“WHAT exactly was the reason for this (demonetisation)?” Kavitha asks.
It’s 9 am and she has just seen off her mechanic husband, who left to find work, and her 8-year-old son who threw a tantrum again over being served “stinky” rice.
The 28-year-old of Nelvay village in Kancheepuram district, about 80 km from Chennai city, used to work in a battery company, but gave it up after she got pregnant. She does odd jobs working in the fields now, and there has been no work for the past few days.
Showing the rice they get from ration shops under the Amma Free Rice Scheme, Kavitha says, “I had to force my son Lageswaran to eat it. It stinks. We can bear it but the children don’t want to eat it. He has been fighting with me.” With no money, she can’t buy the rice available at Rs 45-55 per kg in the private shops.
Under the Amma scheme, the families get 12 to 20 kg of rice per family, depending on the number of members.
“We have rice left for three more days, no shops give us credit. We will starve if there is no job in the coming days,” Kavitha adds.
Before the demonetisation announcement took Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes out of the market, Kavitha, like the 300-odd farm workers of the village, earned Rs 200-Rs 400 a day clearing fields of weeds, and plucking and transplanting paddy seedlings. Even in the months farm work was not available, there were other jobs to do. “We would go for small construction jobs or work as daily wage labourers in some local industries. But none of them has work now,” she says.
Kavitha has an account though husband Sriraman, 32, doesn’t. But the family hardly uses it as the nearest bank branch or ATM is in Tirukalukundram, about 10 km away. Even the nearest bus stop is a 4-km walk.
Sriraman stood in the queue for a whole day to withdraw money from Kavitha’s account. They got one Rs 2,000 note. “We can’t use it in any of the shops,” Kavitha says.
The sight of a visitor sends the 60-year-old muttering in anger. Mistaking him for a taluk official, she says, “Had I been educated, I would have questioned all this. Who gave him the right to do all this? Does he know there are creatures like us in this world?” By ‘him’ she means Prime Minister Narendra Modi, she adds, now chuckling. “Who else?”
It’s 11 am, and Muniyamma is sitting on the ground outside her thatched hut.
Unlike Kavitha, Muniyamma doesn’t have a bank account. She lives with her daughter Karnagi, 31, a single mother of two girls, who works at a nearby creche for a monthly salary of Rs 5,000.
The day the demonetisation announcement came, Muniyamma had Rs 30 with her. The family has no television, and no one in the village has a computer. Muniyamma says she came to know of the scrapping of currency when she went to the farm where she works the next day.
She was not bothered initially, she admits. “I thought why should I bother. I haven’t even seen Rs 500, Rs 1,000 notes in the recent past.”
However, by November 10, the reality sunk in. “On November 9, I got wages for my work. But that was the last day I got paid.”
On November 11, the farm owner told the workers he couldn’t pay them in cash. “We worked for food that day. The next day too,” Muniyamma says.
But then that too ended.
With the children away at school and Karnagi at work, Muniyamma is sorting around 1 kg of low-quality black gram. That is among the few food items still left in the house, along with a kilogram of the Amma Scheme rice. The bag of rice, Muniyamma shows, is crawling with insects.
Muniyamma has promised her granddaughters Kavinila, 7, and Loginila, 8, that instead of the rice, she would make them idli or dosa the next day from the gram.
Even before the demonetisation announcement, paddy transplantation in Nelvay had been hit by lack of rains. Last week, DMK leader M K Stalin asked the Centre to declare Tamil Nadu drought-hit.
Seedlings sprout only when rain comes, Muniyamma notes. Pointing to a paddy field, she tells the visitor that the problem would spread to cities too. “Already paddy transplantation is delayed. Those who did seedling transplantation in October have no money to buy fertilisers now. If there is no rice transplantation, what will you eat?”
Around mid-day, villagers who have returned from a visit to the bank are gathered around talking. Those who left early morning were the only ones able to withdraw cash.
Jayaraman made his second trip to the bank, this time to deposit Rs 5,000. The first time he had stood in the queue till afternoon to exchange his currency, and finally when his turn came up, the bank said it was over.
When he came to know of the demonetisation announcement, also on November 9 afternoon, Jayaraman had only the Rs 5,000 at home, all in Rs 500 denomination. “The cash was for the daily expenses, the bus charge for my two children, which comes to around Rs 70 a day, and another Rs 50-Rs 100 for medicines a day. The bank officials said I will get only Rs 2,000 as exchange for old notes. What do I do other than depositing it in my account then? Will the local shop owner accept Rs 2,000? Will the bank manager come and pay the doctor if my son develops fever again?” he asks.
A seasonal farm worker who does odd construction jobs, Jayaraman talks about a young mother carrying two children who collapsed while standing in a queue at the Tirukalukundram Canara Bank branch earlier that day. “We rushed her to the hospital; she is stable now. But there was nobody to look after the children,” he says.
Money is desperately needed, Jayaraman adds. “It is already November third week, and there is no rain yet. Those who have wells could do cultivation even if there was no rain, but the cash crunch has stopped that too. There is no money to buy diesel for the generator pump sets… The rice in my house will last only a few more days.”
N Raj, 50
Around 3 pm, N Raj returns disappointed from tourist town Mahabalipuram, located around 20 km away. Also a farm worker-cum-construction labourer, he went there for work but couldn’t find any. He had been to three employers in the last two weeks without success, N Raj adds. “One had no currency to buy diesel for the pumpset, another had no currency to buy fertilisers, and I refused to work at the third place as he offered food instead of cash,” he says, asking who will feed his family if he works for food alone.
On November 15, he had been able to get Rs 2,000 from the bank, but struggled to get change for it. Raj says the government-run liquor shop too told him he would have to buy liquor first. “So I bought half a bottle of rum. That’s how we get change now,” Raj smiles.
Apologising that he can’t offer either tea or snacks as he has none at home, he puts on his TV and surfs till he reaches a Tamil news channel. It is running a programme on demonetisation and is showing Modi on his Japan visit, with visuals of him playing a flute.
His eyes still on the screen, Raj says, “We are watching you on TV, but you wouldn’t.”
Then, he asks, “What is a surgical strike?”
It’s 4.30 pm, and Muniyamma’s daughter Karnagi has just reached home with her daughters. Muniyamma sets aside the rice she is sorting and gives them black tea with salted raw mango slices. The girls gulp the food down quickly, and run to the swings made of saris on a tree nearby.