Demonetisation: Voices From Varanasi, Modi's Constituency

Many of Varanasi's famous looms have stopped running due to the cash shortage and the city's small vendors are also struggling with falling sales.

Representational image of a silk weaver in Varanasi. Credit: Andrea Kirby/ Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

Representational image of a silk weaver in Varanasi. Credit: Andrea Kirby/ Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

Varanasi: Like in many parts of the country, the centre’s sudden decision to demonetise Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes on November 8 has created widespread chaos and confusion in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency Varanasi as well.

Many people that The Wire spoke to in the temple town – which sent Modi to the Lok Sabha in 2014 with a whopping 5,81,022 votes – sought “immediate relief” from the centre’s decision which has been disrupting their daily lives for nearly a month now.

The general sentiment of the people in Varanasi’s market places mirrored that of common people elsewhere too, with people feeling frustrated about the inadequate supply of cash in banks and ATMs and having to miss work to stand in long queues to access their own money.

Varanasi has a vibrant local economy – which mostly functions cash and credit –  that is largely dependent on its famous Banarasi sari industry, and the thousands of international and domestic tourists that visit the city’s temples and the revered ghats of the Ganga every year.

Vishal Kesharwani, who runs a merchant shop in Malviya Market, near the Chowk area, felt the government should reconsider the issue. “With little cash in supply, many people are moving around with a bundle of Rs 100 [notes]. People can purchase only certain items with such an amount and are therefore prioritising their necessities. It is affecting business. Many are also approaching us with only Rs 2000 notes, and we don’t have enough cash to give them in return.”

He added, “The prime minister is talking about [a] cashless economy but this city is not even used to regular banking transactions, unlike the metros. This is also the truth of most of the India.”


Disgruntled weavers

In an election speech in Varanasi, Modi, as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, had told those assembled, “Ma Ganga has called me, and I am here to serve the weavers of this holy city.”

Ironically, it is the weavers of the city that now seem to bear the biggest grudge against their prime minister.

Devkant Verma, who runs his business from the Badi Bazaar area, told this correspondent, “How can we assume that all black money will suddenly fade away with this move? This is merely rhetoric, done keeping an eye on the coming Uttar Pradesh elections and to divert people’s attention from basic issues.”

People assembling in front of the Badi Bazaar mosque – mostly weavers – were vocal too. Afaq, the oldest among them, said, “In spite of living in the prime minister’s constituency, it has come to the weavers as a big blow. Here, in this area, only two of the eight power looms are working. The rest have shut down work because of [the] lack of cash to pay the workers and also [the] absence of the workers themselves. Till November 24, many workers had to stand in queue[s] the whole day to exchange their old notes or now those who have bank accounts are taking a day off to take out cash. Everybody is struggling to cope with lack of cash in our day-to-day life. In Varanasi, you need only cash to buy everyday things.”

Yet another weaver, who wished to remain anonymous, pointed out, “Ours is a credit-based business, we can’t think of going completely cashless. A weaver anyway gets little, may be Rs 500 a day, most of them have no bank account, are in a hand-to-mouth situation. [The] lack of cash will push such a person even more into poverty.”

Riyajuddin, who runs a loom, said, “We are unable to pay salaries. We are not a big trader, and most of our business runs on the basis of hard cash flow. So we are badly affected.” He said, “Most of us have dealt with fewer amount[s] of money in Rs 100 notes. Suddenly, the decision turned the entire business cycle.”

In the latest edition of ‘Mann ki Baat’, Modi urged the people of the country to pledge themselves to working towards a cashless society in an attempt to emphasise the lofty ambitions that spurred the government’s decision to demonetise higher denomination notes.

When asked about the prime minister’s appeal, Rijajuddin said, “Most of the bunkers (weavers) don’t even have a bank account; they are not educated. The government must first take some vital steps to educate them about how a cashless society works.”

Rahib, a young weaver, however, added, “We still have hope that the prime minister will soon fix the growing chaos.”

Paanwallahs aren’t immune either


Besides the sari, Varanasi is also known for its delicious paan. The ubiquitous paan shops are where people gather after work and often engage in banter about the government’s decisions, air out their opinions on politics and so on.

Ghanshyam baba, a pan shop owner near Varanasi’s Ramkatora area, is also facing a drop in business since his shop deals in small change, which has become a rarity these days. However, in Ghanshyam’s case, there’s also a bright side to demonetisation.

“Those people who always used to buy things from me on credit and consistently dodged payment are suddenly approaching me and many of my fellow paanwallahs for not only the unpaid amount but for advance payment, but in the currency of old 500/1000 rupee notes. At least, I am happy that I have got the pending dues back now,” he told The Wire.

A weaver in Varanasi's Badi Bazaar area. He has shut down his loom due to a lack of cash. Credit: Shwetank Mishra

A weaver in Varanasi’s Badi Bazaar area. He has shut down his loom due to a lack of cash. Credit: Shwetank Mishra

Some vendors are still optimistic

Vegetable vendors in the Sigra Sabji Mandi area have not been immune to low sales in the last three weeks. They have begun selling their produce on credit to customers they know “for two-three days”, but some were still optimistic about the move.

“I am hopeful. I think nine out of ten people are satisfied with this move. I am very optimistic that this will save our nation from the menace of black money,” said vendor Sunil.

Pritam, another vendor, however, added, “It seems the farmers are facing more trouble than us; many of them have stopped coming from the nearby villages to the mandi. So if this trend continues, we will have to ration the stocks.”

When asked about cashless transactions and popular e-commerce platforms like Paytm, Pritam, Sunil and others were clearly unaware of these options.

“There is no term like Paytm, it’s ATM, from where people can take out their money [that they] put in the banks. Paytm is the misspelt term of ATM,” Sunil said.

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