shops. He said now there are fewer visitors and they are spending even less. As a result, his sales have reduced by about 50%. Things are far from normal, he said, even nearly 70 days after demonetisation was announced.
Bhagwati Prasad is one of the oldest shopkeepers of the area who has sold everything from keychains to toys to keep his small business afloat. Demonetisation has cause a slump in sales, another setback for Prasad. But he said things are slowly starting to normalise.
Contradicting Prasad’s view is Arvind, a bangle-seller, who said that it may take much longer for normalcy to return. Interviewed 70 days after demonetisation, he said that his sales are down by 70% compared to before the note ban. He hopes things will improve by April.
Neeraj was really happy to have us as his first customers of the day at his trinkets stall. He said that he had been waiting for almost four hours for a customer. His business has declined by about 50% since demonetisation.
Yash Paliwal, a dealer in Ayurvedic products, said that the government did not make any special arrangements for foreign tourists while announcing demonetisation because of which they started leaving Rishikesh. As a result, shops and businesses that depended heavily on foreign tourists have suffered badly. Despite his business suffering, Paliwal said he supports demonetisation.
There are many others in Rishikesh who shared Paliwal’s views on demonetisation; although they have suffered due to the note ban, they hoped that something good comes out of it for the country. Paliwal said smilingly, “Let’s see what they do for people like us in the Budget.”
In a nearby shop selling gems a lady at the counter was quick to respond to my question on whether demonetisation had impacted their business. She said there had been a harmful impact on her business after demonetisation. But as she spoke, a gentleman, presumably the owner, walked into the shop and asked her to stop talking. She then told me to speak to him instead. He said, “Please note that there has been no adverse impact of demonetisation. True, there has been some slow down due to recession which is related to the world recession. You must be familiar with the recessionary conditions in the entire world. Have you read about recession in Russia? Hence whatever little slow down in this business exists is due to this worldwide trend. It is complete wrong to relate this to demonetisation.”
I walked out of the shop puzzled – how could two people in the same shop have such contradictory views on the impact of demonetisation on their business. When I raised this question to another shopkeeper, he said, “Strong BJP supporters will never admit that demonetisation has been harmful.”
While the opinions on demonetisation may be influenced by political affiliations, the overall sentiment in Rishikesh reflected a strong resentment against the impact on livelihood caused by the note ban.
Bharat Dogra is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements and initiatives.