Poor, Illiterate Women Will Be the Worst Casualty of Demonetisation

Illiteracy, patriarchy and a lack of familiarity with technology make poor women highly vulnerable in a cashless economy.

Representational image: Credit: Reuters

Representational image: Credit: Reuters

As soon as Jaya, her daughter Manji and daughter-in-law Saroj finish their daily cleaning work (Jaya works for me, the other two for the showrooms on the ground floor) I call them in and tell them, “You need to know about cashless transactions, this is what Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi plans.” Jaya and her daughter are illiterate, Saroj has had three years of schooling, and is, for all purposes, illiterate too.

I see their faces brighten. “That’s nice, amma,” Jaya enthuses. “Money has been tight for us, cashless would be just what we need.” As they sit around me, faces suffused with excitement, I begin to explain. Cashless is not what they think it means. “I thought Modi has declared everything will be free for the poor, no cash needed,” Jaya says, disappointment writ large on her face.

At 52, she is already a great grandmother; Manji’s 18-year-old daughter Asha has just given birth. Manji left her abusive husband, an autorickshaw driver, within a year of being married at age 16. Jaya’s alcoholic husband passed away 25 years ago, and Saroj’s husband who worked in a grocery store, committed suicide at age 28 after his employer accused him (wrongly, it turned out) of stealing a mobile and had him thrashed by the police.

The three women live in a small room in a slum. Without any man in the family, Jaya decided to get a teen-aged Asha married off “for safety” last year. Now Asha has a baby. Jaya’s is not a uniquely ill-fated family. My interactions show that most families in the same economic strata have similar distress stories, with varied details.

They have post office savings accounts but are dependent on others to make sense of the entries and fill up deposit chalans. Jaya’s family is one among millions of illiterate domestic workers who eke out a bare living through cleaning and sweeping. The 2004-5 National Sample Survey figures say there are 4.2 million domestic workers, but that is an underestimate; employees keep no records, the workers sign no muster and they are a ‘floating’ population, moving from one insecure part-time job to another.

E-payments and e-banking but no literacy

What a cruel joke on the illiterate, subsistence workers who cannot even add or multiply, and don’t understand about passwords, PINs, and the need for secrecy and vigilance. India has the world’s largest population of illiterate people. Among them, women are particularly vulnerable when socio-cultural factors put them at the mercy of the male members of their families, especially over money matters. How can we talk of e-payments without addressing the lacunae in literacy and awareness levels? Even literate citizens are not immune to banking frauds and accounts being hacked. We don’t have adequate laws to protect us from such technology-based malpractices.

How then do I convince Jaya of the benefits of “going cashless” when even seven decades after independence we have not even been able to ensure adequate literacy?

Where is the guarantee that the person she depends on to help her access her accounts online will not cheat her? When entire families share a room in a slum, how does one explain the importance of secrecy in safeguarding PIN numbers? Jaya has a mobile but not a smartphone she can use for such activities – India has over a billion phones, but most are basic mobiles used only for calls. But more crucially, not all smartphone owners have the expertise or awareness to handle e-payments and protect their accounts. Do these ‘human’ dimensions of poverty and deprivation appear on the radars of politicians, administrators and economists who declare that a little distress in the short term is worth it for the sake of long term gains to be made in fighting corruption?

“How can I not reveal my PIN and password to my ganda (husband)?,” Sushila, a maid servant in south Bengaluru, asks. “A good wife cannot have secrets from her ganda, he is her devaru ( God, protector)”.

Women face greater vulnerability as compared to men. Sushila confides that she had secretly stashed away some cash from her own earnings “to make some ornaments for my daughter-in-law when my son married – it is a matter of izzat, even among the poor” and couldn’t get the notes exchanged for fear that her husband would appropriate the money for his own needs. “He has a right, no amma? I am his, so all I have is also his to claim,” she said.

She is devastated that those notes are now worthless. Her crime? She is poor and illiterate because the government did not fulfill the constitutional promise it made nearly 70 years ago regarding education to all. To date, illiteracy is higher among Indian women.

Mason Chinna ordered his wife to stand in line at the bank to change old notes as he did not want to take time off work. His earnings from construction work are higher than what she earns from coir-rope making at a local women’s self-help group. When she asked him if she could keep some of the money for her own tea expenses since she had lost the day’s earnings, he thrashed her.

She hasn’t heard the word ‘patriarchy’, but that’s what rules her life, as it does the lives of millions of Indian women, rural and urban.

Ramya is the widow of a cobbler. She too is illiterate. Her brother-in-law handles her post office account. She cannot argue with him, assert herself, or even keep her petty earnings from housework. What does “cashless” mean to her except more dependence?

What about corruption?

How does inconveniencing the poor curb corruption, Jaya asks, laughing wryly, after I spend two hours explaining the whole idea behind demonetisation. “Amma, I have been running for six months to get new ration cards that I have been told I need. The clerks make me run a hundred times, my friend says he needs to be bribed or I won’t get anywhere – isn’t that corruption, amma?” Saroj adds, “My friend next door says she was told her card will come on the internet; what is that amma?”

What do I tell her?

For a below poverty line (BPL) card, the rules decree that the applicant has to go to the “internet” to get one. Are the rule-makers so ignorant of the reality of BPL lives? Isn’t this akin to the French queen’s comment ‘Let them eat cake’ upon being told that her starving peasant subjects had no bread to eat.

Mallika is a roadside banana seller in Bengaluru. She too is a deserted wife. Her 30-year-old widowed daughter sells flowers by the roadside. Recently Mallika was missing from her usual place. Her daughter told me she had to go to some office to sort out problems with her pension. For Mallika, missing a day’s sale means no food that night. When she has been drawing a pension for ten years, why make her run around now? Who helps her? Why doesn’t the official explain what the problem is?

Even the basic things that this section are entitled to under the law do not reach them without bribes. What corruption is demonetisation eliminating? Will Mallika – who cannot even afford treatment for a swollen leg – have to get a point of sale machine in order to get paid by her customers when they buy bananas because India is going “cashless”? How does she pay for the bananas she buys at the wholesale market every morning? How many millions of roadside vendors are there who cannot operate “e-banking”? What about the additional service charges they will have to incur, even if they agree to use ATMs and debit cards?

Sure she has a small bank account – which she hardly operates – but is that enough to ensure she is not exposed to fraud? There have been reports about the distress among other sections of the 94% of our labour force that is in the unorganised sector (carpet weavers, wood carvers of Sahranpur, farmers and garment workers) but what about the domestic workers, who are mostly women? As it is, these women have a tough time without male support. What about the wages they lose by absenting themselves from work while standing in queues to access their savings?

It will be a long time before women of the lower strata acquire their own computers, smartphones and e-cards, and the necessary familiarity with technology to protect themselves from fraud. For that, they first need education. A long way to go till the utopia of “cashless”, and even that, as illiterate Jaya points out, does not root out corruption.