“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.