‘[Black money] is gonna return to the same amount… There are loopholes. In India, there is a loophole for everything.’
Ludhiana and Noida, India – A few hours before midnight on November 8, 2016, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared on state television to make an announcement. Two high-value notes – the 500 rupee ($7.5) and 1,000 rupee ($14.9) – would no longer be legal tender, he said.
The move had been taken to combat “black money” or unaccounted income, which makes up nearly one fifth of India’s economy, he said.
But much of the country’s largely cash-based society screeched to a halt. Daily-wage labourers and other poor Indians were particularly hard hit.
Here, seven Indians share their stories of demonetisation.
‘Demonetisation brought us to the brink of begging’
Monika cannot forget the hardships her family endured in the two months following Modi’s decision to ban 86 percent of the country’s currency.
Standing inside the cramped kitchen of her family’s one-bedroom home, she explains that her husband, who works as a security guard at a private school in Ludhiana city, went without pay for two months as the school ran out of cash.
The family of four, including the couple’s 21-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son, relied on her husband’s 9,000 rupee ($135) monthly salary and, without it, they were sometimes forced to go without food.
“My family slept without food for days,” the housewife explains. “I will never forget … that demonetisation brought us to the brink of begging for food.”
With her eyes fixed on the kitchen window, she says: “We aren’t beggars that we will go on the streets asking people for money.”
And even if they had, she explains, none of their neighbours would have been able to help them.
“All of us are poor in this area and everyone was struggling like us,” she says.
The note ban – or notebandi as it is commonly referred to – hit poor people, like those in Monika’s neighbourhood, hardest.
Monika, who goes by just one name, says life still has not returned to normal. Her husband is now being paid again but in instalments.
In a country where about 90 percent of transactions are made in cash, demonetisation forced millions to stand in queues in front of banks as they tried to exchange the banned currency.
But, Monika says, she didn’t have to queue. “We don’t have a bank account as we are poor,” she says, before adding: “I don’t know how demonetisation will help my future, but it turned my present life into a nightmare.”
‘Did those with black money sleep on an empty stomach?’
Monika’s story has many parallels in the government-built Economically Weaker Section housing society where she lives in Ludhiana’s Samrala Chowk area.
Twenty-nine-year-old Hemlata is her neighbour and has also fallen on hard times as her husband lost his job when the factory he worked in closed down due to the cash crunch.
Hemlata, who goes by just one name, is sitting in the housing society’s courtyard with some other women. It is the only open area in the otherwise cramped and squalid neighbourhood of approximately 30 small concrete homes.
To make up for her husband’s lost income, Hemlata has started working part time.
“My neighbour has given me this work where I process [cut] these shawls and get 0.50 paisa [half a rupee] for every piece. I process around 50 to 60 pieces in a day,” she explains, sitting amid piles of shawls with her three-year-old daughter.
But the 45 cents she makes daily is not enough to cover the family’s most basic expenses.
“This is a very small amount and it is not enough to get us one meal a day. And I have to also pay the rent, electricity and school fees,” she says, her voice breaking. “I will have to manage, till my husband is able to find a job.”
On top of those expenses, she must also buy medicine for her two-year-old daughter, who has suffered from a chronic disease since birth.
“My daughter needs her medicine every day and I have to resort to borrowing money from neighbours and moneylenders to buy it.”
“How am I going to repay that money?” she asks.
Although the 7,000 rupees ($105) that her husband used to earn in the factory was far below the country’s average monthly wage of about $250, it helped the family of four get by.
But for the past two months, her husband has been unable to find a new job.
Ludhiana is a large industrial city, known for its hosiery industry. But more than 70 percent of the city’s 12,000 hosiery factories, which employed more than 400,000 people, shut down because of the demonetisation.
Hemlata is angry that the government’s decision led to her husband’s redundancy.
“I think all the schemes of the government are for the rich, and the poor are never considered,” she says.
“Please tell me if you heard of those with black money sleeping on an empty stomach because of demonetisation.”
As she cuts a shawl, Hemlata says that the government should have made provisions for poor people like her.
“This is a disaster,” she concludes. “I don’t see my life becoming normal again.”
‘It left people jobless, starving and desperate’
“I don’t know how demonetisation helped, but it was a disaster for the unskilled labour sector,” says Rajwinder Singh.
Rajwinder is the president of the Karkhana Mazdoor Union, or factory workers’ union, in Ludhiana and is sitting in the small community library of the Economically Weaker Section housing society.
“It left people jobless, starving and desperate,” he says.
Immediately after demonetisation was announced, the wholesale market was closed for 20 days, Rajwinder says.
“When the market was closed, there was no sale and the factories had to stop production and as a result many factories cut down the number of employees by 50 percent, while many just shut the shop,” he says.
“I have seen factories that used to have 250 workers and post-demonetisation were reduced to five workers.”
The softly-spoken, bespectacled union leader said that migrant labourers from the states of Bihar, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh, who had come to Ludhiana for work, had no choice but to return to their home regions.
“I met so many labourers who had no food in their house for the past so many days. They had children who were starving.”
Some factory owners, he says, paid the workers in old notes that were no longer valid.
“The poor man had no choice but to take it and then stand for hours in the queue of a bank to get it exchanged.”
“And since these are daily-wage labourers, they would lose out on that day’s pay,” he says, removing his glasses and wiping his eyes.
The flight of labour from the city has affected him as well.
“I get my salary from the funds we collect from the labourers. When the worker has no money, then how will he contribute money to the union fund?” he asks.
‘Is this the way the government makes policies?’
Nand Kishore moved to Ludhiana from his hometown of Gaya, in the eastern state of Bihar, four years ago, looking for work.
He found it in a wool factory, where he earned 7,500 rupees ($112) a month. But in December, he was laid off.
Now he spends his days sitting on a bench in the overcrowded working-class neighbourhood of Sundar Nagar.
He has been looking for work but hasn’t found any. And with each passing day, he grows more concerned.
“I don’t want to go back home as I have very old parents to take care of and they will get really worried to see me sitting jobless at home,” he says.
So, for now, he’ll stay living in the room he shares with four other men from his village.
Nand used to send money to his parents regularly. But for the past two months, he hasn’t been able to send anything.
“As their only son, this pains me a lot,” he says.
He accuses factory owners of exploiting their workers.
“They are offering jobs at half the wage that I used to earn. Many have in desperation taken up the jobs at half the pay or have just left for their village,” he says.
But, ultimately, it is the government he blames.
“If standing in the ATM or bank queue was the only suffering I had to go through I would have managed, but my job was taken away,” he says looking towards the sky.
“Is this the way a government makes policies? I have no idea about how government functions, but I know that they have made my life miserable.”
‘My mother died because of demonetisation’
Parminder Singh’s eyes fill with tears when he speaks about his mother.
She died on December 8 as she was standing in an ATM queue, waiting to withdraw money to pay for her daughter’s wedding. She was 50.
Approximately 80 people are thought to have died as a result of demonetisation – either while waiting in queues or because they were refused medical treatment as they didn’t have the necessary cash to pay for it.
“My mother died because of demonetisation,” he says. “Not even millions of rupees can get her back.”
A supervisor in a hosiery factory earning 13,000 ($195) a month, Parminder lives with his wife, their one-year-old daughter and his sister in a middle-class neighbourhood.
He says his 25-year-old sister blames herself for their mother’s death.
“It’s just heartbreaking to see her like this. I try to stay strong in front of her but I weep every day in my room when I am alone,” he says.
He is angry at the government.
“It was my mother’s money. She did not have to die to take it out,” he says. “She had every right to access it without any trouble.”
‘A rich man would have used his card to get his mother admitted to a hospital, but what about people like me?’
Yamuna Prasad is a broken man. He has been ever since his 70-year-old mother died two months ago.
“I couldn’t cremate my mother for two days after her death because I did not have cash in hand,” he says.
On December 25, he took his mother to a government hospital after she complained of stomach pain.
“Everybody knows about the pathetic state of government-run hospitals here,” he says, angrily.
He would have preferred to have taken her to a private hospital where he believes she would have received better care. But he didn’t have time to stand in a long queue at a bank or ATM to withdraw the money he would have needed to pay for private medical treatment.
Without access to this money, he also had to delay his mother’s cremation.
“Things look normal now, but how do I forget that I couldn’t give my mother a dignified cremation?” he asks
Yamuna says a local politician helped him to pay for the cremation, contributing 10,000 rupees ($150).
He earns 8,000 ($120) a month working 12-hour shifts in a factory to support his wife, two-year-old daughter and three-year-old son. But he worries that with barely any savings, his children will grow up to become labourers.
He believes the government pushes policies that support the rich but neglect the poor.
“Why are rules made without thinking about the consequences on the poor?” he asks. “A rich man would have used his card to get his mother admitted to a hospital, but what about people like me?”
‘It took me years to save that money’
Anisa Khatoon says it took her years to save 10,000 rupees [$150] in a tin box. She kept the money there without her husband’s knowledge so that she might one day be able to pay for her daughter’s wedding.
But after the government banned the notes she had saved, the mother of six had no choice but to tell her husband, a cycle-rickshaw puller in the New Delhi suburb of Noida.
Her husband responded angrily and refused to stand in a queue to exchange the notes, she says.
“I had to take the help of a boy from my locality who took a commission of 2,000 rupees ($29),” Anisa explains as she stands in front of her shack in the impoverished Sector 16 neighbourhood.
“It might not be a lot of money for many, but it is the only savings I have and the 2,000 rupees I lost as commission was a lot of money for me.”
The 48-year-old runs her household on the 9,000 rupees ($135) that her husband earns each month.
She says she feels cheated by the government’s decision.
“The government said the poor will benefit from demonetisation but I don’t know when and how. It took me years to save that money, and losing even a part of it is heartbreaking.”