Modi Government's Currency Demonetisation Ignores Everyone Who Is Not the Urban Elite

For the poor or those living in the hinterland, the announcement that Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes will no longer be legal tender has meant fear, panic and immense hassles.

People cueing outside an ATM in New Delhi on Friday. Credit: Shome Basu

People cueing outside an ATM in New Delhi on Friday. Credit: Shome Basu

Dehradun: Usha Devi works as a domestic worker in the areas around Dehradun, the capital of Uttarakhand. She had to work after her husband, who was in the army, died many years ago. She gets paid in Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes. She has a bank account to which her late husband’s pension is deposited. But she has no idea how to use it – her son withdraws the money for her, but cannot take time off during banking hours to stand in a queue.

“I don’t know how to use a bank or use an ATM. They frighten me,” she says. Now in panic, she is living on udhaar (credit), until her employer changes her salary into legal tender.

This fear, created by the prime minister’s attempt to curb black money by demonetising Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes at short notice, is real and is repeated millions of times over across the enormous cash-based unorganised sector in India.

Take driver Salim Mohammed for example. He has a bank account but is chary of using it – he fears that he will be cheated. He collects his money in Rs 1000 notes to take home. He has a post office account too, which his employer runs for him. The post office on Rajpur Road, Dehradun, however, has had problems with its broadband service – from the government-run BSNL – for months now. Transactions are few and far between as the line is usually down. These are the places to which the poor have been told to go to exchange their invalid currency notes for new ones.

Sunil Kumar, a plumber, stood in a line that stretched uphill for almost a kilometre at a State Bank of India branch for three hours before he got his Rs 4,000 for the day exchanged. He has just completed a major job and has to pay his fellow workers. Not one of them will accept large currency notes.

Aslam Khan, a painting contractor, told me, “Didi, please don’t go to the bank now. Poor people have crowded around them and they are very worried.”

A local trader, meanwhile, is offering an exchange scheme – Rs 100 off every Rs 500 or Rs 1000 note. The great Indian jugaad (making do) always comes majestically to the fore at times like this.

I live in a village in the foothills of the Himalayas, a few kilometres above Dehradun. No courier delivers to our area. There are very few online grocery and vegetable services available in the city. Most shops do not accept cards. The internet is not always reliable. My family has three different internet service providers and BSNL has not worked for two months. There is a small branch of a nationalised bank half a kilometre away but the ATM works only occasionally. The bank manager has requested his customers to give him a couple of days to understand what’s going on before they come to change their money: “It may take a few hours in line if you insist on coming now”. The situation in the deeper hinterland can only be imagined.

People still line up because they have no option. Perhaps unremarkably, those living in remoter parts of India, are being lectured by various Town Mouse friends. The gratuitous advice on social media – which Salim, Usha Devi or Sunil do not access – is why can’t the poor open bank accounts? The employers are told – you must open bank accounts for your staff, you must teach them to buy groceries through electronic wallets. Marie Antoinette comes to mind but the Queen of France lived high above the hoi polloi. Can some Indians not even look outside their air-conditioned car windows to see how the rest of India lives?

This is from a Facebook comment by a very senior, retired government servant who lives in Dehradun: “My domestic help went on a 12 day chhutti (holiday) to his village deep in the interior of the hills. He took Rs 10,000 with him all in 500 rupee notes. He has this cash and nothing else. Today that wad of notes has ceased to be legal tender. The news must have reached his village, but none of the methods of using this hard earned money in force are applicable. What does he do?”

This is the question that has neither been answered nor tackled by the government or its cheerleaders. There is an urgency in a life lived day to day, with money earned every day. Every little bit counts. The food on the table comes from the small amounts of cash earned that day. India’s massive unorganised sector lives on cash. These are their stories.

Then there are senior citizens, rich or poor, for whom no provisions have been made. Many are not internet-savvy, many keep cash at home for medical emergencies, large numbers live alone. What provisions have been made for them?

The scheme is supposed to flush out black money from the system, presumably from small traders and merchants who do not have offshore accounts and law firms headquartered in Panama or the Cayman Islands. Ironically, it is these very traders and merchants who have come through for their fellow citizens and have offered credit to their customers. And they, like the poor, are very angry indeed.