AS CASHIER Pyare Lal Sahu sorts a stack of hundred-rupee notes, a timid hand stretches out a passbook from across the counter. “You will have to do with Rs 500,” Sahu says. Next is an old woman, speaking in Gondi language. The man next in line translates: her granddaughter is unwell, and needs to be taken to Narayanpur, the district headquarters, 65 km away. Sahu stops laughing; his hands move faster – “I can’t give you more than Rs 2000. There will be others like you too,” he says.
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In Orccha, in the part of Chhattisgarh they call Abhujmaad (literally, the land of the unknown), with no ATM and one state-run rural bank, its two employees have to play the sole judge on who needs what.
Abhujmaad’s 4,000 sq km that is still largely devoid of government presence. In fact, it was opened to unrestricted access for “outsiders” only in
2009. It can be entered through Bijapur and Dantewada, but Orccha, the block headquarters, is generally seen as the gateway top Abhujmaad.
At the one-room Chhattisgarh Rajya Gramin Bank, Sahu – there is only the bank manager S K Dhruv, besides him – says, “The government doesn’t send money here. I have to go to Narayanpur, 65 km away, to bring new currency here. I go twice a week, and the bank remains closed on both days. It takes the entire day to go and return. So when I get back, people have already been waiting for two days.”
Even Narayanpur, the district headquarters, is considered backward, says Dhruv, “so forget money for Orccha. Sometimes we can bring back Rs 50,000; other days a little more. We can meet only 25 per cent of the demand for cash. Which is why we evaluate based on need.”
Yet, there is little anger for the few people in the queues. For in Abhujmaad, with almost near-absence of markets or tradable commodities other than essential foodstuff, cash has never really meant much. “We have little requirement for cash. The government society gives rice at Rs 1 per kg, and those who don’t avail of that, grow what they eat in the forest. We don’t use oil for cooking, and everything is boiled in water. We hunt when we want to. Why do we need cash,” asks Hunga, who lives in Jubada village.
Kosa, from Gadadi, adds, “In the rains, with no roads, we get cut off for months anyway. We survive on our own, and trade for goods with each other. We don’t need much cash.”
Locals do have one word of warning though, which bank officials warily agree with. While cash may not be of utmost importance, the one occasion it
does mean something of importance is during “melamadi”, which begins in January. “This is when all villagers will come out, walk for kilometres, and reach markets in bigger centres such as Orccha and Chhote Dongar,” a local teacher says. “They buy utensils, new clothes, and there is festivity. If that essential part of tribal custom is put in danger, there will be anger against the government.”