Sunil Baghel* is worried about the fallout of the centre’s demonetisation drive, though he hasn’t dealt with much cash in his life.
A dirt-poor tribal from Chhattisgarh’s Bastar, Baghel is like a majority of other residents of the region wracked by Maoist violence and depends more on the local traditional barter system.
He trudges every week to the local market with a sack full of forest produce – from dried weeds to flowers and seeds – to exchange for his ration of salt, sugar and sweets. He grows paddy on the side to feed his family.
Baghel, therefore, has remained unaffected by the cash crunch sweeping cities and towns across India.
But he fears the government’s move to scrap high-value currency may come back to hurt him by fuelling extortion by Maoists, who use locals’ money to fund their insurgency.
He says the Maoists, who consider Bastar as one of their bastions, have been badly impacted by Centre’s decision as most of their cash reserves have been rendered useless.
Police have stepped up vigil to stop them from laundering their high-value banknotes and locals fear the cash-starved Maoists will hit back by ordering a fresh wave of extortions.
“In the days to come, we will be squeezed between the police and the Naxalites.”
“Aage aane vale samay mein hum hi pisenge police aur naxailyon ke beech,” (In the days to come, we would be squeezed between the police and the Naxalites), predicts a fearful Baghel.
In village after village of the region where the unresolved conflict has claimed more than 6,000 lives in the past 15 years, Baghel’s fears find ready resonance.
“Ab Naxali ka dabaav badhega aur gaaon mein police aana fir se shuru ho jayega. Aam tribal hee pisega in dono ke beech mein,” (Now, police will start visiting the villages again and the ordinary tribal will be at the receiving end), the sarpanch of village told HT on condition of anonymity.
Banks are few and ATMs fewer in the interiors of Bastar. As everywhere else, the great desperation for hard currency is not on display here. But what is palpable instead is growing nervousness over what the future may hold.
Locals talk in hushed voices about the hit the Maoists have taken. “Their coffers are empty. They have lost crores raised through extortions and hoarded in higher denomination notes,” a villager tells his friends crowded around a tea stall under the lengthening shadows of a setting sun.
Another villager points out that he has heard of the Maoists already beginning to hold meetings in the more remote areas to levy taxes from the locals in the form of grains and forest produce on villagers. Someone else says some government teachers have also received notes to donate a month’s salary to the Maoists.
Amid the stories, unanimity emerges among the gathered crowd that the Maoists will begin to extort with renewed vigour.
Their voices drop further when they begin discussing what the police could possibly do in response. One among the crowd reported seeing more police on the roads, checking vehicles for cash.
Police officials say every deposit of more than Rs 5,000 is under scanner in Bastar. “We are not leaving any stone unturned in trying to stop the Maoists from laundering their money,” a senior official said.
DM Awasthi, additional director general of police, explains that though the heat will be turned on businessmen and contractors to ensure they do not bankroll Maoists, ordinary tribals will be dealt with care so that none are harassed. “We realise their compulsions,” he told HT.
However, tribals such as Baghel remain wary. Neither can they defy the Maoists, nor can they ignore the police.
Sushil Sharma, editor of local daily, Bastar Bandhu, insists the demonetisation drive has come to bite Bastar tribals in a different way. “They are caught between the Maoists and the police. It will help if the government ensures they are not harassed and not booked under fake charges,” he says.
Some names have been changed to protect identity. This is Part 2 of our ongoing series on how demonetisation affects rural India.