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Women vendors who exist on cash income hit hardest by demonetisation

columns Updated: Nov 18, 2016 23:48 IST

Grocers have seen a steep decline in their sales, since the government decided to demonetise ₹500 and ₹1000 currency notes(Prabhakar Sharma)

At 10 am, it’s peak business time. A time when the delivery boy from the big grocery shop nearby and the Uber driver about to start his day, stop by for a quick breakfast at Savita Ketarkar’s vada-pav stall under a sprawling banyan tree in Mumbai.

Stuffing the freshly fried vadas into bread laced with green chutney and red chilli powder, Ketarkar has no time or patience for reporters who want to know how women are facing life post demonetisation. “How does speaking to you help me?” asks the 40-something single mother of two. I mumble something incoherent, special problems of women etc. She’s unimpressed: “When the cops and the municipal people come to take their bribes, are you going to come to fight for me?”

Read | Why Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already won the demonetisation gambit

I can understand why Ketarkar might be on edge. Since November 9, business is down by more than half, she says. There’s simply not enough cash to buy the Rs 12 vada-pavs. Things are so bad that she is now subsidising the many customers who turn up without exact change; she’d rather sell at a discounted price of Rs 10 than risk losing even further business. No, she doesn’t have a bank account. “I earn, I eat. There are no savings. Of what use is a bank account to me?”

On the footpath where she lives just outside the HDFC Bank into which she has never stepped, another single mother Ammachi (she gives me just one name) struggles to cope. Ammachi sells flower garlands — and there are absolutely no takers. “Each garland costs Rs 10 and people would rather keep scarce notes for essentials,” she says.

Ammachi says she has lived on the footpath for years. When there’s a raid, her possessions get taken away and to get them back she must pay a bribe. Once, says her son, Mahesh, who studies in Class 5, they even took away his books. “We had to buy new ones,” he says.

Read | Imphal newspapers feel demonetisation heat, to stop publication

Because Mahesh is Ammachi’s investment in the future, she readily pays ₹500 a month for private tuition. “If he studies and gets a good job, we won’t have to live on the footpath,” she says.

Narendra Modi’s decision to strike at black money and corruption by wiping out 86% of the currency notes in circulation has hit women like Savita and Ammachi — single mothers already struggling to survive — the hardest. These are women who are not part of the banking system, survive on one income (their own), which is entirely in cash earned daily and must negotiate petty bribes and hafta just to survive.

About 482 million people in the informal sector and agriculture earn cash incomes. Demonetisation will disrupt consumption patterns for at least the next quarter and affect these incomes the most, reports data journalism site, IndiaSpend.

Read | Mamata, Kejriwal hurt by Modi’s attack on black money, says BJP

Many like Savita and Ammachi have zero savings and zero access to the Internet and online payments. There are no Rs 1,000 or even Rs 500 notes to change. If they suffer, it’s not because they have to stand in line outside a bank. It’s because the shortage of currency notes is hitting their business hard.

I have refrained from complaining about the mere inconvenience of tiding over a few days of being cashless because I am acutely aware of my privilege. I have a credit card, documented ID, and am even a “preferred customer” at my bank. For me, therefore, to crib about long queues or a temporary cash crunch would be hypocritical.

People in positions of privilege, like myself, talk about the greater good in cleansing the system of black money. What’s a little inconvenience, we tell ourselves with moral primness.

Read | AAI allows currency exchange counters at its airports

Savita and Ammachi, collateral damage on the edges of this morality tale, do not know what’s a loan write-off or a wilful defaulter. They don’t know how elections are funded or financed by black money.

They do, however, know this: They have a vote, and they cast it once every five years. The BJP can only hope that women like these have a short, generous and forgiving memory.



The views expressed are personal