By Ila Ananya
Demonetisation-lit (if we may deploy a neologism) in its short week of existence, has ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime and back to the ridiculous. On the one hand there is Sanjay Srivastava’s essay arguing that the move has become more of a moral project than one based on economic logic. On the other, there are articles about how women in Kerala are happy with the new Rs 2000 notes; because they are pink.
As demo-lit moves a bit afield from what upper-middle-class men think of the move, we have heard a little about how middle-class housewives, who have secretly saved money from their husbands and families, now find that none of this is valid anymore; or who now find it difficult to run their households. But we could very usefully move much, much further afield to understand the impact of demonetisation in a country where 80 percent of women in India are not part of our banking system.
We could talk about 41-year-old Mary, who works in a couple of houses as a cook in an upmarket end of Bengaluru. She has lived in a joint family ever since her husband passed away many years ago. If she speaks about her son, she speaks with resignation about how he refuses to get a job, but takes her money, as though there’s nothing to be done. After the demonetisation, however, Mary found that the money that she kept hidden from him now meant nothing, and that she would have to tell him about it — “There’s no difference. If I tell him, he will take the money, and if I don’t, then I can’t even buy anything with it,” she said.
Or we could talk about working women who are not like cooks and maids, intimately tied to the everyday lives of middle-class households, thereby making them the subject of one kind of demo-lit wail – if we are suffering so much, imagine how our maids are suffering.
Uma Maheshwari, who works as a bus conductor, says that she had to spend the day working without food, and also saw women with crying children struggling to break their Rs 500 into change, and get them food. Jayamma, General Secretary of the Karnataka State United Anganwadi Worker’s Association (anganwadi workers aren’t even recognised as workers within the unorganised sector, but are called ‘volunteers’), says that their salaries are already extremely low because of which they can’t keep up with the rise in prices of food. “Now, with this, none of our saved money is valid, so what are we supposed to eat with?” she asked.
Lakshmi sells jasmine flowers on the road in Bangalore. She is there at 7 am every morning, and on a good day, she manages to sell most of her flowers by late afternoon. On November 9 – the morning after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 would stand abolished at midnight – Lakshmi said she had almost no business. She presumed it was because people were saving up their change for things they needed urgently. Her flowers — like the problem that many vegetable sellers are now facing because they sell perishable goods — dried up. Her husband, who usually gets paid by the day, didn’t get paid either. The money that she had saved had no value, and she doesn’t have a bank account.
Many, many women are in the same situation that Uma, Lakshmi and Jayamma are in.
This is the same uncertain situation that Jagmati Sangwan, the vice-president of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, talked about to Scroll.in, pointing out that working women (like Lakshmi) can’t go to banks and exchange money during the day, and have no time to do this in the evening. If they don’t work, but have secretly saved money, like Mary, they often can’t make the change without telling their family, which they don’t want to do.
Faye D’Souza is Editor of personal finance and real estate at ET Now. She has a long-term interest in the financial decisions of women. D’Souza suggested the demonetisation move has had a different but obvious impact on women across classes. She said that it has hit the urban working class the most — these are the people we often see standing in the long lines outside banks; who depend entirely on the cash salaries that they receive to run their households from day to day.
D’Souza says that others, like women who are part of the unofficial workforce, providing services like waxing in people’s homes, or as small tailors, also often don’t have bank accounts. “They function with cash, because once they become ‘official’ workers, their husbands and families know how much money they earn, which might not always be a good thing,” said D’Souza. She added that in this transitionary period, clients who use these services, such as calling a beautician home for waxing, will now choose to go to a parlour where they can swipe their card.
Akhila, an advocate and a part of the Samajwadi Jana Parishad, said that she now has to think about where she is going to end up spending the little money that she does have on her. Instead of going to the kirana store she has frequented for years, which doesn’t have the facility for a card transaction and cannot take Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes, Akhila is going to bigger stores that can make card transactions in bigger stores. “What about other women who have to run their households who don’t have access to things like this?” she asked.
There have been a series of arguments that those who have an Aadhar card and a bank account won’t have any problem in this change. Others argue that not having an ID card is the fault of the person who didn’t attempt to get one made — but what happens now to the many people who have suddenly found themselves in this position? We have no reports on the impact that this demonetisation has had on rural areas where all transactions are cash-based, but while D’Souza is hopeful that this will push women to create bank accounts for themselves, that’s a future course of action. What about women who are in this position now?
Most reporting in demo-lit, except for the Scroll report, have stuck to talking to housewives to hit the gender quota. Then there were the outlier and heart-breaking stories that a woman in Telangana had committed suicide on hearing the news, and that a woman died of a heart attack when she went to exchange her money but found the bank closed. In Bihar, an ambulance refused to accept Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes, forcing the parents of a three-year-old girl who was raped, to spend hours finding other ways of arranging the money for the ambulance.
Then there’s the other, more common, just as heart-breaking story and infuriatingly invisible story about women and money. Rangamma, who works as a pourakarmika near Aiyappa Temple in Sunkadakatte has not got her salary from the Bruhat Bangalore Mahangara Palike for the last three months. The only money that she had saved and was using to make ends meet suddenly had no value on November 9 — she stood for four hours in a line outside Canara Bank on November 11, where she had an account, only to be sent away and told to come back the next day. Because the bank had run out of cash. “First of all people haven’t given us our salary,” said Rangamma. “If I don’t show up at work, they will make up something and say that they aren’t going to give me my salary because I didn’t show up on this one day. So what should we do?”
The argument that this decision to abolish the use of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 is a ‘surgical strike’ on corruption is in itself flawed because of the too-simple understanding of black money that it is based on. There has even been a ridiculous subsequent Facebook post that has been doing the rounds, advising Modi to open a bank account for the Indian army, asking people to deposit their black money there on a no-questions-asked policy. In the middle of all of this loud noise about Modi’s image as a politician striking down corruption, and sitting in our own positions of privilege and comfort, it is easy to forget the struggling working class that this demonetisation has affected.
Rangamma made the one remark that we need to hold on to as we get washed away in the flood of demo-lit: “Our difficulty in having access to basic necessities like food cannot be subsumed under this conversation on black money and corruption.”