Hardest hit, most invisible

Distress brought about by demonetisation is most for those who struggle each day to find poorly-paid work.

Written by Harsh Mander | Updated: November 29, 2016 9:20 am
demonetisation, note ban, 500 note banned, note exchange, currency exchange, bank lines, atm queues, note changed, rural people demonetisation, demonetisation daily labourers, india news People stand in a long queue outside an ATM to withdraw money in Gurugram on Sunday. (Source: PTI Photo)

“We have to dig wells every day in order to quench our thirst”. This popular Hindi saying recurred in conversations when I walked Delhi’s streets to understand how the abrupt withdrawal of old currency notes had impacted Delhi’s poorest, homeless and casual workers, and people dependent on charity. They asked: “How are we to survive if the government suddenly ties our hands and does not allow us even to dig a well?”

It was still dark when I started from my home one morning 10 days after the currency ban. There were long queues outside banks in Chandni Chowk. Young men had lined up from three in the morning. The bank would open seven hours later, and they would wait their turn to draw the maximum permissible Rs 2,000. With every passing hour, the queues grew, including many women in burqas. They said they had no choice. How else could they light their kitchen fires?

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Outside Company Bagh in Chandni Chowk in Delhi’s walled city, every morning from 6 am, several hundred impoverished men gather in the brittle hope of finding some casual work for the day. That morning I met homeless men from Assam, Bihar, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh and Nepal. There are many labour addas for casual workers in the city, each with a particular specialisation. At the Company Bagh adda, labour contractors recruit homeless men to work for rundown wages at weddings and parties.

The men I spoke to were downcast and angry. “This is peak wedding season, when we make money that takes us through the coming months. If the note-bandhi had not happened, you would have found very few of us here.” Some men related their experience at one of the few weddings that did take place. “It was so lavish. Where did they get this money from?” they raged. As is the norm in this line of work, they were transported to the wedding site one morning, handed out uniforms, and then they worked, barely sleeping for two nights. The third afternoon they were paid — one old currency note of Rs 500 each. They protested weakly, but the contractor dismissed them saying that this was the only kind of money he had.

Around 60 men left the wedding site and tried to take buses back to the pavements in the walled city where they sleep. But bus conductors refused, because they had no change. The men walked the 13 km. There they presented the money to the eateries, but were refused food. The workers had no option except to sell these notes to touts who gave them three Rs 100 notes n exchange for the old Rs 500 note.

The crowd grew and their anger focused on one man: Narendra Modi. Not the government. Just this leader. They found it hard to forgive him for their plight. How are they surviving? When they can’t find work, they line up at gurudwaras, dargahs and temples for food. “We hate to beg, we are working men. But we still have to hold out our palms. The crowds there have grown so large. Sometimes you have to wait four hours for food. But there is one thing you can say for Delhi. No one dies of hunger here”.

We walked to another labour adda outside the historic Town Hall, where skilled masons with their tools wrapped in plastic bags seek work in construction sites. They come from different faiths and regions, but have formed a brotherhood, sleeping side by side on the pavement in front of the Town Hall for many years. Their misfortune was even greater, because before the currency note ban, a ban was imposed on construction work in the capital.

We have long worked among destitute single homeless women dependent mainly on begging in the Jama Masjid area, and went there next to understand how they were coping. We were told that they had gone to the banks. It turned out that the UID Aadhar cards we had organised earlier for them had created an unexpected brief window of clandestine opportunity. Touts who bought old notes employed them to stand in line with their Aadhar cards as identity proof to exchange old currency notes for new. If the touts bought old Rs 500 notes for Rs 300, then after paying the beggar women Rs 250, they still made a profit of Rs 550 rupees for every Rs 2,000 currency exchange.

The poor have not counted for policymakers for a long time. They were guzzling subsidies and were impediments to the country’s brilliant future through galloping economic growth. They should not grumble if their lands and forests were dispossessed, their slums demolished. This was the price to pay for industrialisation, for smart cities. But even by these standards, the spectacular absence of compassion and stunning arrogance of the official imagination of this new enterprise, turning 85 per cent of the country’s currency into wastepaper overnight, hits a new low.

Did the government not think of the devastation this would wreak for millions of informal workers, farmers, migrants, nomads, tribals, single women, disabled, sick and old people, street children — 96 per cent people of the country without any kind of plastic card, and three out of four people in the country without effective and accessible banking? I have known the women and men I met in the past few days, on Delhi’s pavements, for more than a decade. They are accustomed to shiver through winter nights, to search for dirt-waged work every single day, to eat at charities on many days of no work, to beg if there was no other way. But they could not recall a time when life has been so hard.

Mander is a human rights worker and writer

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  1. P
    Prashant
    Nov 29, 2016 at 8:44 am
    I m from.Bihar,,from where these labours actually come .,,,,,,I talked to everyone in my vicinity,,from auto driver to Mahadalit basti labours,,,,,,90% replied ""sir we don't have anything 2 lose,,, we dont have drums filled with Money,,,Rich r protesting in name of poor but poors have nothing to lose,,,I will b happy even if Modiji is 20% successful",,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,☺☺
    Reply
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      Prashant
      Nov 29, 2016 at 8:47 am
      mainly I talked 2 poors living on bank of Ganga ,,who have 2 change their location frequently as per river movement,,,they r on the bottom of "informal society pyramid"
      Reply
      1. H
        Hemant Kumar
        Nov 29, 2016 at 2:14 pm
        He has put his foot in his mouth as BJP has won elections in Mumbai, Gujarat after demonetisation. He should die in a handful of water.
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        1. S
          swamy
          Nov 29, 2016 at 2:18 pm
          SO TRUE
          Reply
          1. A
            Amitesh
            Nov 30, 2016 at 7:55 am
            Did the author offer to help those people or is just a keyboard warrior?
            Reply
            1. A
              Anonymous
              Nov 29, 2016 at 9:26 am
              Crocodile tears
              Reply
              1. L
                Lalit Jaipur
                Nov 29, 2016 at 8:20 am
                Everyone is agreeing with the author views except Modi followers.time will tel what harm he had caused to country by his policies like demonetisation,like dividing society on name of religion by putting ban on Media by giving fake statements by saying wrong things about past in abroad about India etc.etc. If Modi says that India made no progress in last 70 years than how come we are the most growing economy of the world.i don't understand how he had give. In grant more than 70000 crore rupees to different countries he have been to , where he got money to budget his schemes like swatch Bharat skill India etc etc
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                  PPrasad78
                  Nov 29, 2016 at 2:09 am
                  Harsh Mander has made a very profitable career out of other people's poverty and misery!lt;br/gt;He is always silent on 70 years of monumental and open corruption indulged in by our politicians and bureaucrats - which is the main cause of economic deprivation of the mes and poverty in India !
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                    ak dev
                    Nov 29, 2016 at 6:58 pm
                    Congees are already dead. They are speaking from their KABRA.
                    Reply
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                      ak dev
                      Nov 29, 2016 at 10:35 am
                      Has this guy described his own troubles while standing in queue, there would have been some truth. Otherwise it's one more fabricated story of melting hearts of this traitor for people standing in queue. These rats are useless for aspiring Indians.
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                        ak dev
                        Nov 29, 2016 at 6:52 pm
                        Then go and live in USA.
                        Reply
                        1. A
                          ak dev
                          Nov 29, 2016 at 6:56 pm
                          You are a true didi fan. Keep yourself business in west bengal.
                          Reply
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                            Anand Mohan
                            Nov 29, 2016 at 11:34 am
                            Really a touching story. The efforts of Mander saaheb who felt the pinch of homeless labourers are highly lauded. Though the fact remains that even today none in govt can hold a press conference and say with authenticity as to how many number of 500 rupee notes are printed in each of four presses. What is national security involved in disclosing this information? Anyway , now people have reconciled that poor labourers will get wages from contractor in old currency notes otherwise that contractor will squeeze his eyebrows and oust that labourer from work for always.
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                              Kris
                              Nov 29, 2016 at 11:58 am
                              This writer is former member of the NAC of Sonia hi, which advised the then economist PM on how to maintain poverty in our country. These guys will never want poor to come up life and as Rahul hi used to say "will eat one roti but will vote for Congress". Mr Mander, it is fully agreed that there will be some disruptions in the earnings of our people across the country, especially those living below poverty. But please understand that poor people also have aspirations. Until now we have seen that the tax evaders and black money holders spend money lavishly, whereas the poor, low income and middle income who pay their taxes, have to count each rupee they spend. With one single decision of demonetization, Modi has shown to these sections of people that their aspirations too can be fulfilled. How long will it take - may be 5 years or 10 years - we cannot say but the government is moving in the right direction. Since independence, Congress party and the NGOs in which I believe Mr Mander is part, have been duping the poor and have been trying to spoon feed just for their survival so that these people will become their permanent voters. While Mander apparently is indicating that the poor people hate Modi for demonetization, I strongly believe that this shows Mander's hate against Modi. Mander, Teesta and several other NGOs which have been against Modi should realize that the time is up for them and demonetization gave a severe blow to these people.
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                                A
                                Nov 29, 2016 at 1:42 am
                                Not many people read the opinion column in The Indian Express .The common man has given his opinion in Maharashtra local body polls. Once the famous actor turned Por politician theblate Shri MGR told his supporters" Do not bother about the opinion in English Media papers. The people who read these are arm chair intellectuals and they generally do not vote also. If it is published in vernacular media , we should bother'.These English media persons ate in the paid lust of looters who are more selfish than most of us can imagine.Best is to ignore such inputs from these peoole
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                                  jj
                                  Nov 29, 2016 at 1:17 pm
                                  the author is an anti-national. He should go and bhakt himself!!
                                  Reply
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                                    Nisha
                                    Nov 29, 2016 at 3:35 pm
                                    why are the skilled workers still poor? lt;br/gt;The corruption free India will benefit them the most than anyone else. These illiterate workers are cheated by construction industry and others. why don't you question those people who gave them old currency? They utilize the poor, illiterate of India.They want to continue cheating them. This should change. Their ry should also be credited into banks, Pay them what they deserve into their accounts. None of the schemes for the poor actually reaches them. If they have accounts it can be credited into it directly. lt;br/gt;You can start an account for the poor man whom you spoke to!. They will not be provided cheque facility. They can credit and withdraw. Instead of writing this article. you could have helped them start an account, into which he can credit this 500/- re note. By the end that 500 has come into the main stream, which ultimately is PM's intention.
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                                      A A
                                      Nov 29, 2016 at 5:10 pm
                                      We can write our views here. Means we are reasonably well off. Can probably carry on after a few weeks despite some inconvenience. lt;br/gt; lt;br/gt;Factory owners and businessmen too can recover and prosper again. lt;br/gt; lt;br/gt;From 2.5 lakh crore supposed to be black money, will come to govt and spent again in building infrastructure - roads, bullet trains, Ganga Cleaning, may be also for buying arms, Buying ATMs and swiping machines. lt;br/gt; lt;br/gt;Who will enjoy ?
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                                        atul
                                        Nov 29, 2016 at 12:25 pm
                                        No one can deny that demonetization has made things quite difficult for those who get paid in cash on a daily basis. Odd thing about the people who keep pointing fingers at the government is that they don't offer any solutions and this author is no different. They just want demonetization to be rolled back and claim that they don't see anything good in this move. I find it difficult to believe that such people don't have a hidden agenda. Rolling back demonetization would be like sending all the automobiles off the roads because a great number of people die every year in road accidents. These so called intellectuals and activists should make wise suggestions, not carry out the agenda of some politicians.
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                                          Balachandran Menon
                                          Nov 29, 2016 at 3:22 pm
                                          Modi's penchant for optics rather than substance was always annoying; but this time it has acquired truly damaging proportions.
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                                            Subrata Chakraborty
                                            Nov 29, 2016 at 4:41 pm
                                            When you are talking about poor and illiterate people to go to bank and open account to deposit whatever small amount of them and to use bank further for their livelihood - are you talking about Indian banking system to be used. Then you might not be a permanent resident of India and having no knowledge of Indian banking. It is Dr.Raghuram Rajan, ex Governor,RBI, who exposed Indian banking system and initiated the process of cleaning up the system. And, the Govt. who has taken the initiative now to clean up black money or corruption became scared of him as he exposed 'crony capitalism', 'balance sheet of banks based on et bubbles', '10 lakh crores of NPA of banks' , 'Solvency crisis faced by 18 banks of the country', etc. etc. where poor people have no say. The same Indian banking system responsible for black money or financial corruption in the country are now entrusted with the task to clean up black money. It is only at gun point only "jan dhan' accounts were opened and today the same accounts are regularised, otherewise became dormant, by depositing Rs.1/- , 2/- ... in the accounts by the banks and paving the way for depositing Rs.50000/- in those accounts. In the midst of all these busy and important activities,designed to serve a vested circle, where is the scope for the Indian banks to serve poor and illiterate. Good is always good but one must be realistic as well. Speaking something good is always good but achieving good is something different, which calls for honesty, integrity, sincereity and practicability and should not confined to bluffs as usual.
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