Ever since Modi announced the demonetisation of 500 and 1000 rupee notes, I have been going to the local market daily to see the impact it would have on us. The impact has been nothing short of disastrous. While numbers shared in terms of statistics state decrease in business as being around 50% - more or less, depending on business, the street vendors who comprise the local market are not "businesses" in the sense of appearing on those statistics. Today is 10 days since the demonetisation, and the local market has shrunk to a third of its size, with business vanishing day after day, till today, not even the vegetable sellers had business. Usually, what little business happens revolves around vegetables - naturally, as a daily necessity and perishable.
The only customer in this above image is the woman towards the left with the red dupatta. She walked away without buying anything.
The size of the market itself has shrunk from about a quarter of a kilometer in four rows of tightly packed stalls and crowds so dense that we walked only a couple of a steps at a time to a whole lot of "nothing going on" cluttering some fifity meters loosely - I rode a bicycle through. Lives are being destroyed and for what?
The vendors no longer accept the notes for 500 and 1000 rupees. While they did, they had some sale. But vegetables and most items are not very costly and they soon ran out of change and discovered that it was not easy changing their currency notes at the bank despite assurances by the Prime Minister.
Many of them don't have bank accounts. They also don't make enough profits for their income to be taxable, so there is nothing illegal about this.
Some problems faced:
- Long queues. Essentially exchanging currency at the bank is as good as writing off at least half of the day.
- Banks refusing those who are not customers. Several banks at several times have refused people who had come to exchange notes citing a shortage of notes and necessity of serving their customers.
- Unrealistic limits. The limit of exchanging four thousand rupees is unrealistic for them. It translates to 8 sales. Earlier they could use different identification papers to get around that, but with the new inking rule, it is a one shot deal. This is more likely to be the reason for reduced queues for exchange than the absurd theories of "agents". Sure, there would be agents, but there is just so much profit in standing in a queue all day and earning a few hundred rupees. Any serious laundering business would have access to politicians and banks to do large transfers to make any realistic profits that are more than an income comparable to labour. Several of them said they spent the first half of the day at the bank exchanging notes and did business in the evening, accepting old notes in order to sell vegetables - they refused to say this on camera. Regardless, the new rule about inking puts paid to this strategy as well and they are essentially without any business at all. And the limit of two thousand rupees makes living itself a cruel joke.
But it is worse. The limitation on exchange of currency along with inking fingers to prevent repeated exchange threatens to drive several of these people to complete destitution. Leaving aside business, they are essentially required to manage their expenses within two thousand rupees till the end of the year from the sound of it. Earlier it was two weeks, but there are new rules daily and now it seems like a one shot deal till the year end. The villages fare even worse. There is no money.
They could open a bank account, stand in one queue to deposit, then another to withdraw. There seems to not be enough business to justify spending a couple of days doing this, and by now few have cash to leave in the bank.
What is happening here is a war on the poor. While we who use bank accounts can withdraw up to 25 thousand rupees a week (which amounts to 50 thousand a fortnight and a lakh a month) in addition to being able to do the heavy lifting of our expenses by cards and online transactions and get our salaries seamlessly in our accounts, these people are reduced to having to pay for everything with a few thousand rupees for the near future, while their income is also destroyed. Yes, this means rent, electricity bills, food, doctors, groceries, whatever, everything. In the two thousand rupees they can change and whatever little money they have earned with business at a standstill. It seems to be a deliberate starvation of countless Indians in order to force them into the government's plan to get all the money into the banks.
The message is clear. Put your money in the bank or perish. Whether your income is taxable or not. Whether the bank offers you anything meaningful or not. If you want to live on more than a few thousand rupees, put your money in the bank.
In my eyes, this is nothing short of a crime being perpetrated on them. What is worse is that even if they comply, there is no protecting them from ruin at this point, because their livelihoods are gone and the cash situation in the market is unlikely to normalize for several months.
Last month, I hired a local woman to bathe and massage my son. It isn't that I can't do it, but she was desperate and I didn't know how else to help her. She had a few other jobs, and I assured her she had this one for as long as she wished. Yesterday, she was thanking me with tears in her eyes and said she would starve if not for the little money she gets from me - all other work she could find was gone. In that short span of 10 days, she lost work in three homes. She didn't get paid for half the month either, because no one had money to give her. People are laying off domestic help because they can't afford. All I could do was assure her that she still had our job as long as she wanted and that I would see what I could do. Worst comes worst, I'll invite her to have all meals here or even let go of her dingy rented room and move in with us. She is old, illiterate and working hard all day just to survive.
I spoke with a dejected vegetable seller today. He had made losses for 10 days straight and was at his wits end. He had tried to find alternative work, any work, but to no avail. Many local businesses are letting go of any employees they don't need, let alone hiring anyone for work. He was running out of money. He was laughing at himself, but it was clear that if he didn't joke about it, he would break down crying in front of me - a complete stranger who simply cared to ask and it broke him. I have been upset ever since. His last joke to me before I couldn't bear it and left was, "I can't even afford to die. If I died, my wife doesn't even have money to cremate me or do my rites. Isme bhi nalayak (unworthy even at this)."
Note: For ten days I have gone to these people. Taken photos, videos, spoken with them. The situation has only deteriorated till today there is literally nothing happening. The vendors have seen me go around with my phone, clicking pictures, talking to some people. I've seen them. I've interacted with some of them. Last two days, a few people have started approaching me. TV has shown them that journalists come and report from people like them, and they mistakenly imagine me to be one. Alas, TV never comes this far outside convenience, and I doubt the stories in other markets are all that different. They all ask me this one thing, "tell people about us. Tell them what is going on here. We cannot last long like this." I have nothing to reply. What do I tell them? The government knows and is fine with their plight? I just take their stories and tweet them relentlessly and write about them hoping that if more people realize what is going on, perhaps more people will oppose it.