Post Demonetisation, Rural Health Takes a Serious Hit in Saharanpur

Not only are villagers unable to access timely medical care because of the lack of cash, nutrition levels are falling, making people more vulnerable to illness.

Resham spent a long time queuing at the bank trying to take out money for her husband's treatment. She was unable to get any cash out and her husband Chander died without medical care.

Resham spent a long time queuing at the bank trying to take out money for her husband’s treatment. She was unable to get any cash out and her husband Chandar died without medical care.

This is the second in a three-part series of reports on the impact of demonetisation on farmers, workers, artisans, small entrepreneurs and traders in Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur district. Read the first part here

Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh: In Sultanpur Chilkana village of the Sarsawa block in Saharanpur, Resham breaks down while talking about the death of her husband Chandar. Wiping her tears, she tells us that he was very ill and needed medical attention urgently. But due to the cash crunch following notebandi, instead of arranging for medical attention, she had to stand in a bank queue for a long time and still could not withdraw the money required. She says, “I have never felt so helpless in my life as on that day.” Her two sons, who work as casual workers, had been mostly without work after the demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes. Her husband’s employer is a well-to-do farmer, but when approached he said that in the present circumstances he does not have any cash. Chandar could not get timely treatment and died.

People from the village gave another such example: Shyamlal,a kachri or snack vendor, also died due to the lack of medical treatment after not being able to access cash.

In the neighbouring village of Patni, people in a group discussion gave examples of five such deaths in the village during the month following demonetisation, in which not getting medical attention because of the lack of cash was a big factor. The five women from this village who died in these circumstances are Rakhi, Sharmila, Saalu, Farzaan and Intzar.

Bhagwanti, Rakhi’s mother, is inconsolable as she talks about the death of her daughter, a bright BA student for whom everyone had high hopes. Bhagwanti’s son had been getting very little employment and reduced wages in the days of notebandi. When Rakhi fell, ill precious time was lost in frantic efforts to collect whatever money the family could mobilise. However, the first hospital they went to refused to accept old Rs 500 notes even thought it was an emergency. They were travelling to another hospital when Rakhi died.

Bhagwanti's daughter Rakhi died after the first hospital they went to refused to accept old currency.

Bhagwanti’s daughter Rakhi died after the first hospital they went to refused to accept old currency.

Saalu lost her life at the age of only 15 because new currency notes were not available when she needed treatment. Hasina starts crying when recalling the death of her 38-year-old daughter-in-law Farzana in similar circumstances.

Om Singh, a worker in Saharanpur, said that his eight-month-old niece in Sunaiti Kharkari village died after a brief illness as no funds were available for her treatment in the situation of cash crunch.
His employer, Irshad Ahmed, said that even he have not been able to arrange proper medical care for his ill child because of the lack of cash. Another worker, Aamir, said that his mother had become bedridden after standing in a bank queue for too long. She is also very tense as he is likely to soon lose his present employment due to the cash crunch.

Mental stress is very widespread as people’s worries about meeting daily expenses and needs have increased drastically. What was taken for granted earlier has become a matter of great tension.

Tension is greatest for those families who have an ill patient. Several people complained about how the health of those with illnesses deteriorated as medical care was delayed because of cash scarcities. Mohammad Sajid, a wood-carving artisan, said that at a time when he should have been near his sister Samarjehan who is undergoing a serious operation, he was kept busy trying to somehow exchange old notes to arrange the money for her surgery. Khursheed Ahmed, a workshop owner in Saharanpur city, said that when his brother-in-law Murad had an accident, there was long delay in treatment because of the cash crunch, making the situation worse.

Decrease in nutrition

Representative image. Credit: Reuters

Representative image. Credit: Reuters

While medical care is becoming more difficult to access, health problems are likely to increase not just due to increasing mental tensions and worries but also due to a significant decline in nutrition levels. I asked workers toiling at a wood unit whether their families are likely to experience hunger if present conditions persist, and they replied that this is already happening. They and several other workers said that many families are now cooking only one meal a day. Yusuf told The Wire, “Ganimat hai (we consider ourselves rather fortunate) if we get one proper meal a day.” Workers said often they are now eating roti with just some chutney . Khursheed said, “Let anyone deny the existence of hunger, malnutrition and deprivation, and I will take him on a door-to-door survey to see the real situation.”

For children suffering from malnutrition, another reason for distress is the insult and humiliation they feel when they are punished or sent back from school time and again due to the non payment of fees. In Patni village, children going to a private school talked about how teachers made them stand with raised hands or even made them sit like a “murga (chicken)” when fee payments were delayed. In rural as well as urban areas, students whose fees were not deposited in time are being sent back home, sometimes even on exam days, to exert pressure on their parents to depositing the fee.

Women are in the thick of all these tensions as most often it is they who have to keep the household running no matter what. Women in these villages had been saving money whenever they got the chance, including what they got as gifts on festive or ceremonial occasions, often not telling male members of their families about it. They had saved this money to help the family in difficult times. But with demonetisation, they had to deposit most of this money in banks. It is unlikely that they will get it back in their personal possession. In one stroke, their closest source of social security is gone. At some places they heard taunts about keeping this money hidden, in other cases they were even beaten up for keeping it concealed so far. Domestic conflicts, including violence against women, are increasing as the situation remains tense within households after demonetisation, women in these villages said.

Bharat Dogra is a freelance journalist who has extensively covered agriculture and the problems of rural India.