At the stroke of the midnight hour, on November 8, 2016, India was jolted by demonetisation, whereby the existing denominations of ₹500 and ₹1000, approximately 86% of the currency in circulation back then, ceased to be legal tenders.
This was a significant financial reform aimed at ratifying the existing state of the Indian economy, prescribed by the present government with respect to controlling an ever-rising parallel economy (commonly termed as black money), halting the circulation of counterfeit currency and restraining terror financing. It sent ripples across the nation – dividing laymen, bureaucrats and economists alike, and invoking their perceptions towards the probable outcomes of the move.
After the futile monetary exercises of 1946 and 1978, would India be third-time lucky? This was a question that remained to be answered. But, as India sought to seek solace both within its own history and abroad, a certain section of the society was totally forgotten and probably not even considered in this historic turmoil.
A survey within the campus of the renowned Indian Institute of Science at Bengaluru revealed an aspect of this jamboree hidden from the media and the government – the plight of migrant laborers working at the many construction sites scattered right under the noses of this enlightened temple of science. A large proportion of these laborers hail from the northern states of West Bengal, Odisha, Jharkhand, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, while the rest belong to other parts of Karnataka.
The purported success of the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana fails to explain the complete financial exclusion and illiteracy of these laborers, the majority of whom do not have a bank account or access to banking facilities. Demonetisation hit them hard as their minuscule savings, mostly in denominations of ₹500 and ₹1000, were rendered useless overnight. Local businessmen turned sharks on being approached for exchange, charging exorbitant commissions of ₹100 and ₹200 for every ₹500 and ₹1000 note swapped.
For this section of the society, the unfamiliar cultural and linguistic aspect has also come to play a major role in these circumstances. Access to the basic, daily requirements has been hampered in the absence of currency of lower denominations. Availability of credit facilities too has been restricted to the locals owing to their unfamiliarity with local shopkeepers and businessmen. They have been unable to even dispense financial assistance to their families back home. Semantic barriers have highlighted this regional predilection, with the contractors paying the Kannada- speaking labourers in new denominations, but opting to hand out demonetised notes to the non-Kannada speaking people.
But even after all these hardships, there is a sense of unanimous support and consensus for the move. They believe in undertaking these ‘temporary hardships’ to achieve the notion of an idealised ‘greater good’ for the nation and the society. They consider this to be a brilliant move of disbursing justice to the ‘undeserved’.
Our experience of a full term of one year has made it evident that this entire project was meant to minimise the paper money in circulation to control the ‘domestic inflation’. The very decision of the Modi government was thus not primarily aimed at retrieving the black money, but to endure the mechanism of retrieving profits by the oligarchic, globalised finance capital. Amidst the bullshit clamor of “Anti-Black Money Day”, a fellow Twitterati has aptly pointed out, “To hunt crocodiles, the pond was dried. No crocodiles were found, for they can live on land too. But the small fish died!”
The author is a research scholar, working in the field of behavioral ecology at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru, and is also a member of the “Colloquial Haze” literary society. He would like to acknowledge Ekta Gupta, Subroto Dey, Surya Shankar Sen, Vijayashree CS and the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru, for their help in making this survey report.