What happens when a shehari, concerned by disturbing reports of distress in the rural areas decides to ignore the lack of news and go see for himself? Something very interesting. What follows is a short account of one such trip taken by Shuvankar Mukherjee, who decided to find out for himself what was really going on in rural India after demonetisation. He is not a reporter, just an urban citizen and sadly, due to inexperience, he has made promises of anonymity to villagers who are worried about potential political consequences that he is not willing to break. However, even anonymized, this account from the eyes of one unfamiliar with rural India and yet cares deeply enough to make an effort to enquire after their well being - in person - is refreshing, for its candid observations.
Ever since Demonetization started in India, my friends and I have been quite apprehensive about Government of India's preparation and fulfillment of its stated goals. Many people in Urban India are blissfully unaware of the disastrous impact of demonetisation on Rural India. Patchy news was coming through email and social media, but mainstream media (specially TV) lacked the spine to show the real picture to the people and to the government.
So I decided to do something about it. I decided to visit a village with no Bank or ATM.
Quite early this morning, I reached Sealdah Station at Kolkata. On the way, I saw poor people queuing up near banks near Sealdah well before banks open, but that's the familiar urban story now. At the Ticket Counter at the station, I asked if they were accepting old “Legal Tender” of Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000? (Though I had none).
“Your fare is only Rs 30, We can't give you change of Rs. 970. At express train counter they are accepting those notes” I was told. I had only asked to find out, so I got my ticket and boarded the train. The station was as full of the usual bustle as possible at early hours.
At 9:25 am, I reached my destination after crossing the deep-suburbia of Calcutta. No Hustle-Bustle like the Junctions of Sonarpur or Baruipur here. On the the other platform there were quite a lot of people waiting for the train to Calcutta. I asked a couple of villagers , if they were going to work in city. Ramu and Abdul both had same reply: “Going to Bank to exchange Old notes”
Before I could ask another person, the train came and all of them boarded.
So I went out of the platform, asked the station master: “Are you accepting old currency?”
“Only for Monthly and Quarterly tickets” came the measured reply.
I asked the shops at the station: “Where did you exchange your old notes?”
The Cigarette-Pan Vendor said, “The supplier took for a day, but doesn't accept now. My brother goes to town to exchange old notes. Some days he gets, some days he doesn't. I am having problems in buying goods to sell now”.
The adjacent tea-stall vendor asked if I was journalist and where my TV camera was. She is also having problems now. Breads, Biscuits are not coming as regularly as they used to. Her husband goes to town everyday to exchange notes. They are unable to pay for eggs (but the supplier has agreed to go on credit).
The local Barber was also present at tea-stall and he said he is having a tougher time than others. People are skipping the haircut and the shave. Besides, he has had to visit 3 days to a exchange a meager 2,500 rupees in old notes.
The cycle-stand boys wondered whether if all their complaints were known to the world, they could face the wrath of political workers. I assured them that their name and place will not be disclosed. It is to honor this promise that the article is published without photographs and real names.
Although banks and ATMs are not present, schools are present in this village. The headmaster agreed to talk after some hesitation. They had faced problems with attendance of school teachers. "Today almost everybody is present. You see most of us stay in Kolkata or suburbs. So, if you go to the bank, you'll have to take the day off from work. But we adjusted the classes." he said. I asked about the attendance of students. "Some had to miss classes as one parent is working, and the other has to go to the Bank."
"Are you getting funds for the mid-day meal?" I asked.
"I'm afraid, we don't have sufficient funds. We had cash in old currency. Rice, pulses and oil are coming from the government. So we are making khichudi. Vegetables and eggs we are getting on credit but supply is infrequent. So we are rationing the mid-day meal for now. We usually give a better meal to the students."
It was the same story in the other school also. But they added that the panchayat is helping them get food supplies for the mid-day meal.
So off I went to the local panchayat office. “How are you dealing with old money being canceled?”
An angry question came back from a young man: “Do you think this village has black money?”
I had to reply with an honest “No”. I haven't seen any four-wheeler there, rode cycle-rickshaw and at most saw few motor-bikes. The brick-houses are all single-storied. Tallest build was 3 storied school.
A farmer standing nearby shared, “Our vegetables are not selling is right price, so we are giving them to schools on credit. We have no cash to plant more vegetables ”. Another Farmer chimed in with “Or plan for next winter crop”. The angry young man, now mollified, said that it was the same for the chicken farmer, man with the fruit garden and the local fisherman.
“How about NREGA work?” I asked. “We have no cash to pay for NREGA work now. People come to work at NREGA for regular cash only. Our leader has gone to get this thing fixed....”
“We had taken loans to make these vegetable farming. We have to pay that to them too” it was the first farmer again.
“Which bank?" I asked. "You have Banks in this village?”
“In Next village, by the big road (highway)... there's the Grameen Bank (Rural Bank)”
“How far is it?”
“8-12 kilometers away”
But the others had caught the train to go to the city. “Why isn't everybody going to that bank?”
“Many go, but that bank caters to 7 or 8 villages -about 4 lakh people. They can handle about 200 people a day and then the cash finishes for the day. Going to the city or nearby town is better ” the farmer explained. The young man added, “Half of the village has gone to nearby towns and some even to Kolkata to exchange notes. Now hear that if they get money, they will have ink on their fingers, even to exchange 2000, 3000 rupees only (the limit stated by the government is at 4,000 rupees). One person exchanged from Kolkata. He got a 2000 rupee note. Now he can't purchase anything here with that note. We tease him a lot about it.”
The young man showed me the village market nearby. From the fish-seller to butcher to vegetable-seller all were still waiting for the customers that rarely come, if at all. Usually this market is would to be sold out by now. The grocers are having a tough time too. They had to give a lot of goods in credit and they still had old notes to exchange. Local seed and fertilizer sellers had same story too.
A subdued environment all-around. Helpless people were asking “Why is it happening to us?”
Although a resolute one replied, "We are still on a railway map. You should go and visit villages that are not connected by rail or highway someday.”
Just after noon, as shops started closing, I took the rickshaw back to the station and hopped on to a lazy near-empty train to Calcutta. From one nightmare to another. I landed in Sealdah to see serpentine queues in front of the Banks and ATMs.
Rural and Urban India - Now all is a Demonetized Hell.