Stories of notebandi

Anger and frustration dominate discussions on demonetisation at a jan sunwai in Beawar, Rajasthan

December 29, 2016 12:15 am | Updated 02:40 am IST

tale of woe:  “The parallel stories of  notebandi  are presumably related, but yet seem strangely separate.” The  jan sunwai  in Beawar.  — Photo: satish deshpande

tale of woe: “The parallel stories of notebandi are presumably related, but yet seem strangely separate.” The jan sunwai in Beawar. — Photo: satish deshpande

About five-six hundred people are crowded in and around a small shamiana-covered triangle, like the apex of the letter A. The two arms of the A are busy streets typical of small-town India, a press of pedestrians and two-wheelers punctuated with foraging cows, goats and impatient cars and tempos. Including the shopkeepers and hangers-on across the two roads, this meeting — a jan sunwai or public hearing called by the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) on December 26 — probably involves a thousand people. Roughly one-fourth are invited outsiders, but the vast majority are citizens of Beawar, a town in Rajasthan with a population of three and a half lakh, famous as the birthplace of the movement that gave India the Right to Information Act as well as the now ubiquitous device of the jan sunwai . In fact, we are at Chand Gate, at the very spot of that historic 1995 dharna, but the subject of this jan sunwai on the day after Christmas is demonetisation, better known as notebandi .

Everyday struggles

The 40-odd speakers heard during the course of an almost-hot winter afternoon include an economics professor, a senior business journalist, and three or four representatives of political parties and community organisations. But the point of the jan sunwai is to provide ordinary people with a platform to speak about their own experiences of notebandi . Those with positive experiences of notebandi are also invited to speak, but only one young man takes up the invitation towards the fag end of the afternoon. All the other speakers are frustrated and angry with demonetisation and express it in their own ways.

Anil Gupta, a local businessman, describes how his daughter’s wedding was turned traumatic by notebandi . Even to withdraw money for the officially approved purpose of a family wedding, he was asked to produce individual affidavits from each vendor or service provider declaring that they did not have bank accounts. Narendra Modi ji has chosen to ride the tiger of notebandi and will eventually be eaten, he says. Ram Singh, a retired Havaldar of the Indian Army, causes a flutter by beginning with a firm “ Sanatana dharma ki jai ”, but quickly returns to the theme of the day, detailing how he is unable to draw enough money from his own pension to manage his large household. Akhlaq, a retired railway police constable, provides a startlingly sophisticated analysis of how the government’s narrative kept shifting from corruption to terrorism to counterfeiting to a cashless economy. Both Kanku Devi, a disabled middle-aged woman, and Tarachand, a tall 80-year-old man beginning to stoop, have been denied their pensions because the fingerprint-reading machine mandated by the Rajasthan government for verifying identity refuses to recognise their thumbprints. Though his problem is not directly related to notebandi , Tarachand is sharp enough to point out the connections — a basic mistrust of humans and excessive faith in machines.

Meanwhile, on one of the streets, some vegetable vendors are bantering with two of the policemen on duty, one of whom is jokingly demanding change for an obviously fake Rs.500 note he has. A vendor with a long face vaguely resembling Jeevan, the 1970s Hindi film villain, invents a new game with the note. He folds it into a neat rectangle showing only the face of Mahatma Gandhi and drops it on the road. As they all wait for someone to pick up the fake note, Jeevan is providing a running commentary on the people walking up the street, and predicting the likely ‘winner’: urban youngsters dream big these days, looking only to get out and up; only older villagers bent with the burdens of family and farming will walk with downcast eyes, he says. Moments later, he exchanges low fives with the policemen as a middle-aged man in rural Rajasthani dress complete with a white ‘saffa’ darts to pick up the note, quickly palms it, and hurries away even as Jeevan and his mates jeer at him.

Back at the jan sunwai , Ratanlal, a daily wage labourer from Narpatkhera village, is recounting how he could not find work for several days following notebandi . Ladu Singh from Dhapda in Bhilwara is explaining how his inability to make daily payments to the farm women who supplied him milk has reduced his dairy business from 350 to barely 200 litres a day. Mukkadar (from Pali) tries to capture the growing collective anger with a couplet: Log toot jaatey hain ek ghar basaney mein, tum taras nahi khatey bastiyan jalaney mein (People are broken by the effort of making a single home, but you burn down neighbourhoods and feel no pity).

Businesses hit

For much of this time, I have been chatting with Jeevan who is shaking his head at the goings-on, but in an oddly indulgent way. He insists that notebandi is a good thing, but just looks away when I urge him to go up to the mike and say why he thinks it is good. He won’t tell me his name, but willingly admits that his business (a green peas and garlic cart) has halved since notebandi , from around Rs.800 to only Rs.300-400 a day. We can still manage, but they (he tilts his head at the shops behind him) have been hurt. I look at the modest little shops — Baba Handlooms, a mobile phone ‘Mini Store’, Mohan Watch Corner with an all-Hindi board, Prakash Sports — and realise that I don’t understand. The same Jeevan (like many of the shop-owners) takes proprietary pride in the history of this site and the RTI struggle. “ Hamney intezaam kiya tha ” (we made arrangements) he says distractedly about the 1995 dharna, but I know that he means much more than the literal meaning of his words.

These are the parallel stories of notebandi that occupy the same time and space and are presumably related, but yet seem strangely separate. By exposing the hidden social nature of money, notebandi produces not only suffering easily understood as unnecessary and unjust, but also an opaque uneasiness about the moral side of material life, about who deserves what and why.

As the jan sunwai ends and the crowd disperses, someone behind me is scolding the organisers for neglecting a dari that has been soiled by the cows, and I know without turning that it is Jeevan.

Satish Deshpande teaches Sociology at Delhi University .

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.