Biro, o… Biro,” calls out Chander, a jute sack slung over her shoulder, her feet plodding through the ground that’s carpeted green with the slush of bathua and dil leaves. “She goes missing every few minutes aur mujhe dhoondna padta hai (I have to search for her),” says the 60-year-old, now walking back through the early morning crush of people and battery-operated e-rickshaws at the Ghazipur vegetable mandi in east Delhi.
“I have been selling vegetables for 25 years but things have never been this bad. Yeh notebandi ke baad toh maal waise hi pada rahta hai (after demonetisation, my vegetables haven’t been selling). Earlier, I would earn at least Rs 1,000 a day; now, if I buy vegetables for Rs 1,000, I only take home Rs 400,” she says, sitting on her haunches on one of the pavements lining the market.
Chanderkanta and Birwati. Neighbours and friends, a sisterhood of shared troubles and companionship. Every afternoon, they walk down from Chilla, an urban village on the fringes of Mayur Vihar Phase I, a residential colony in east Delhi, and join the long line of vegetable vendors on the pavement outside ASN Senior Secondary School. On days that they go to the mandi, they spend hours scouring for vegetables while haggling, squabbling and joking with the vendors, lug their heavy sacks across the market and wait for their sons to take back some of the stuff on their cycles. The rest they carry — about 25 kg each — on their heads.
As she helps her son load the sacks on his cycle, she says, “Achha, aapko pata hain yeh notebandi kab khatam hogi (Do you know when this demonetisation will end)? People say things will get better in a few days.” Her optimism dissipates as swiftly: “Par gareeb ka kuch theek nahin hota hai (For the poor, nothing gets better).”
A little over two months after the government demonetised Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes, the queues outside banks and ATMs have begun to shrink and the narrative has shifted from black money to plastic money. However, both these plots have sidestepped women such as Chander and Biro, women running households with little or no financial support.
According to Census 2011, women head 10.9 per cent of the 246.6 million households in the country, a significant number of these households in rural areas and in states such as Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh. In a society steeped in patriarchy, it’s only likely that women are thrust into leadership roles by forced circumstances such as widowhood, like in the case of Chander, or because the men choose not to work, as in Biro’s home.
“Which is why demonetisation has been extraordinarily gender insensitive,” says Jayati Ghosh, professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “Eighty per cent of women in India have no access to bank accounts. Many of them have no independent sources of income, have zero agency or autonomy even when it comes to the welfare of their children. That’s why many of them are forced to hoard cash, away from their abusive husbands,” says Ghosh.
Around 4 pm, on her way back from dropping her daughter off at her tuition class, Kavita Srivastav sits down on a cement slab outside a house in Shri Ram Colony, a locality in northeast Delhi’s Khajuri Khas, to talk about “all the different ways in which women save”.
The 32-year-old mother of two, a nine-year-old girl and a six-year-old boy, is married to a trader of artificial jewellery and says she likes spending on herself — clothes, lipstick, eyeliner…“par samajhdari se (wisely)”.“Let me explain. Look at this. Khoobsoorat hai na (Isn’t this beautiful)?” she says, spreading out the black stole that she has worn over her yellow sari. “I wanted a stole to attend a wedding, so I asked my husband for Rs 250 to buy one. Instead, I bought one for Rs 100, bought a few sequins for Rs 30 and decorated it myself. Ab lag rahi hai sau rupaye ki stole (Does this look like a stole for Rs 100)? So that way, I get to save Rs 150 and my husband doesn’t even know,” she says, giggling.
Kavita says she puts away all these secret savings in her almirah. “Luckily, there are two almirahs at home, one each for the two of us. He was always suspicious why I kept mine locked. Kya rakha hai isme (what have you kept here), he would ask me and I would say, mujhe kya chupana hai aap se (what have I to hide from you).Some months ago, he wanted to re-lay the floor and asked me if I had money; I said no. I never felt I was lying because I was saving up for my daughter. She is only nine but I have to think of her future. My husband likes living it up. Every two days, he says, restaurant chalo. How will we ever make money that way?”
So one day, some years ago, Kavita opened an account with the Khajuri Khas post office. She would go there and deposit her savings once in a while. But when the notebandi happened, she had to tell him about the post office account and her secret stash in the almirah. “I gave him the Rs 5,000 I had at home. He yelled at me and asked how he would exchange all that for new notes, but I am sure he must have been secretly happy to get so much money.” Kavita laughs easily as she talks about her many misadventures with cash and the many harmless lies she has had to tell her husband, but realises things may never be the same again between them. “Maybe soon, there will be cash in ATMs and I will start saving too, but now my husband will never trust me if I say I don’t have money when he asks for it. Aise dekha jaye toh mera paisa gaya, hamesha ke liye (My money is gone forever).”
A few streets away, a group of women sits in Nargis’s one-room home discussing the note ban over cups of ginger tea. “Chhota aadmi ek din karobar nahin karega to taare dikhne lagte hain (If a poor man doesn’t work for a day, they suffer). My husband sells kebabs by the roadside in Khajuri Khas. Since the notebandi, sales are down to more than half. We haven’t paid the rent for two months now,” says Nargis’s neighbour Tarannum, 30. “On TV they say everything’s fine. Hamari colony mein aa kar ke dekho. Garib kaise pis raha hai (Come to our colony and see how the poor are being hit),” says another woman. “If the men don’t earn, it’s the women who suffer. We have to start cutting corners,” says Nargis, who is a member of the All India Democratic Women’s Association.
Nargis, 37, and her family of eight live in a single room on the second floor of a building that overlooks the Ram Lila Maidan in Shri Ram Colony. Her husband Mohammad Mehboob goes door to door, selling bedsheets for a textile showroom in Civil Lines for Rs 12,000 a month. Nargis and her daughter Naziya, 20, do kadai work for a contractor for Rs 7 a piece. “Together, we used to earn around Rs 4,000 a month. But a few days after the notebandi, the contractor said he had no orders himself and so no work for us.”
Nargis says she has cut down expenses — milk by half, meat is now a luxury — but what she worries most about is the future of her eldest daughter Naziya, one of her two children from her first marriage. “How can I expect my husband to shoulder all this burden? I was putting away money for my daughter’s marriage and now this notebandi.”
Though economists say there is no estimate of the size of the squirrel economy that women run out their homes — money hidden in the aata bin, the biscuit jar, under the mattress, children’s old notebooks — this is what cushions families in times of crises and emergencies such as hospital expenses and weddings. With the sudden demonetisation of high-value notes, women such as Kavita and Nargis will have to start all over again.
Ela Bhatt, the force behind the Gujarat-based Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), says, “Women are the ones who save money and they have different ways of doing that. While working with tribal women in Odisha, we found out that they have a tradition of putting away their cash in bamboo. I know of three women who pooled their savings and got Rs 3 lakh at the end of six years. So such innovative and original ways of saving cash should not be disincentivised. My plea to the government is that there should be a balance — there is nothing wrong if you want to go digital, but first invest in training these women,” she says. Of SEWA’s 1.5 million members across the country, 5 lakh have accounts with the cooperative SEWA Bank, which has a working capital of Rs 350 crore, says Bhatt.
“All women, rich or poor, are affected,” says Soniya Johri, a 48-year-old homemaker from a prominent Marwari business family in Jaipur. “We all have to hide money from husbands if we hope to have some money in our hands. Every month, my husband would give me a fixed sum, of which I had been setting aside some money without telling him. When the demonetisation happened, I panicked — I had Rs 2 lakh. I couldn’t have told my husband and I have no control over our joint bank accounts. So I asked people for help — my sister-in-law, brother-in-law, friends… anybody I thought could exchange the old currency for me.”
The mother of two says demonetisation also shrunk her personal space as her kitty parties had to be called off. She is part of three kitty parties, for which she put in Rs 5,000 a month. “I really look forward to my kitty parties. It the only time we get to step out, do things of our own, are truly free. But when the notes got scrapped, we had to cancel our parties for a month. Now, thankfully, they are back,” she says.
The women huddled inside Karthik Chettiar’s home in 28 Block of Trilokpuri, a resettlement colony in east Delhi that services the homes of Mayur Vihar and Vasundhara Enclave in east Delhi with its steady supply of domestic helps, drivers and cleaners, understand the “struggle” for financial independence better than most. Most of the women in the room say they have no bank accounts or have never gone to a bank in years.
“I was born in Delhi and I got married to someone from Villupuram (Tamil Nadu) but I came back to Delhi with him and have been living on rent ever since. Until recently, I had no identity documents because the landlord wouldn’t give us address proof. Recently, I begged and pleaded and he let me apply for my Aadhaar card. Many of the women here don’t have bank accounts,” says Ganga, 45, who works as a cook in three homes. “I have an account but I hardly go to the bank. No bank is going to give me money when I need it. They ask for hundreds of documents etc,” she says.
It’s in this vacuum that Karthik operates his “committees” — an informal, community-based peer-to-peer banking where members save and borrow together. The 28-year-old graduate from Delhi University’s School of Open Learning runs five “committees” — each with a corpus of between Rs 1 lakh and Rs 2.5 lakh. His Rs 1-lakh committee has 20 members, who put in Rs 5,000 each a month. “At a fixed time and date every month, the members meet at my home and a bidding happens for those who want to borrow that month. The one who bids the lowest gets to borrow. There is usually someone who is desperate for money and she agrees to forfeit some money, which is then distributed among the other members. That way, each of the members gets a fixed amount every month,” explains Karthik.
Over 90 per cent of the committee members are women, he says, because it usually falls on the woman to run the household and take care of her children. But since committees work with no margins, defaults aren’t taken too kindly.
Valli, 42, sits on the floor of Karthik’s home, her eyelids heavy with sleep. Her husband, an MCD worker, died a year-and-a-half ago, leaving her to take care of their four children. The eldest son is in his 20s, without a job, married and now has a child. Until a few months ago, Valli’s husband’s emoluments and the compensation money from MCD kept the family going. The last three months have been tough with money running out, and then, demonetisation struck. “The people I work for haven’t given me my salary of Rs 5,000 for December so far. I haven’t paid my rent for three months so the landlord comes and abuses me every second day. I haven’t paid the committee for three months so Karthik abuses me. And when I go home, the creditors come and knock on my door. Don’t ask me anything else. Main baat karne lagoongi toh paagal ho jaoongi (I’ll go mad if I start talking).”
Sonalde Desai, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, Washington DC, and senior fellow at the National Council of Applied Economic Research in Delhi, says, “In India, women have limited financial access and when they do, it’s often mediated through men. In such a situation, when you move away from cash, their financial independence takes a hit.”
Desai, however, says that ultimately, demonetisation may prove to be good for women if “we use this window to not only open more bank accounts for women, but make sure they access these in their own names, without male interference.”
At Karthik’s home, as the women disperse, Ganga says, “Ab Valli kya karegi, batao. Auraton ko sehna padta hai (What can Valli do? Women have to bear the pain).”
The other women nod.
The money trap
* The India Human Development Survey (IHDS) of 2005, carried out by NCAER and the University of Maryland, found that 60 per cent of households had no bank account.
* More than 80 per cent of women members had no accounts. Barely 13 per cent of women in rural areas had bank accounts, compared to 28 per cent in urban areas.
* The study showed that only 15 per cent of women have their names on ownership or rental papers of the household
* The study also showed that proximity to banking services mattered more to women than to men — rural women who lived within five kilometres of a bank branch were 50 per cent more likely to have a bank account than those who lived farther away.