By Antje Stiebitz
In a small village called Jagdishpur Sokha in Uttar Pradesh’s Bahraich district near the Nepal border, things have never been easy. But in the year since prime minister Narendra Modi’s demonetisation drive turned their lives upside down, villagers are still coming to terms with their new wages of existence.
Arfa Begum tightens a bright green dupatta around her head before she starts to speak. “We had money at home, but we were helpless because we couldn’t use it. “Her eyes stare into emptiness. It was impossible to purchase raw materials and to pay the labour,” says the 75 year-old woman. She owns land and runs a brickyard as well as a school and her family is the largest employer in the village.
Most of the village’s 450 inhabitants live on produce from their patchwork of fields which grow wheat, rice, bananas, lentils and maize. The district is considered backward, the level of education is low, living conditions are harsh and young men leave as fast as they can to earn their bread and butter somewhere else.
The light of a small shop illuminates five women sitting on a barren wooden bed. They talk across each other, complaining badly, their eyes mirroring their grim lives. “We were so hungry because we couldn’t purchase our daily groceries,”says Makki, adding, “Everything came to a halt.” Betuka remembered that they couldn’t water the fields because there was no money to pay for the tubewell pump.
The demonetisation drive surprised the farmers that it was taking place during the winter sowing time, when they usually start to cultivate onion, garlic or lentils. At this time they need money to buy seeds, pay hired labour who help with ploughing and irrigating the fields. But the lack of cash in the market meant that the sowing got irrevocably delayed. Losses, especially from wheat and lentils, were substantial.
Social worker and founder of the NGO Developmental Association for Human Advancement (DEHAT) Jitendra Chaturvedi put the loss into perspective. While the general yield of one acre is about 15 quintals, the notebandi drive diminished the yield per acre to 9 quintals, he said.
In Jagdishpur Sokha, for example, at least 25 per cent of the population doesnt own land, which means they depend on daily work. While MGNREGA wages guarantees each family 100 days of work per year, these monies are directly sent into their bank account. During demonetisation, the people of Jagdishpur Sokha, like elsewhere in UP, spent a lot of time standing in queue to get their money out of the bank in the nearby town of Risia – walking took at least an hour, while standing in queues took at least two hours — which meant that they hardly had any time to earn any money from labour. It was too costly to go to Bahraich, even though it has many more banks.
All five women sitting in front of the small shop in Jagdishpur Sokha look at each other gloomily. Each of them have a bank account, but no ATM card through which they can withdraw their money. So they must fill a withdrawal form. “The truth is that nobody has seen rich people waiting in front of banks,” says one of the women to nobody in particular.
Down the road a water pump squeaks. Ramkala shouts at a goat. “In this period, we ate chapati with salt. We suffered so much all these months,” she said. Ramkala’s husband is very ill and cannot work, so her son works in the local brickyard. But even the brickyard stopped production because the owner could not buy raw materials or pay the labour he had hired. Ramkala’s two cows bailed them out, by giving them some milk to drink, while her work as a care-giver at the nearby Global School of Learning gave the family some income.
Arfa Begum’s family was almost completely incapacitated for three months and continues to suffer from the consequences of notebandi.
Azim Khan, a social scientist, pointed out that in Jagdishpur Sokha, the major economic activity after agriculture is construction in which 100 men are engaged, besides 14 men in masonry work. Before demonetisation they had about 24 to 30 days work a month. After demonetisation, this has come down to 12 to 15 days a month. “All oft hem have lost almost 50 per cent of their wages in the last year,” he said.
DEHAT’s Chaturvedi adds that the impulse to digitisation has been slow, at least in these parts, because few people even have access to electricity. “In one hundred households, only one rich man will have electricity. The rest of the village has to depend on his mercy,” he said.