“Paise milhi ka (Will I get money)?” an elderly man asks across the rickety glass counter. His feet are bare, his shirt tattered. For three days, since the Friday bazaar, Sohan Darro, like many others, has been coming to the SBI ‘Customer Service Point’ in Koyelibeda village, deep in Bastar’s jungles, to ask the same question. Rinku Sahare is tired of giving the same response, and the irritation shows. There is no money to give, he repeats. “Bas thode din ke dikkat howega (It will only be a problem for a few days),” says Sahare, who has been contracted by the bank to run the centre. Darro had walked away quietly the first two times. Not anymore. His weak voice shaking, he says, “Dikkat na kahe. Khae baar ghar mein kuchu nahi (Don’t call it an inconvenience. There is nothing to eat at home).”
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Located 25 km from the closest small town of Antagarh, on a near unmotorable road, and surrounded by forests, Koylibeda is the tehsil headquarters. Apart from its 2,800 residents, the village which is one of the worst Naxal-hit areas in Bastar’s Kanker district caters to 17 panchayats, 55 villages, and over 20,000 people. One ICICI Bank branch and an ATM that opened six months ago in Koylibada caters to all of them. For some villages, that means a 20-km walk through hills, streams and rivers to reach the ATM.
Friday was the first day a fresh stock of currency arrived at the bank. As villagers and BSF personnel rushed to withdraw, it emptied in two hours. The ATM has no money now. And the SBI Customer Service Point, which allows people to deposit and withdraw up to Rs 2,000 per day has no money to give. Outside the CSP centre on Sunday morning, small groups of villagers sit on their haunches, most of them exhausted. None has gone home since the Friday bazaar, as their homes are too far away to make the journey repeatedly, and barely eaten since then. The villagers have with them small makeshift bags bearing their savings. For three days, there has been no Internet connection either, and hence even deposits have become impossible. “The forces are building a road, and must have dug up the line. It is always like this here. When there is connectivity, there is no electricity. When there is connectivity, there is no electricity,” Sahare shrugs.
Darro says he rushed to Koylibeda with his money “after our sarpanch told us the cash would become useless if we didn’t put it in accounts and withdraw new money”.
Most people here got bank accounts only in the past two years, a majority of them under the Jan Dhan Yojana. Now there are thousands of accounts, with earnings either from MNREGA labour or government-paid tendu patta collections.
“They give us money in Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes,” points out Mohan Singh Patel, a Koylibeda resident and farmer.
The tribals can’t do without cash as almost the entire economy here, from the weekly bazaar to the buying and selling of grains, and expenditure on festivals and marriages, is cash-driven. “The closest town where a card might work is Bhanupratapur, 60 km away,” Patel says.
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Among those gathered at the SBI ‘Customer Service Point’ in Koylibeda village on Friday was Harish Podiyami, who had walked 20 km from his village of Gome. He came with Rs 1,120 in two Rs 500 notes, one Rs 100, and two 10s, tied in a small knot next to his waist.
Gome is one of the farthest villages from the SBI point, and Podiyami says he heard of the demonetisation of currency first at the market. He has six children, as well as old parents, to take care of, and he had been planning to buy supplies for the entire week.
“It should have cost no more than Rs 200 altogether. But the shopkeeper said he had no change, and I had only 120 in loose money. My family can’t go hungry, so I could not return without anything. So he gave me supplies for Rs 200, and took one of my Rs 500 notes,” Podiyami said. The loss of Rs 300 rankles, given that his life savings from over 50 years of working and selling forest produce like Mahua is around Rs 5,000.
Podiyami says he considers himself among the lucky ones. “I have stayed because my neighbour begged me to. He couldn’t buy anything, and was afraid he would die hungry. Now we are sharing the food I bought. But at home they will be hungry, and if no money comes soon, we will be hungry here. Who knows what will happen?”
Fifteen kilometres away from Koylibeda, on the outskirts of Sikhsod, Sita Bai, Manju and Rama hack away at the crop standing in the fields, which intersperse the dense foliage in Bastar. There is no irrigation, a single crop cycle, and early November is the crucial season of “dhan-katai (paddy cutting)”. Much of the “dhan” from the fields is meant for subsistence for the year round, and rest of it for sale in nearby markets.
Villagers are afraid of the agricultural economy declining now. Sita Bai, Manu and Rama are among the “baniyars”, workers hired to cut the grain. This year there may not be money to give. “Right now we are working on credit, because we have cut this field for years. But the farmer has no money to give us, and if that continues for three days, we will go to Antagarh or some other town to look for construction work,” says Sita Bai.
In his hut, the farmer who employs them, 70-year-old Moti Ram, sits with his head in his hands. His two children left home several years ago, and work in factories in Andhra Pradesh. His wife is old, and the years have taken their toll. Talk about the currency being changed, and he launches into an abuse-filled diatribe at the “sarkaar”.
“I went to Koylibeda on Friday, on someone’s bike. But there was no money. If my fields are left uncut, what will we eat? Do they want us to die? I can’t even contact my sons because there is no phone signal,” Ram shouts, almost uncontrollable.
A crowd assembles, and quietly suggests that shouting is bad for Ram’s health, and will accomplish nothing. “Maybe then they will hear people like us,” he says.