Photograph by Dyuti Sen. To read the whole story click here
Just a few minutes before the official announcement, different corners of this nation had different things to worry about: the capital region wouldn’t stop ranting about the smog, people down-south were worried about a chief minister who was both dead and alive, a few in-betweens were anticipating the approaching doomsday in America. Little did we know then, something common would come up. Little did we anticipate that the whole nation would be concerned about only one issue. “Great move”, some tweeted from the comfort of their homes. Ridiculous, it seemed to the others and some were completely oblivious to the news.
Social media brewed rumors after rumors. Television channels invited experts to discuss the issue on prime time. Chaos struck in front of ATM doors and petrol bunks. An emergency had turned the nation upside down.
The ATM queues with people who couldn’t fill the exchange slips on their own; people who lost their half-a-day’s pay just to stand in the queue; a well cooperative group of people becoming violent after hours of waiting; the frustration, the panic; websites that provided people to wait in queues on an hourly basis – all this explained a sense of urgency. It was as if everyone sensed that a state of normalcy is a long road from here on.
“I had withdrawn my home rent on the same day. Eight thousand rupees – all in five hundred rupee notes. There was no other way than to exchange it. All ATMS were closed; the only rescue available was the bank. My rickshaw puller was stubborn to not take me there as he was convinced that all banks were closed on that day. I tried my best to explain that it was only the ATMs that were closed and not the banks. He wouldn’t listen because to him a bank and an ATM were the same. The day before this incident all I was concerned about was to get the eight thousand changed and pay off my bills. But the chain of events that happened on the same day let me understand the complexities behind the policy.”
This was just one conversation between Raj an 18-year-old rickshaw puller and I in one corner of Faridabad. He does not have a bank account yet. Even in this age and time, he cannot tell the difference between an ATM and a Bank.
As I am part of a 13 month fellowship program called India Fellow, it gives me the opportunity to be in constant touch with a lot of young people working across the country at the grassroots level (both rural and urban). It was when we shared our experiences and stories (like the above mentioned one) on demonetization with each other, we felt the need for documenting a few if we can. Especially with most of us working in poorly documented regions of the country, we thought it was the right time to bring these places into mainstream conversations.
We started a digital campaign called #HumansofDemonetization a couple of weeks ago. It was an attempt to document a few stories from the areas we lived and worked. Although we began a tad bit late, the aim was to present diverse stories possible in the short amount of time available.
It is true that only in the wake of a crisis, we discover how humans behave, react, understand and adapt to certain conditions. The campaign too helped us discover the same. It puts forth many arguments on the table – mainly, the role of digital divide that exists across this nation. While many of us were trying to grapple with PayTM transactions here in big cities, a group of primary school kids rallied across their village to inform people about the currency ban. Because that’s how information is passed on in a place where TV and Radio do not exist in most of the households. Swati Saxena reported this story from Rasalpur, a village in Harda, Madhya Pradesh.
The second instance was a story shared by Alston D’souza from Bihar. It was about Sunil Kumar Bansal, a cloth store owner from the village Semra Bazar in Goplaganj. As the ATM in the village is 15kms away, people come to his shop to swipe their card on his POS machine for which he gives money in return. But it came with a cost. The lower literacy levels and unfamiliarity to technology in that region made people think that he would take more money from their account. This reminded me of a similar incident at my work place. A staff here told me once how difficult it was to convince that online payments cost just the same as cash payments to his dad who firmly believed otherwise. His belief that he must pay more online and the suspicion of the people that the man would withdraw more money from their card is a proof that this country is not yet so tech-friendly as we think it is.
Similarly the man who dispenses cash through a POS machine in Semra Bazar and the boy who cant differentiate between ATM and a bank in Faridabad makes one revise their assumptions about both village and cities alike. In a nation where technology is a far-fetched dream to a significant amount of people, this overnight announcement might either mean an ultimate disaster or nothing at all.
We do have villages where old currencies are still in rotation. We have people who have never seen a five hundred rupee note in their lifetimes. There must be villages where the news has not reached at all. There are people who travel 25 kilometres a day to reach the ATM and return empty handed. And I firmly believe that it is important to document these stories at times like this to understand how complex we are as a nation.
If not anything, this gives an insight into what happens when such policies are implemented overnight. Because not everything announced on national television reaches everyone and not all opinions have a social media platform to be showcased. Some need to be scouted for so that they are heard.