ASHA wore her best sari, bright green, covered with sequins, that she had bought for her sister’s wedding. The 35-year-old and husband Devendra Singh (42) were apprehensive, but also excited. With a Rs 2,000 coupon, they for the first time stepped into a supermarket on November 27 to shop for daily items. But, “the universe” that lay before them, neatly arranged into shelves, didn’t come cheap.
What brought the Singhs to the Big Bazaar at Agra’s Sanjay Place, 23 km from home in Loha Karera village of Runakta tehsil, was the coupon given by the owner of the shoe factory where Devendra works, to cover for his weekly wages of Rs 1,000. Asha says she had never shopped for groceries at any place other than their village baniye ki dukaan before.
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She was apprehensive about the quality of products they would get — big stores stocked things for days, she had heard — but Devendra was confident they would get the best price for their coupon.
Like other small sectors, the Agra leather industry is feeling the heat of scrapping of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes. However, where the shortage is pinching the most is payment of weekly wages of labourers.
Around 50,000 labourers are employed in Agra’s shoe manufacturing units, while in unorganised small-scale factories, the number is more than 2 lakh.
According to the Agra Footwear Manufacturers and Exporters Chamber (AFMEC), which accounts for 30 per cent of India’s total shoe exports at Rs 3,500 crore per annum, there is no cash to pay daily labourers, and the lack of a workforce is in turn hitting exporters hard.
Agra’s small-scale manufacturers are estimated to make 60 per cent of all shoes sold in the country.
Said Sanket Thakur, a supplier of shoe soles in Mantola area of Agra, “My earnings right now, at what is the peak time of our trade, are nil. After Diwali, till Holi, the sale of shoes is high due to winter as well as other festive occasions. But demonetisation has hit us hard. We are not able to clear our dues, let alone make new shoes.”
While he supports the government move to flush out black money, Puran Dawar, AFMEC president said, “Since our labourers are paid wages in cash and on a weekly basis, we have not been able to pay them. Besides, they do not have bank accounts.”
Dawar said he had requested the government to give them at least six months to get bank accounts for the daily workforce, so that they could be paid online.
In the meantime, AFMEC decided at a meeting on November 22 that factory owners would tie up with supermarkets such as Vishal Mega Marts and Big Bazaar for coupons to give to labourers so that they could meet their daily needs.
Dawar said he understands that some of the workers might find it intimidating to shop at Big Bazaar, and so had also offered them to find shops of their convenience with which AFMEC could tie up.
“We have bought Rs 2 lakh worth of coupons from Big Bazaar, paying them online. We are also trying to get small-value coupons like for Rs 500 and Rs 200 to make things more convenient for our labourers,” said Ravindra Singh, production head, Dawar footwears.
Chandra Dev, the store manager at the Sanjay Place Big Bazaar, said, “Many firms, all from the leather and footwear industry, are approaching us for cash coupons. Our customers have increased almost 30 to 40 per cent and the influx on weekends is enormous.”
However, the owner of a renowned shoe factory in Sikandra, who did not want to be named, said that this cannot be a long-term measure.
Quoting the higher prices at some of these supermarkets compared to what the labourers get near home, he said, “The labourers are not able to spend this. We are allowing them to go back to their native villages because they at least have homes there.”
Rajesh Sehgal of Om Exports added that they are not forcing their workers to take Big Bazaar coupons. “We give them two options, either take a cheque or take the coupons. They are free to decide,” he said.
At the Sanjay Place Big Bazaar, the Singhs first decided to buy oil. At the local village shop, they get loose oil for Rs 80-85 per litre. Here mustard oil was for Rs 110 per litre. At Rs 90-100 per litre, refined oil cost almost Rs 30 more. After much debating, Asha and Devendra bought a 5-litre container of mustard oil and a litre of refined oil.
They next headed towards the counter of soaps and washing powder. Asha was surprised to find that there were no soaps available for Rs 10. “Sab 25, 40, 50 ke hain. Kitne lein (All are for 25, 40, 50. How many should we take)?” she asked Devendra. He lifted the soap packets one by one to check the price, and then confirmed the same with a man standing next to him. “Teen le lo,” he said. “Phir baad mein dekhenge (Buy three. We will see later).”
Everything was costlier, said Asha, whether sugar, ghee or dal. They couldn’t buy toothpaste as the powdered one wasn’t available.
Seeing them struggling to balance the things they had picked, a Big Baazar employee rushed over with a basket. The couple were surprised, and delighted.
Wanting to know how much money they had still left in the Rs 2,000 coupon, they headed for the payment counter. “Dekhte hain, agar kuchch paise bache to bachchon ke liye kapde le lenge (We will see. If we save some money, we will buy clothes for the kids),” said Asha, talking of their four daughters, Bhawna (12), Sadhna (9), Aastha (6) and Preeti (3). She and Devendra had promised to get them something from their trip to town.
“I will also buy some liquor with the left-over money,” smiled Devendra.
At the cash counter, watching closely what the others were doing, they handed over their products to a man behind the counter. The operator managed to pack all their things into one bag and handed them a bill. The Singhs looked at each other in dismay. The bill was for Rs 1,870, leaving them only with Rs 130, with some things still left to buy.
Devendra asked the man at the counter to return him Rs 130, but he refused, saying they would have to buy goods for up to Rs 2,000 or more, since they weren’t returning any change.
Asha nudged her husband, asking if they could instead pick up some namkeen (snacks) for their girls. Quietly, Devendra said yes.